Waking to Calamity
by J.C. Pillard
by J.C. Pillard
Natasha nearly dropped her book when the pounding on her door started. It was Frul, a rest day, and her smithy was not even open. She scowled. She was the only blacksmith in Waypoint, the sleepy village that hugged Kircalim Forest. Many knights stopped here to get equipped before testing their mettle against the darkened woods beyond. But it was Frul, and it was autumn, and with winter coming on the stream of foolish warriors hoping to brave Kircalim usually petered out.
The knocking paused for only a moment before resuming with increased fervor. Natasha set aside her book with a sigh and went to the door.
Outside, her ten-year-old niece stood, anxiously shifting from foot to foot. Her eyes were wide and ringed with red, and she was twisting a corner of her blue shawl with both hands, wringing the faded fabric like a wet shirt on wash day.
“Sara? What are you doing here?”
“Excuse me Aunt Natasha, I’m so sorry to bother you, but ... but I didn’t know where else to go ...” The girl blinked rapidly, as if fighting back tears.
“Well, come in.” Natasha opened the door a little wider, brow puckered.
Sara and her brother Remy were two of only a handful of children in the small town. They lived with their grandmother, a kind but forgetful woman who acted as the local seamstress. Natasha had been friends with the children’s mother. Before she’d died a few years ago, Natasha had promised her friend that she’d watch over her children. Sara and Remy often came by during the day when their grandmother was busy, and Natasha would fix them lunch and have them help her with odd jobs around the smithy to keep them out of trouble.
Sara sat down in the wooden chair beside the kitchen table, her worn shoes dangling above the floor. “I didn’t want to tell my grandmother. She wouldn’t know what to do—”
“What happened?” Natasha interrupted, kneeling in front of the girl and taking her hands.
“It’s Remy,” Sara said wretchedly. “He went into Kircalim.”
Natasha closed her eyes, her hand straying to the glass pendant around her neck. Waypoint itself was protected from the forest by the sentinel fires—blue-colored flames encased in glass that guarded the edge of the town. Beyond that, Kircalim Forest crouched like a great beast. About half the knights who went in never came out again. Those who did came out changed. They would emerge with gold and jewels stolen from the forgotten kingdom, but the wild look never left their eyes. They told tales of the depths of the forest, the strange and frightening creatures that lived there, the marvels of the long-lost empire buried in the woods.
It was no wonder, then, that every so often one of the young people who lived in Waypoint would get a little restless. They’d imagine they could be one of those knights that did succeed, that they would somehow best Kircalim where so many had failed. If they were caught early enough, the only result was an earful of scolding and a month of filial penance. But when they were not ...
Remy had been begging to learn how to fight for a long time. So had Sara, come to think of it. Whenever they were in her care, they always pleaded with her to teach them swordplay, but Natasha had always refused. “The sentinel lights are all you need,” she’d say sternly. She wished now that she’d broken her own rules and at least taught them how to defend themselves.
Natasha stood and moved towards the old oak armoire. It had resided in her front room for as long as anyone could remember, herself included. She didn’t open it much these days except to clean its contents, but now she pulled open the dark wooden doors with a creak. Her personal stash of weapons and armor lay within.
“What possessed him to go in there?” Natasha asked, digging in the armoire.
“Moira goaded him, Aunt,” Sara replied. “He told her that he loved her, and she laughed at him. Said he’d have to slay a beast of Kircalim before she’d even consider letting him court her.”
Natasha groaned. Moira was the town’s local beauty, a fact of which the girl was well aware. “Gods and the six hells preserve us from pernicious teenage girls,” she muttered.
After a moment, she found what she’d been searching for. Carefully, reverently, she pulled out the armor. Swirling vines decorated the leather breastplate, and similar patterns covered the greaves, gauntlets, and boots. The helmet she left behind. She didn’t want anything impeding her vision once she was in the forest.
Sara’s eyes were wide as she studied the armor. “Aunt, did you make that?”
Natasha winced. “No, not me. Someone else, a long time ago.” She pointed to the door. “Go and fetch my bag from the back of the shop, will you? Fill it up. Water, apples, cheese. As if I were going to Fenly,” she instructed, naming a town two days’ ride away.
Sara nodded and ran for the door. Natasha took several deep breaths, studying the armor. The leather seemed to glow in the dim light of her home, and she set it aside before she could get caught up in memories. Turning back to the closet, she pulled out the sword.
The sheath was nothing special; some old leather with a scale pattern stamped down its length. But the blade within ... she had not wielded that blade in many years. She pulled it from the scabbard, feeling its weight. It was perfectly balanced for her arm. The hilt was decorated with rearing griffins bracketing the pommel, and the metal of the sword positively gleamed.
It was a blade forged to slay monsters.
Natasha sheathed it once more, her mouth set in a hard line. Remy might be a fool for venturing into those accursed woods, but she wasn’t going to let him die for his folly.
Sara returned and nervously handed her a full pack and canteen.
“How long will you be gone?”
“Hopefully not long,” Natasha replied, hefting the pack over her shoulder. “But one can never tell with the forest. Run home to your grandmother. Let her know that I’ve gone to find him.”
* * *
The road into Kircalim Forest was well travelled by foolish warriors. Natasha had watched many of them from her front window as they entered the tangle of vines, trees, and shadows at the edge of the village, outfitted with her finest weapons. She rarely saw them come out again.
Now, standing before the wood, Natasha squared her shoulders. It had been an age since she’d fought off anything bigger than a curious black bear. The sentinel fires kept the less savory denizens of the forest at bay. But once she passed beyond those, her fate was her own.
She stepped forward.
The cool quiet of Kircalim enclosed her. The sunlight vanished, leaving her in the darkness beneath the trees. Her footsteps were loud in that place, and she worked to quiet her steps, remembering the way her feet used to move long before she’d been a blacksmith in a sleepy village. Remy’s tracks were clear enough, since no one had passed this way for a few weeks. His footprints had sunk into the muddy road as he’d pursued it deeper into the woods. Natasha followed them.
Kircalim Forest had not always been a place of darkness and ill omens. Once, it had been a peaceful woodland that bordered a neighboring kingdom. But after the Last Great War had ravaged this land, nothing grew here that wasn’t already twisted and cruel inside. It was a place of shadows and death, and terrible things lurked within its depths. Decades ago, before the sentinel fires had been completed, an ashwolf had turned up in the village. Once an animal of flesh and bone, it had long since decayed with the twisted magic of Kircalim into a creature of ash and embers. It had burned three houses to the ground before it was finally extinguished, taking five bystanders with it. And ashwolves were common: deep in the Kircalim Forest, even more dreadful creatures fed and grew.
Natasha had been walking for the better part of an hour when she heard the soft fall of footsteps behind her. She slackened her pace but kept moving. Whatever was following her paused with her movements, slowed when she did. She didn’t want it to suspect she was aware of its presence. She waited until the footsteps relaxed, until whatever it was grew more confident.
Then, she drew her blade and whirled.
Sara shrieked, falling backwards and scrambling away.
“Six hells, Sara, what are you doing following me here?” Natasha growled.
“I-I’m sorry, Aunt Natasha, I j-just wanted to h-hel—”
“Stop stammering.” Natasha sheathed her sword and held out a hand, yanking Sara to her feet. “And be quiet. I don’t want anything to hear us.”
The girl clamped her mouth shut, face pale. Natasha paused to think. Given how far she had walked, it wouldn’t be safe to send Sara back to Waypoint alone. They were far enough inside the forest that many of the bolder creatures wouldn’t think twice about trying to swallow such a small thing.
Natasha pinched the bridge of her nose. “Sara, why, in Calenhai’s name, did you think this was a good idea?”
Sara stood up straighter, sticking out her chin. “I wanted to help. I can fight.” She patted her belt, a wooden sword dangling from it.
Natasha wanted to groan. “No, you cannot.”
“I’ve fought my brother.”
“Do you think a wooden sword will do you any good in these woods?”
Sara crossed her arms. “I can fight,” she insisted. “I’ve been learning with some of grandmother’s old books.”
“Well, you’re not doing any fighting today.” Natasha rolled her neck, trying to ease some of the tension gathered there. “All right. Stay near me.”
Sara’s face brightened. “I can come?”
“You can come, but you will not be fighting. And you must be quiet.”
They kept going in silence. Natasha found herself impressed by how noiselessly Sara moved. The moldering leaves barely rustled as the girl walked over them, and more than once Natasha found herself glancing over her shoulder to be sure Sara was still there.
The forest bent around them as they went on, the trees becoming more gnarled and blackened. Their canopies blotted out the sky, their leaves almost black, as though stained with old blood.
After a half hour, Natasha halted. There was a sound coming from the path ahead of them, a sort of shhh, shhhh of something being dragged along the ground.
“Stay behind me,” Natasha whispered, voice low. Sara nodded, her hand white-knuckled on her wooden sword.
They approached cautiously, Natasha straining her eyes in the low light. The road curled around a large tree. As they moved past it, they beheld what was making the noise.
A creature, half bubbling flesh and half rotted log, was dragging the carcass of an ashwolf along the path. Its roots slid along the ground, turning over the leaves with its passing.
“What is that?” Sara whispered tremulously.
“Rotling,” Natasha replied, her mouth twisted with distaste. “It looks like it’s following the path through the forest.” Rotlings were unnatural beings forged of the flesh of other creatures melded with fallen roots and trees.
“Can’t we go around it?”
The blacksmith frowned. “Perhaps. But if we leave the path, we’ll have a hard time finding it again. The forest has a way of turning you around.”
As she spoke, the rotling paused. It creaked as it turned in their direction. Gashes in the wood served for eyes as it swiveled all the way around and stopped, staring towards them.
It let out a scream and charged.
There was no time to think. Natasha dashed forward, drawing her blade as she did so. She brought it down on one of the creature’s branches, severing it from the stump. The rotling shrieked, lashing out with vine-like appendages that wrapped around her legs and dragged them from under her. She tumbled to the ground, the impact jolting her sword from her hand.
The rotling hurled itself on top of her, its roots and tendrils wrapping themselves around her wrists. Natasha struggled, trying to twist for the hilt of her blade, but the creature kept her arms pinned to the ground. A vine snapped across her cheek, making her hiss with pain.
Grunting, Natasha braced her legs wide and threw herself upwards, using her weight against the rotling and dislodging its grip on her arm. In one swift movement, she grasped her sword from the dirt and sliced across the tendril binding her other arm, earning another shriek of pain from the monster. It scuttled backwards enough for Natasha to kick it off her body. She rolled, bringing her feet beneath her in a crouch, and thrust her sword into the gaping hole that was its mouth.
The creature wailed as Natasha’s sword went through its tough bark and into the soft tissue beneath. As the blade ripped through its innards, the magic that held it together fell away. The creature shuddered one last time before collapsing into a heap of rotted wood and flesh.
Natasha stood, her mouth set in a grim line. Her eyes landed on Sara. The girl stood a few feet back, her eyes wide and her mouth open. But she wasn’t looking at the rotling’s corpse.
She was looking at the sword.
Natasha glanced down at her blade and swallowed a curse. During the fight, her weapon had started glowing gold, as it always did when severing corrupt magic.
“You—you’re a Harbinger!” Sara exclaimed, staring at Natasha with awe and something like fear.
“What are you talking about?” Natasha asked, feigning confusion. She turned back to the rotling, flicking it over with her foot. It didn’t move.
“That sword. ‘Only they who Griffins be / Can wield a blade of sky and sea.’” The blacksmith winced as the girl intoned the old rhyme. “That’s a griffin-blade, a Harbinger’s blade.”
Natasha swallowed against the lump in her throat before turning back to Sara. “This? I found it on some corpse.”
“Then how can you wield it? The swords were bound to their owners.”
Natasha sighed, spying iron in Sara’s gaze. It had been a long, long time since anyone had figured out what she was. She hadn’t expected it of a ten-year-old girl. Then again, Sara’s grandmother was incredibly well-read, and Sara was a little too bright for her own good.
“Do you know what happened to the Harbingers?” she asked wearily.
“They were all slaughtered by Irehan in the Last Great War,” Sara whispered, as though speaking his name too loudly might summon Irehan from his tomb. “Their final act was to kill him to save mankind.”
“We didn’t kill him,” Natasha replied. “We couldn’t. Irehan wasn’t some dark wizard who grew too powerful. He was a Harbinger, too.”
“He thought our power had been given to us not to protect, but to rule. He wanted to subjugate the world under one, glorious Harbinger banner. That desire twisted him, turning him into something dark and terrible.” Natasha reached for her glass pendant, pulling it up so she could see the water inside. A relic of her old life. “We tried to kill him. But Irehan had tied his life to the other Harbingers. He couldn’t die without the rest of us dying as well.”
“Then how did you survive?” Sara asked in a hushed voice.
Natasha laughed without humor. “There was a vote. One Harbinger would take the lives of the rest, take their power, and use it to subdue and bind Irehan. Then, that Harbinger would land the killing blow ... on herself. I was chosen for that task.”
She fell silent, studying the trees around them. Her brothers and sisters had been entombed here, amongst the corpses of Irehan’s fallen monsters. She had wanted to leave, had thought about it so many times, but she couldn’t bring herself to abandon them here, at the edge of the world.
“Irehan was too cunning for us. He bound his life to the Harbingers, yes, but he bound his spirit to the land. Had I struck that final blow upon myself, he would not have died, but merely taken on a different form. So, I imprisoned him instead.” Natasha closed her eyes. It had been centuries since that final battle, and for so long she had wanted to seek her own final rest. But she could not.
“How?” Sara demanded. “How did you bind him?”
The blacksmith let out a weary sigh. “I sealed him away, deep in Kircalim Forest. And I bound his prison in the only way I knew how: to myself. We Harbingers cannot die by sickness or old age. Only by the blade can we find rest. I bound his prison to my life and laid aside my sword. As long as I live, as long as one Griffin-bound survives, he will be locked away.” She took a shuddering breath. She had not told this tale in so long, yet time had not eased the telling of it.
Sara’s face was suddenly before her own, the young girl’s skin gone white. “Then why are you trying to find Remy?”
“What do you mean?”
“You could die!” Sara replied, tears edging her voice. “You could die, and then Irehan would come back!”
Natasha huffed a laugh. “I thank you for your concern,” she said with a smile, “but I can handle myself well enough to recover your foolhardy brother.” She sheathed her sword, and then knelt in front of Sara.
“Now you’ve seen the dangers of Kircalim,” she said, her voice softer. “This is no place for children. You told me you want to fight, and I believe you. But now is the time to be cautious and clever. Can you do that?”
Sara swallowed before nodding solemnly.
“Good. All right, stay close. And stay quiet.”
* * *
All too soon, Remy’s footprints vanished. They were replaced with signs that he’d been dragged.
Natasha didn’t tell Sara. It was one thing to expect the child to be quiet as they went to rescue a living brother. It was quite another to expect silence when that brother might be dead.
The path widened, and stone markers began springing up intermittently on either side. They were travelling on the Old Road, Natasha realized, the main highway that had connected the ancient kingdom to the outside world. She hadn’t thought anything remained of it.
Eventually, the drag marks turned, leaving the road to disappear into the forest. Natasha closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then, she stopped and knelt before Sara.
“Sara, we’re going to have to leave the road.”
The girl’s face whitened. “Leave the road? But you said—”
“I did,” Natasha interrupted. “The forest will try and get us turned around, growing over our path, beguiling us. But,” she added with a smile, “I plan on marking every tree we pass. As I’m certain you know, the cut of a Harbinger blade cannot be healed. If we mark our path with my blade, we’ll find our way out again. You must make sure I don’t miss any, all right?”
They made their way into the trees. The air grew close, the smell of rot more powerful the farther they went from the road. Natasha drew a notch into each trunk they passed, marking their way as they followed Remy’s trail. Whatever had grabbed him seemed intent on its path: the tracks cut a relatively straight line through the woods. For that, at least, Natasha was grateful.
Eventually, the forest opened onto a clearing. In the center stood the ruins of what had once been an abbey. The structure stretched upwards, but the pinnacle of rock that had crowned the front of the building had long fallen, leaving cut stones scattered over the ground. Two walls stretched back into the clearing, leading into what had been the sanctuary. Ivy climbed over everything, strangling the fallen walls beneath a shroud of vines.
The tracks led inside, and Natasha was about to follow when a low moan made her grab Sara and crouch behind a short stone wall. A creature dressed in a ragged robe appeared from within the ruined edifice. It seemed to glide across the ground, the hem of its garment scraping over the leaves. It paused, head moving from side to side as if scenting the air, before gliding past the ruined wall and out of sight.
“What was that thing?”
Natasha’s jaw tightened. “A gallwraith.” They were the ghosts of Irehan’s soldiers who had died on the battlefield and never been buried. Whatever remained of the warrior’s soul was consumed by hunger as their restless spirit sought out the living, making a meal of the still warm blood of mortal creatures. And judging by the drag marks leading into the ruins, it appeared that the gallwraith had gotten Remy.
Sara whimpered. “Is my brother dead?”
Natasha frowned. “Not yet, I think. Gallwraiths must feed after nightfall. They have very little physical presence until the sun is gone. But we need to be quick. Come.”
They moved silently through the ruins towards the doorway from which the wraith had come. Natasha felt her pulse quickening, her awareness sharpening as it always did before a battle. The world came into focus, the edges of the stone more harshly defined against the darkened forest.
The inside of the abbey was a mess of rotting pews and tangled vines. Natasha crept along the edges of the sanctuary, Sara behind her with her small wooden sword drawn. They were about to round a corner into a side chapel when the low moaning sounded ahead of them. Natasha froze, then knelt, kicking up dust and ash as she pulled Sara down beside her. The creature came around the corner, slithering down the center aisle.
Sara sniffled, and the creature paused. Natasha turned to the girl who, to her horror, was turning red. Sara frantically placed a hand over her face.
“Achoo!” The sneeze echoed, unbearably loud in the quiet ruins.
The gallwraith turned. Nothing was visible within its hood, but Natasha knew it was staring straight at them. She swallowed back her fear, then stood, drawing her sword.
“Return the child you took, demon,” she commanded, hefting the blade and stepping in front of Sara, nudging her with her foot behind one of the pews.
The wraith laughed, a sound like glass shattering. “I thought I smelled an intruder. Do you think to command the dead?”
“I think to command the profane,” Natasha said, stepping forward. “What have you done with the boy?”
“He struggled so, but now he sleeps until I’m ready to feast.”
Natasha gritted her teeth. He was alive. At least he was alive.
“This was once a holy space,” she growled, “and you have desecrated it with your filth. Give me the child you stole. You’ll get no dinner tonight.” She took another step forward.
“This place is no longer consecrated ground.” It sniffed the air. “Griffin-born,” it said with satisfaction. “I remember your kind. I wonder what you will taste like.”
Suddenly, Natasha could barely move. She looked down to the stone floor of the sanctuary. There, hidden by the tangle of vines, she could make out a rune inscribed on the flagstones. It was of the ancient tongue, a single word: HOLD.
Her sword arm was paralyzed. She strained against the invisible bonds, but they held fast. She glanced behind her but didn’t see Sara anywhere. Hopefully, the child had had enough sense to hide.
The creature moved forward, its robe rustling through the fallen leaves. “You are a fool, Harbinger. Your kind are not welcome here. You are unfit to stand before me.”
“And yet here I stand,” Natasha spat out. “Let me out of this little trap, and we’ll see which one of us is unfit.”
“You dare to challenge me? Your ilk have long fallen into darkness.”
Natasha opened her mouth to respond but felt a tap on her foot. She glanced down and saw Sara scrubbing furiously at the rune that held her in place.
Her head snapped back up. The creature had moved closer, and she could now make out the embers where eyes should have been. It didn’t seem to have noticed Sara: it was so focused upon her that it was utterly oblivious to the child.
“I will feast on you slowly, from the inside out. There will be nothing left of you, hero.”
Sara squeaked a note of triumph and scrambled away. Natasha felt the enchantment weaken. She clenched her jaw.
“I’m nobody’s hero,” she said. Then she whipped her arm upwards, slicing across the wraith’s abdomen. It shrieked, falling back. Hissing in anger, the gallwraith raised a hand. Shadows split off from its cloak, wrapping themselves around her arm. Natasha screamed, for wherever they touched, they burned.
To her horror, Sara stepped into the creature’s path and sliced through the smoky bonds with her little wooden sword. Her ash sword, Natasha realized, as the tendrils were severed by the holy wood. The gallwraith hissed again, advancing. Sara tried to back away, but the creature was too fast. It struck her with a taloned hand, sending her flying into a log half buried in the ruins with a colossal crack.
“No!” Natasha screamed, rage coursing through her. She lunged, driving her shining Griffin blade deep into the gallwraith’s torso.
The creature screeched, the sound sending shudders coursing down Natasha’s spine. It twisted, trying to dislodge the sword from its body, but Natasha held fast. From where the blade pierced the creature, more black smoke billowed. Whatever magic had animated it began to break, and the gallwraith’s gaseous form evaporated like a morning’s mist.
Natasha’s sword came free, smeared with black. She let it drop, frantically dashing between pews towards where Sara had landed.
“Sara! Sara!” She knelt by the child’s unconscious form in the mud. Leaning down, she placed her ear to the girl’s mouth. She couldn’t tell if she was breathing. Blood stained the child’s golden hair, matting it against her head.
Natasha fumbled for the vial she always wore around her neck. “Come on, come on.” The small crystal bottle contained a little of the water from the Stantois River, which had once run, clean and pure, from a sacred spring in Kircalim Forest. The local people had called it the Water of Life.
Uncorking it carefully, Natasha poured a few drops into the girl’s mouth, trying not to spill any. There was only a little left, and she had no way to replenish it.
Sara lay still, her face pale in the half-light of the forest. Natasha could feel tears welling up in her eyes. Angrily, she swiped them away. No. No, this would work. This had to work. Sara wasn’t some hero ready for death, laughing in the face of it. She was a child, a child, one who didn’t deserve to be killed for the love of a foolish brother.
“Please,” Natasha sobbed, clenching her hands into fists and closing her eyes. She had not come so far and done so much to let yet another person she loved die in the forsaken forest. She could see them now, her fallen comrades, standing before her in Harbinger Hall five hundred and thirty-six years ago. Each had given up their lives that day so that the rest of the world might live. She was the last of them, the last of the Griffins, and if she could not bring back a child who’d done nothing but tried to protect her—
A cough startled her, and she opened her eyes. Sara’s eyes were open, bleary as though from sleep.
“Sara!” She swept the startled girl into her arms, hugging her to her chest as tightly as she dared.
“Aunt Natasha,” Sara said, her voice grainy. “What happened? Is the gallwraith gone?”
“Yes, yes, he’s gone now.” Natasha leaned back, smiling and wiping away her tears. “It’s quite all right.”
“My head hurts,” Sara pouted, her hand gingerly touching her bruised temple. The blood was still there, and Sara started as she saw it. Natasha grabbed her hand.
“It’s all right,” she said as Sara stared at her with alarm. “You’re all right. You hit your head, but the wound is gone now.”
“Griffin magic,” Sara whispered in wonder. “Did you use Griffin magic on me?”
Natasha choked out a laugh. “Of a kind.”
Sara frowned. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you kill the monster.”
“It wasn’t that exciting. You did most of the work.”
The girl glanced around. “Where’s Remy?”
Natasha sobered. “Probably further in the ruins.” She hoped, anyway. She needed to search for him. Judging by the dimming of the light outside, it was nearing dusk. If the boy was alive, she needed to find him before it was too dark.
“We’re going to have to camp out in Kircalim tonight.”
Sara made a small, frightened noise, but Natasha shook her head. “No, it’ll be all right. Nothing’s coming here tonight, not if a gallwraith staked it out. We’ll set up a camp once I find your brother and head back to the village in the morning. I need you to tend a fire while I search the ruins. Can you do that?”
Sara, her hand tenderly touching her head, nodded.
* * *
Natasha found Remy, bound and frightened, in one corner of the ruins. Apart from a few scrapes and bruises, he seemed largely untouched. Natasha gave silent thanks to whatever gods were left that she’d found him in time. Then she’d smacked him on the back of the head and gave him a firm scolding. She’d led him back to Sara, who had thrown herself at her brother, hugging him tightly, and he, embarrassed, had hugged her back.
“I suppose she’s the one who told you I’d gone into Kircalim,” he said now, sitting across from Natasha with an untouched apple in his hand. A fire crackled merrily in a small stone hearth they’d found in the old praetor’s quarters, banishing some of the darkness of the forest.
“She was. And thank the stars she did, or you’d be dead by now.”
“I didn’t mean to get caught,” Remy replied, sullen. “I just wanted to prove myself.”
Natasha snorted. “What sort of idiot thinks they’ll impress a girl without having any training in battle whatsoever? What were you thinking, Remy? Your grandmother will be worried sick already, and I can only imagine the tongue lashing she’s going to give you when we get—” Natasha broke off, seeing tears welling in the young man’s eyes. He sniffled, pathetically.
“I just wanted her to like me. I’ll never impress Moira now.”
Natasha took a deep breath. He was still a boy. He looked older than his fourteen years, but he was young and foolish. She stood and came to kneel beside him where he sat on an old stool, placing a gloved hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll make you a deal.” She glanced at Sara, thinking of the girl’s earlier words. “Every day, after you’ve finished your chores, I will teach you and your sister how to fight. I will teach you how to wield a sword, how to shoot, and how to defeat the monsters in this forest. And in return, you will promise me to never, never go into Kircalim until I say you’re ready to face it. No matter what Moira thinks of you,” she finished wryly.
Sara came to sit by her brother. “If you learn to fight, you can woo a princess in Calvairn,” she said soothingly. “And just think of how much Moira will regret not liking you then!”
That girl is too smart for her own good, Natasha thought, but she nodded in agreement. Standing and stretching her back, she peered down at him. “Do we have a deal?”
Remy looked thoughtful. “You’d train us? Really?”
“Yes,” Natasha said. “One day, I might not be around to defend the village. We need ...” She trailed off, swallowing a lump that had formed in her throat. “We need new warriors.”
“New Griffins,” Sara piped up, smiling widely. Remy frowned in confusion.
Natasha huffed a laugh. “Yes, new Griffins. Knights who can make better choices than the fools who come to Waypoint. So. Do we have a deal?”
The boy stood, and Natasha saw just how tall he’d become. Yes, he’d make a decent Harbinger one day, if he didn’t lose interest as soon as he learned how much work it would take or lose heart as soon as Sara outranked him. Which Natasha had no doubt she would. But at least it would keep him out of trouble for a time.
Natasha extended her hand to him. “Are we agreed?”
He shook her hand. Natasha sighed and sat again, closing her eyes. She was very tired. But there was more to say. “Then I think it’s time I told you both a story.”