Royal Mage

CHAPTERS 21-30 - FOR SECRET SOCIETY MEMBERS ONLY!

Brand new, never-before-seen chapters of book two in the Firecaller series, Royal Mage. 

Royal Mage starts where we left our travelers at the end of Fire Mage - at the home of Argus's master, Remus the shrinking mage. 

Jena, Nate, Bree and Argus are on a journey to find out more about their destiny. But first, they'll have to battle monsters, overcome evils, and find the truth among the lies being told to the kingdom. 

Read on to find out more... 


CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - JENA 

Jena screamed, her hands clutching the hard ridges of Rothell’s back, as they swooped through the clouds. It felt like she’d left her stomach somewhere high above them. The shimagni dove low before climbing back up to cloud level, her euphoria pouring through their minds, a bright golden stream that lifted Jena’s spirits. As they dipped into a turn, Rothell’s enormous wings spread out on either side of them, and the landscape below appeared swooped by, too fast for them to see anything more than a blur of color. 

“I won't let you fall, humans.” Rothell's voice was warm with humor inside their heads. 

All three of them were clinging in the same desperate manner to Rothell's back. Bree gave a tiny whimper that was snatched away by the wind. Jena clenched her stomach muscles and could almost feel the raven scrunched up on her skin. When it scratched a claw in painful protest she wasn't surprised. Rothell took them higher into the sky, her powerful wings pounding the very air around them into submission. Soon they were flying high above the ground, Rothell simply using her wings to glide through the air currents. 

The wind whipped uncomfortably across her face, her fingers felt like they were burning from holding on so tightly, and Jena’s heart felt like it was trying to pound its way outside her chest. But it was starting to seem… safer. Rothell was flying steadily, they hadn’t fallen off yet. Jena peered around through half-opened eyes. They were flying above the western edge of the mountain, the rugged beauty of the whole range spread out before her like a craggy blanket. Her breath held in her throat and she blinked several times. Never in a thousand years could she have expected to get this kind of a view of the world. It felt… exhilarating. 

Jena tipped her head back and laughed. 

What a thrill! 

Who would have thought that flying so high would be exciting rather than terrifying? She’d been prepared to survive the experience with stoic determination, not to feel this amazing sense of freedom and wonder. 

“It is how I feel every time I fly, Jena. Can you imagine how wonderful it is to be a shimagni? I cannot help loving Remus still, in a little corner of my heart, for allowing me to experience this life.”

Jena sobered at Rothell's mention of Remus. She recalled their mission and why there was a small flame ruby digging against her back, held securely in her sister's bag. 

“How long to the Utugani Hearth?” she asked Rothell. Her words were whipped away too fast for the others to hear them, but somehow the shimagni knew what she’d said. 

“Not long, although I flew the long way, to avoid the Murghah.” 

Jena watched the view below, some of her initial excitement dulled by the reminder of their duty. “We have to enlist their help breaking the curse. We can’t do it by ourselves.” Jena shivered. She had to believe they’d be able to find a way to say Argus. She closed her eyes and tried to recapture her enjoyment of the flight. The cool wind buffeting her face, the feeling of moving faster than she’d ever moved before. Perhaps Rothell would—

A screech in the sky just above them interrupted Jena’s thoughts. Her blood chilled and her eyes flicked open. The murghah. The black horse-like creature was flying above them, its body reflecting the sun, smoke rising up from across its skin. It gave another stomach-curdling screech. 

“I will attempt to outfly it.” The shimagni didn't sound sure of her ability to evade the creature. 

"No! Nate will have to control it. He knows how," said Jena. She leaned to one side around Bree and slapped his arm. 

Nate looked back over his shoulder at Jena and shook his head. “I don’t know how,” he yelled, the wind sucking away his words as soon as he said them. 

“You have to,” Jena yelled, even though she knew Nate couldn’t hear her. She pointed at the murghah, then at the three of them. “We won’t make it if you don’t figure it out.”  

“I’ll try,” he yelled, his expression grim. The raven tattoo on his face seemed to shimmer and Jena wished she was sitting directly behind him instead of Bree. If she’d been closer she could have loaned him some of her confidence that he could do it. 

Jena looked up, and saw the dark shape of the murghah hurtling towards them in the open sky. Its blistering hooves would hit them any minute. 

“Now, Nate. You have to do it now!” Jena felt the flames of her magic curling around her, and she prepared to throw whatever she could at the dark beast… except she knew it wouldn’t work. The only one who could affect the murghah was Nate. He just had to believe in himself. She clenched her hands tighter onto Rothell and tried to will Nate to believing in himself. 

She watched as he lifted one of his arms, gazing directly at the beast overhead. She felt the power of his magic shift the air around them. Goosebumps rose along her arms in reaction. Overhead the murghah swerved, screeching. The creature swept its dark wings in a powerful beat, and pulled away. 

But the woman on its back held her hands high and began chanting a strange pattern of words. In her hands she held a glowing fire ruby. Its magic pulsed through the air, and Nate gasped in pain. The fire ruby in the bag on Jena’s back pulsed in answer. Jena leaned forward, all her energy focused on Nate. 

“It’s…It’s pulling me. I don’t know if…” Nate pushed the words out, every syllable threaded with agony. He put both hands to his head, like he was trying to contain the pain inside it. Jena gasped, but before she could move, Bree grabbed onto him with one hand, clutching him around the waist. Jena reached out and grasped Bree, desperate to keep them both steady.  

“Rothell, he’s not holding on, don’t do anything crazy,” yelled Jena, terrified that the shimagni might try another roll like she did before. 

“I will fly steady, but you must get him to control the murghah, it is your only hope of survival,” said Rothell, her voice calm inside Jena’s head. 

Jena leaned forward, trying to make sure Nate heard her words. “You’re the Firecaller, Nate. You can do it. You have to. ” Jena hoped her words were true. If Nate couldn't win against this creature they were all lost. 

Nate screamed, his whole body tensing. Bree cried out, his movement knocking her backward. Overhead, the murghah’s rider was chanting, the words heavy in the air around them. 

“It is attempting to steal his soul. I cannot stop it.” Rothell’s voice was angry. 

“Nate! Do your worst, let out your core.” Jena didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t seem to hear her. “You have to defeat it, for all our sakes!” It was true. The murghah had easily overpowered her last time they’d met. She’d almost ended up inside the fire ruby, and she hadn’t stood a chance against it. Murghah were too powerful, too little seen, for the mages to know how to deal with them. 

Nate was their only hope. 

Except he looked like he was about to implode in front of her. The only thing keeping him on Rothell’s back was Bree desperately clinging to him. Jena clutched her sister, trying to think of another way out of this. Perhaps if they let Rothell do some acrobatics? She shuddered at the thought of trying to hold Nate onto Rothell’s back while they were upside down. Maybe she could cast a spell to burn the creature alive? Except she knew the murghah would simply suck up the energy of the spell. All she’d be doing would be making the creature more powerful. 

“Nate, please,” she screamed, desperation carved into her voice. “You have to let go. Make it happen, just like last time.” She gripped Bree’s arm, and tried not to think about what would happen to them all if he couldn’t unleash the fires. 

And suddenly, as if he finally understood that they were about to die, a burning heat burst out from Nate. The tremendous and powerful energy made Jena’s whole body tremble in reaction, and Bree jerked back, trying to get away from the crackling static created by the unleashing of what could only be Nate's fire. Even the shimgani shifted under them, her skin rippling in reaction. 

As Jena watched, Nate started to transform. He glowed, a pulsing fiery light emanating from his skin. Even his eyes were no longer human; they glowed a demon red. 

Thankfully the focus of his glowing demon eyes was the murghah. The woman still held the fire ruby aloft in her hands, and Jena thought she could see strands of the red pulse from Nate being swallowed into the hard edges of the jewel. 

Nate roared, a sound that seemed to emerge from the very depths of the Edges. Jena’s whole body trembled in reaction, and Bree leaned even further away from Nate, trying to escape the burning power. 

Lifting one arm, Nate shot a bolt of fire directly to the murghah. It hit the woman squarely on her chest. But instead of hurting her, the fire seemed to make her grow, her body enlarging, swelling in front of them. She lifted the ruby a little higher, and this time, Jena was sure she could see Nate’s soul being pulled into the stone. It wasn’t working. The creature was more powerful than Nate. Jena couldn’t breathe, her heart pounding in her chest. They were going to die. 

Again, Nate roared, and this time Jena heard pain in the sound. “What else can we do? It’s not working–” 

And then Jena felt something shift, like someone was drawing on the heat in the very air around them. It became harder to breathe, and the cold became colder. On the edges of her vision, she saw the murghah stumble, fall a few feet then right itself. 

“You are mine, creature. You will do my will.” Nate’s voice boomed. 

The murghah screamed, kicked its front legs high into the air, then flew straight up, and away. Jena watched it as it disappeared, her heart still pounding, half expecting it to turn around and come back at them. 

She glanced back at Nate, wanting him to drag the murghah back, to force it to his will. Except Nate looked like he was barely alive. He was glowing orange, but his eyes were closed, his face was slack, and his body sagged like a half empty sack of potatoes. Bree was struggling to hold him up. 

And then he seemed to just go boneless. His glow disappeared, and his whole body collapsed to one side. He slipped through Bree’s hands, sliding off the side of the shimagni. Jena screamed, reaching out to catch him, but she she couldn’t reach him without pushing Bree off as well. 

They both scrambled to grab him, but he slid down the side of Rothell, tumbling through the sky below them, mercifully unaware of what was happening. 



CHAPTER 22 - JENA 

“Rothell!” Jena yelled, even as the shimagni turned and matched Nate’s fall. She shimagni grasped him in her front paws, holding him safely against her chest. Only then did Jena breathe again. The flight no longer seemed thrilling. She felt like she’d been blasted with so much fear and terror in the last few minutes that her heart might never settle down again. 

“We’re almost at the Hearth. I will carry him until we arrive.”

“Hurry, Rothell,” Jena said. If the murghah came back… She couldn’t help frantically searching the air around them, trying to spot the deadly black horse creature. She had no idea if the murghah could return, but she wouldn’t be caught unprepared a second time. Jena kept trying to catch a glimpse of Nate cradled in Rothell’s arms, but he was just out of her line of sight. Was he okay? What if he died, before they’d even made it to the Flame City? What of their quest then? 

Jena just had to assume that Rothell would tell them if something had happened to Nate. She clutched the shimagni’s back ridges, and flicked through the Book of Spells in her head, trying to find something that would destroy the next creature that dared to come at them. There was a whole parcel of nothing that would be helpful, and for the first time in a long time, Jena felt useless. 

Eventually the shimagni began to spiral downward toward a large river that wound in between an enormous forest and grasslands. If she wasn’t so worried about Nate, Jena might have been more in awe at the view they were getting of the landscape, all laid out below them like a green and blue tapestry woven by a master. She’d never seen anything like it. They were flying toward a large grassy area near a fork in the Flaming River.

She could see why it was an Utugani campsite; it had everything a traveling hearth might need, all in one place. It brought back memories of her own childhood with the Utugani, the freedom of roaming the landscape, living off the land… and then the terror of being pushed onto a burning campfire, and sold by her jealous step brother before she’d properly healed. The scarred skin on her face started to feel even tighter than usual, and her fingers felt like they were wedged into Rothell’s back ridges. Her heart was thudding like a drum in her chest. 

She hadn’t anticipated these feelings of fear and dread over going back, but perhaps she should have. Thornal had never asked her about it, and she’d never told him anything. She’d never talked to anyone about it. She’d kept it all squashed inside her, all the fear and hurt and betrayal, until it had felt like it didn’t matter any more. It was so long ago, a distant, painful past she’d thought was behind her. She wasn’t a child, she could protect herself these days. She even had family. Jena glanced at Bree just in front of her, leaning forward into Rothell’s back ridges like her life depended on it. Bree wouldn’t let them hurt her again. 

Except here she was, feeling like she couldn’t breathe, her scars feeling like she’d just been burned again, and her whole body locked in a rictus of fear. Her chest tightened, her eyes locked on the patchwork of earth below them. 

She shook her head sharply, trying to shake free of the memories. The feeling of being a child again, lost and alone. It didn’t make sense. They couldn’t hurt her. She was a powerful mage. She would burn the campsite to the ground, before she let anyone hurt her again. Her breath was ragged and rattled. 

Everything was all mixed up in her head—fear for Nate, memories from childhood, and the utter devastation Eldrin was about to experience when they told him that Argus was locked inside a fire ruby, possibly dying if they couldn’t do something to save him. Jena squeezed her eyes shut, trying to calm her raging thoughts. She needed to stay focused if she was going to get through the next few hours. Pushing everything back inside her, she concentrated on breathing steadily in and out, and ignoring the pain and hurt that was clamoring to escape. Not just ignoring it, actively squeezing it back into the tiny box where she’d been hiding it all these years.

When she opened her eyes again, she could see small dots on the ground below, quickly becoming bigger and turning into people and tents as they flew closer. She took a heavy breath, and felt better. 

“I will land away from their encampment. We need Nate to be conscious and able to talk before we go to them. He has asked to be the one who tells them the news of Argus.” 

Jena nodded, even though Rothell couldn’t see her. Nate and Argus had been traveling together for a while now. It made sense that he’d want to talk to the Utugani. And she sure as the Flames didn’t want to be the one to tell them. The people below became larger, until they could almost make out the individual faces. Jena searched for Eldrin, but he wasn't among the people coming out of their tents to stare up at them as they came into land. She didn’t know if it was a relief or not. 

Rothell landed and placed Nate on the ground. Bree, then Jena, slid down Rothell’s side to the ground, both rushing to where Nate was lying prone at Rothell’s feet. Jena crouched beside him, and reached out to smooth his hair from his face. He still looked deathly pale. 

He groaned and opened his eyes, the bright blue startling against his ashen skin. “I never want to travel that way again,” he said, slurring slightly. 

“Were you awake while we were flying?” asked Jena, trying to hold in her shudder at the thought. She touched his neck and arms, trying to see if he was wounded. 

Nate weakly batted her hand away. “I’m fine. I just used up too much power on the Murghah.” His voice sounded distant, like he was talking down a long tunnel. 

“You need something to eat and drink, and quickly, before Argus's family arrive.” Jena eyed him fearfully. His eyes were dark holes in his pale face, and there were tight lines around his mouth. He didn't seem right. Something was wrong, and she didn't know what it was. 

Nate nodded, holding his hand over his eyes for a moment, then rubbed them. “What have we got?”

Jena handed him her water pouch, then looked through the travel pack she’d been carrying on her back. “There's some fish from breakfast.” Jena handed him the bundle and hovered while he unwrapped it. He was shaking and his face was still grey. 

“Thornal says to look in the book for the spell on... the spell that’s just after the ones on water spirits.”  Nate’s voice was confused, and he frowned. 

Jena had almost forgotten about their extra traveling companion. It was a relief to know that Thornal was here and knew how to help Nate. She searched the Book of Spells for the page he was talking about, flipping quickly through the pages inside her head. She stilled, her heart stopping in her chest, when she found the right place. 

Thornal had to be joking. “He definitely says the one after water spirits?” she said, trying to stay calm. 

Nate paused, his brows raised. Then he nodded. “Yes, that's the one. He says you have to be quick.”

Jena felt her blood run cold. It was the Edges energy spell, one of the hardest and most dangerous in the book. If it went wrong, it would mean being locked in the Edges for not only herself, but Nate as well. “I don't... I mean…” 

“He says be quick, or….” Nate swallowed hard. “Or he says I’ll die.” 

Jena looked around her wildly, but she couldn’t see Thornal to confirm what he was saying. Was he telling the truth? Or just trying to get her to do the spell? 

The shocked expression on Nate’s face was enough to convince her. She took a deep breath. Reading the instructions carefully, she made sure she understood everything she had to do. 

Chanting low, Jena concentrated on saying the words exactly right. Opening her mind, she sought out the Edges that were all around them, and yet no-one—except Nate—could see. She started chanting louder and louder, bringing the energy all around her into her body. She held her hands cupped in front of her and, still chanting the words of power, pushed everything she captured into her hands. Soon there was a glowing ball, sizzling and bucking between her palms. The energy was trying to escape her control, pushing, battering her defenses until she wondered if she could really make it do what she needed. 

She began to feel hands all over her body, clawing at her, trying to find a way back from the Edges, trying to get back into the world. Trying to use her to get back into this world. Her breath came in short gasps, and she had to focus to keep them at bay. She stepped closer to Nate, who was watching with shadowed eyes. Pushing her hands to his chest, she thrust the power she had pulled from the Edges into Nate, hoping that she’d done it right, and hadn’t just shoved a bunch of ghosts trapped inside the Edges into Nate’s body. 

The world went dark. 

**************

Jena gasped, feeling as if hands were still clawing at her throat, choking her. She battered against her attackers, but only encountered empty air. She closed her throat on the scream that threatened, and made herself look around. 

In the distance Nate and Bree were speaking to a gathering of five men, none of whom she recognized, but who were all obviously Utugani. 

Nate was holding the fire ruby in his palm, showing them. 

One of the strangers raised his arm in a gesture of anger, but Nate put his other hand out in placation. Jena stilled. Nate's hand glowed with a yellow light, so bright it was visible from this distance, and lit up the faces of the Utugani who were crowded around him. 

Jena rubbed her eyes, then looked again. What was wrong with Nate? Had she turned him into a ghost? Was he filled with the souls of those people who’d tried to get back into this world through her spell? 

Momentarily panicked, she tried to sit up. Her head spun, and bile rose in her throat, her breakfast along with it. She threw up into the ground beside her, then lay back down again, closing her eyes. What the flames had she done

“You are still very weak. You will need to rest.” Rothell’s voice was soothing inside her head. 

Jenna jerked in surprise. She hadn’t noticed the shimagni nearby. “What’s happened? Why is Nate glowing?” She didn’t open her eyes, and her words were barely a whisper. 

“He is fine. It is simply the after effects of the spell.” 

“It worked?” 

“You saved his life. The murghah had managed to steal part of his soul, before it ran away. He has been able to use the energy you gave him to recover—at least until he can recover his soul—as well as talk to the Utugani and convince them we are friend not foe.” 

“Did something else happen? What are you not telling me?” 

At first there was silence. “There was a slight side effect you might not have known about.” 

Jena straightened up so she could look at the shimagni. “What have I done?” she said in a whisper. 

The shimagni sighed. “The ghost of Thornal is now trapped inside Nate. He’s trying to stay out of Nate's way, but it’s going to be difficult.”  

Jena turned back to Nate and stared in horror. “I’ve put Thornal inside his head?” She took a deep breath. “How do I fix it?”

“We do not know. For now, they must put up with it.” 

Jena took a few deep breaths, trying to calm her fear. At least Nate wasn't dead, which was what she had thought might happen. 

He just had another person inside his body. A ghost. Her grandfather. 

Jena shivered, imagining how awful it would be to have another soul inside her body. At least it was Thornal and not a complete stranger. Although the thought of having Thornal inside her head made Jena shudder again. Thornal wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with. She might have to give Nate a few tips.  

She watched the two groups in front of her. They were still talking, and occasionally one would look toward Rothell and Jena. Nate stayed calm, somehow soothing the anger that was rolling off the Utugani. 

Beside him Bree remained silent and stiff. 

“I should go and help them.” Jena managed to sit up this time, but paused when her head started to pound. 

“You need to stay here. Your presence will only confuse things.” 

“Confuse things? How?” 

“There is another short-term after-effect.” Rother paused again. 

“What could possibly be worse than Thornal being inside his head?” I asked. 

“It’s not worse. It’s just not… ideal. When you and Nate get too close, you both start to glow. We had to separate you so Nate could go and talk to them.” Rothell shook her wings. “Nate said Thornal didn’t think it would last.”

“What does it mean?" Jena asked cautiously. 

“You are the originator of the spell. It means you are now connected to them as well. You haven't been awake since it happened, but we think it might mean you can hear Thornal inside Nate’s head.” 

Jena jumped up, knocking her head on the shimagni's front ridges. She sat down again. “I’ll be able to hear Thornal?” It was a tantalizing thought, being able to hear Thornal’s voice. Her chest hurt and she rubbed it absently with one hand. It would almost be like she would have him back. Maybe this wasn’t the bad news she’d thought at first? 

Except Nate had to be struggling with the extra soul inside his body. Jena had difficulty listening to Rothell inside her head, let alone having someone actually inside her head hearing all her thoughts, knowing all her secrets. For Nate’s sake, they had to get Thornal out of there. But not perhaps until she’d had more of a chance to talk to Thornal? 

“There will be a way to undo what has been done. There always is.” 

Jena glanced up at Rothell. “What about Remus, the shrinking mage? He never found a way to undo what had been done.” 

“Ah, but there was a way. He could have reversed his spell on us. Then the witch could have undone her spell. But he chose not to do that. He was arrogant and self-righteous; and he thought he could find a way around it. Now it is too late. She is no longer human and he is trapped.” 

Jena thought she could hear a certain amount on satisfaction in Rothell's voice. 



CHAPTER 23 - NATE

Despite their hard faces, the tense lines around the mouths of the Utugani men were easing, and the rigid stances they had adopted at first had relaxed. Their knives had been put away in their leather pouches, they'd stopped looking at the shimagni behind him every two minutes, and were managing to keep eye contact with him. 

So far, so good. 

Nate took another breath, trying to maintain his expression of easy affability. It was harder than it seemed. All he wanted to do was yell and scream, to rant at the fates for putting Argus in this position, for not being able to return him to his people in one piece. He didn’t want to be here, giving them this bad news. 

The eldest had leathered skin, the many lines revealing the years he’d lived. He wore a shirt and trousers in brown and green, and he had an eye patch covering his right eye. Nate thought he caught more with that one eye than his companions did with two. The one-eyed man watched as Nate and Bree replied to the questions hammered at them from the younger, stronger men who were bracketing him. 

“We need proof Argus is inside that stone, before we go to the Utugan and tell him," said the man on the right, his bright red shirt a beacon in the green of the valley. They had reluctantly told the sentries why they wanted to speak to their leader. 

“If we could speak to Eldrin, he would be able to tell you that we are friends of Argus’s. We don’t have time to convince everyone of the truth. We need help to save Argus.” Nate held still, trying to coerce them to agree by the power of his thoughts. 

“It won't work you know. You're not using the right spell.” The voice echoed inside his head. Nate jumped slightly. He tried to keep his face from showing the annoyance he felt every time he remembered the visitor in his head. He saw the one-eyed gypsy watching him thoughtfully, and kept his face blank. 

“There's no use feeling annoyed about it,” said Thornal. “What's done is done. The good thing is these fellows seem to be coming around to our point of view. You've argued our point well.”  

Nate nodded, then stopped, realizing too late what he was doing. 

The young gypsy in front of him frowned and he inwardly cursed. He focused again on the older man in the middle. 

“I can tell you things about Argus that no one else would know. Things he would only have told a friend. Would that help?” 

“No. Not me. Perhaps his brother or father.” The old man paused; his one eye clear as he looked at Nate. “Answer me this one question with honesty, and I will allow them to fetch the Utugan.” 

At Nate's nod, the old man gestured towards Bree. “What is the woman to Argus?” 

Nate thought the old man had a good idea what Bree was to Argus, but he wanted them to say it. Beside him Bree had gone white. Her eyes were giant orbs in her face and tears welled in her eyes. 

He opened his mouth, and then shut it again, unable to cause Bree more pain by mentioning what had been growing between them. 

“I’m… when we save him, I’m going to marry him." Large tears rolled slowly down Bree's face, and her pale skin seemed to be made of marble. She stared unblinkingly at the old man until he looked away towards the mountains behind them. 

“He’s the love of my life, and if he hadn't loved me back, he wouldn't be stuck inside that fire ruby, alone and dying.” Bree was trembling. Nate put his arms around her, and she leaned into him, her tears starting to turn from silent drops to wrenching sobs. 

“But he wouldn’t have been a free man,” said Nate firmly. “I know Argus preferred to be a free man, rather than the servant of Remus.” He could do little other than hold her and wait til the storm passed. 

“Now, tell me who you are,” said the old gypsy. He waved his hand. “Other than a friend of Argus.”  

Nate cleared his throat. “Argus saved my life. More than once.” He paused, trying to think what it would be best to tell them. “I was a mage, not a very good one. I live on the coast south of here. He helped me escape from assassins, then he took an arrow for me. I owe him my life.” 

“Argus was always brave,” agreed the old gypsy. “Nothing has changed in that.” He dropped his gaze to Bree. “And he could always inspire love,” he said softly. The old one-eyed Utugani let out a breath. “We will get Eldrin and the Utugan to come.” 

“But–” One of the younger men started to protest. 

The old man held up a hand and silenced him. He gestured with his head, and the man on his right turned without another word and ran towards the camp. 

Nate watched the red shirt get smaller and smaller. “Thank you. You won't regret trusting us. Argus is our friend.”

“You know, that's where Remus underestimated Argus,” said Thornal. “The old fool always misunderstood love. It explains the mistake he made with the lavaen and the shimagni as well.” 

Nate had to focus on not shaking his head every time the mage talked in his head. It was like a ringing in his ears, it jarred, and it sent shivers down his spine at the same time. He hoped the old mage wouldn't be in his head for long. 

“I’ll try not to be, son. Although I’m going to stay here long enough to teach you how to control your flames. You’ve been given a hodge-podge mage education.” 

Goosebumps rippled across his skin, crawling like a thousand spiders. He could almost feel the old mage ferreting around in his head, turning over what he knew and didn't know. It felt like a stranger going through an old wardrobe and finding forgotten treasures from childhood. Secret and personal treasures. Treasures that you'd much prefer to keep hidden away. 

“Don’t worry son, I’m not judging you. I’m judging those who taught you. Your grandfather mainly, rotten old fish scraps that he is.” 

Nate’s eyes widened slightly at Thornal’s slur on his grandfather’s name. It wasn’t that he disagreed, it was more that he’d never heard anyone other than himself say anything disrespectful of the old man. He was, after Thornal, one of the most powerful mages in the land. 

“You get to my age, son, you don’t have to pull your punches,” said Thornal wryly. 

Nate let out a breath, then looked over Bree's head at the one-eyed Utugani, who was watching with solemn eyes. It reminded him why they were here. 

He felt the tears in his eyes, and had to struggle to keep them from falling. "I'm sorry, it's still very new for us," he said to the old gypsy. 

The old warrior nodded, staying silent. 

The remaining younger man turned his head to look back to their camp. Behind him, a group of men ran towards them from the distant campsite. He swallowed. 

The moment was here. 

He had to tell Eldrin and his father what had happened. How he’d let them down by allowing Argus to be hurt. 

“Don’t be ridiculous, Nate. That’s not the truth.”   

The distant shapes became the larger figures of Eldrin and another two men, plus a man who was obviously their leader, the Utugan. He was wrapped in the ornate furs of the wild bear they revered, its brown and silver coat glistening in the late morning sunlight. He had the same stern look as Argus, and he had a large bear tooth pierced through the fleshy part of his ear. 

“They’re coming,” he whispered to Bree. 

Bree stepped back from his arms, wiping her eyes and straightening her spine. 

Eldrin arrived first, his eyes moving from Nate to Bree. “What’s happened? Where’s Argus?” he asked. 

Nate took a deep breath, but waited til the Utugan arrived before answering. “Eldrin, I’m sorry,” he said looking at Eldrin and then his father, his chest tight. He had to force the words past his lips. “We fought a lavaen, only a day past. Argus was wounded… and the creature cursed him. He’s inside this fire ruby, held in time,” he held up his hand with the fire ruby again, “but we don’t have long to save him. And we don’t know how to save him.”  

Eldrin sucked in a breath, and went pale. Beside him, the Utugan took a step backward, his hand half raised as if to deny the news. 

“No,” said the Utugan, his face creasing with denial. “He’s coming home. Eldrin told us he’s coming home.” 

“We were betrayed by his master," said Nate, trying to say it all at once. “We shouldn’t have been there at all. But if we’re going to save Argus, we need to do it quickly and we need your help.”  

“You saw it happen? He’s truly inside this stone?” asked Eldrin. His face seemed calm, until Nate looked into his eyes and saw the wild storm raging there. 

Nate swallowed hard. “Yes. I saw it. I’m the one who put him inside the fire ruby, to extend his life long enough for us to save him.” Nate closed his eyes for a moment, unable to bear the look in his eyes any longer. “I’m sorry, Eldrin. I should have protected him better.” 

“What help can we possibly give?” asked Eldrin. 

Nate opened his eyes again, trying to straighten out his thoughts. “He doesn’t have much time. But if we’re going to save him, we need to find out what the curse is. I wondered if your hearth might have someone who was knowledgeable on such things?” 

“Thank you for coming to us,” said Eldrin. He held out a hand and grasped Nate's shoulder. His eyes were darker than they’d seemed previously but his face remained impassive. 

Suddenly Bree let out a cry, and ran towards the Utugan. Startled, Nate looked behind Eldrin; the gypsy leader had fallen to his knees, his hands clutched at his chest, his face showing pain. The two Utugani guards held Bree from going to his side.

“No!” The word reverberated around inside Nate's head, and Nate felt Argus’s pain from inside the fire ruby. How the hell had that happened? 

“Something to do with your Firecaller abilities, no doubt,” said Thornal, his voice thoughtful.  

“Let her go. She’s a healer.” Eldrin barked the order as he followed her to his father.

He grasped the Utugan before he fell further, and held him half lying on the ground. Bree knelt before him and placed her hands over the Utugan's chest, closing her eyes. Her breathing was shallow, and her face went pale. Her hands trembled where they lay. Nate felt Argus watching through his eyes as Bree attempted to save his father. All he could do was stand back and watch.

Bree kept her hands on the chest of her patient. Her head was down, and her hair fell around her face, hiding her expression. Sitting on the ground, holding his father's body off the earth, Eldrin was the only one who could see her face, and he watched it with the intensity of a hawk, the lighthearted man they had met only days before gone. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath. 

Minutes passed, with no movement from either Bree or the Utugan. Nate desperately hoped that Eldrin wasn't going to lose his father, especially not now. 

“She'll save him, lad. She's powerful, like her sister.” Thornal’s voice whispered in his head.  

Nate jumped; then cursed.  

The Utugan's eyes flickered and opened, and he took a deep breath. The collective release of breath was like a breeze that suddenly came up around them. 

Bree moved back from her position over the Utugan. “He should be fine. He needs to rest. It was his heart, but I have made it strong again.” Bree spoke softly, watching the Utugan with large eyes. Her face was even more drawn, and now there were dark circles under her eyes. When Nate saw her sway, he leaped forward to help, but the old one-eyed gypsy got there first, putting an arm around her waist. 

Eldrin and one of the younger men helped the Utugan to his feet. They put his arms over each shoulder, and started to carry him back to the camp. Bree attempted to follow, and stumbled. The old gypsy pulled her arm around his shoulder and started back to the camp just behind the others. 

“But…” Nate moved again. 

“We will take care of her. You may follow us into our hearth with your creature.”  

Nate turned back to where Rothell and Jena waited. As he got closer he saw Jena start to glow, as she had earlier. By the serious expression on her face, he knew she had noticed.

“What happened? Why did Bree go with them?” 

“The Utugani had a problem with his heart. Bree fixed it, but it cost her. They’re taking her into the hearth. We are to follow.” 

Jena scowled even deeper, and gestured between them. “How are we going to do anything if we light up like a fire every time we're around each other?” she asked him. 

Nate shrugged tiredly. “It will wear off, according to Thornal.” 

“Thornal should have known better than to have me do the spell in the first place,” she said, crossing her arms, and scowling in a way that made him think of a mother hen telling off her chicks. 

“Is that how you used to tell him off?” he asked, a slightly hysterical laugh bubbling in his throat. It was highly inappropriate, but he had a vision of Jena bossing Thornal around in his own home, telling him off for not putting the kitchen cloths away. 

“You've got it in one, my boy. She was a martinet. But she took care of me like no one else ever had. She did it because she cares about others, because she has a heart bigger than most other people combined, not because of familial duty, or because I'd bought her at the markets.” 

Jena’s scowled deepened for a moment, and then a smiled flicked at one corner of her mouth. “Maybe I was a martinet,” she said. “But he deserved it.” 

Nate blinked. “You can hear him?”

Jena nodded, a shimmer in her eyes that said more than she knew. “Rothell says it might wear off, but for now, any time Thornal speaks to you, and I’m nearby, I can hear him.” 

“I’m not sure whether to be happy for you, or upset,” said Nate with a grin. 

“I can’t speak for Jena, but I for one am so very pleased,” said Thornal quietly. 


CHAPTER 24 - JENA 

“I make them nervous, I can smell it.” Rothell’s body swirled with violets and blues. Her tail swished about anxiously, making the fire in their small hearth burn brighter. Jena shifted away from the suddenly brighter flames.

“That's why we're here at the edges, and not in the main part of their camp,” said Nate. He was next to the fire, adding more of the wood he'd gathered. He looked tired, his skin pale and dark circles under his eyes. The faint glow around his body—which had thankfully lessened for both of them in the time since the spell—made him almost look like a ghost.

Jena put one hand on the side of Rothell’s neck, running her hand soothingly over the shimagni’s soft skin. “They’ll get used to you,” she said softly. Rothell leaned closer and hummed like she was a cat.

The people in the main camp were distracted, everyone aware their Utugan was ill. There were a lot of people running to and fro, anxious expressions on their faces. 

One of the younger guards had met them when they approached the campsite, and had approved where they had set up their camp, but they hadn't talked to anyone else for a while, including Bree. It was only because Jena could sense her calm presence nearby that she wasn’t storming into the main Utugani camp to demand they allow Bree to come back to their campfire.

“We should be talking to someone, finding a cure for Argus,” Nate said. He was clutching the fire ruby that held Argus in his hand. He stood and walked a little way toward the main Utugani camp, and then back to their small camp site, his impatience palpable. 

The flames in the fire followed his path, leaning in his direction where ever he was.

"Have patience, Nate. Their leader just collapsed," said Thornal.  

Jena could still hear Thornal's voice inside Nate's head—although he was getting fainter, like the glow that was almost non-existent now. She felt a pang in her chest; she would be glad to get rid of the glow, but at the same time, sad that she wouldn't be able to hear Thornal any more. 

She’d been able to talk to him while they were setting up the campsite, and confirm some of what she’d guessed about her parentage and what had happened all those years ago. It had felt good to hear his voice again, even if only for a short while. 

"They said they'd talk to their person, find out more information," she said to Nate. "For now, our best option is to wait." Jena hoped she was right. Surely they hadn't forgotten about Argus? 

Nate poked at the fire again, this time more aggressively, accidentally knocking a larger piece of wood off the top. Sparks flew into the sky around them, and Nate's face was momentarily lit up like a demon's. 

When they'd first arrived, they'd been busy. They’d collected dry pieces of wood and smaller kindling from the nearby forest, and Nate had lit the fire, while Jena organized the rest of their campsite, dragging over a couple of logs—with help from Rothell—and pulling their remaining travel rations out to prepare a meal. They didn’t have much; only what they’d eaten at Rothell’s cave: mostly fish. 

She completely understood Nate's impatience, but she didn't know what to do about it. They had to wait until someone came to them—that much she remembered about Utugani camp protocols. 

As she crouched next to the fire looking down at their meager rations, wondering if she could find some herbs to make it more palatable, Jena sensed movement and glanced up, glad that someone had finally come to give them more information. Except...  

“Nate,” she whispered, catching his attention and nodding her head towards the young woman who'd just arrived. 

Long dark hair fell out of a yellow scarf. She wore a long skirt and a brightly embroidered shirt, traditional clothing among the Utugani. She was holding a snugly wrapped baby in a woven sling across her front and a bowl of steamed rice in one hand. To Jena she seemed somehow very proud and completely uncertain at the same time.

The woman strode up to where they sat beside their fire. Without saying a word, she held out the plate of rice to them. Jena stood up and took the gift, trying to smile encouragingly at their visitor. She didn't seem like an official emissary. 

The young Utugani woman glanced at the shimagni, then looked at Nate with solemn eyes. “Argus was my cousin. They say you knew him, and that he saved your life?” she said. She had the same intensity as Argus, and a way of tilting her head that reminded Jena of the ex-mercenary.

Jena glanced at Nate. Guilt and pain were clearly etched on his face. He believed it was his fault that Argus wasn't here with them, reuniting with his family. 

Nate nodded. “That's true.”

“Can you tell me the story? The story of how he saved your life?” Again the woman glanced at the shimagni. Rothell shimmered in the half-light of the fire, her eyes glowing and swirling with fire. 

Startled, Nate glanced at Jena, then back at the young woman. “I don’t think—”

“They need to know, son. This is important.” 

Jena nodded, agreeing with Thornal. 

“I’d like to know more about how he spent his life. It’s been so long since I saw him,” said the woman. Her baby in the wrapped sling snuffled in its sleep as if agreeing.

Nate hesitated a moment longer. “I guess… yes, I can.” He gestured for her to sit down on one of their nearby logs.

“Would you like something to drink?” asked Jena. “We have a hot tea brewing.”

As Jena was pouring tea into a cracked travel mug for the woman, she heard the chatter of young children, and looked up. Two women, each with two children—their ages maybe somewhere between seven and ten—clinging nervously to their skirts walked towards them, a determined set to their jaws. “We heard you might tell us the story of Argus’s bravery?” said the one with long wavy blonde hair, her hand stroking the matching blond hair of one of her little boys as he hid his head in her skirts. “He was our friend when we were children. We’d like to hear the story of how he saved you.” She held out a bowl filled with steaming stew.

The other woman, with darker olive skin and long dark brown hair that matched her brown eyes, held out a platter of fruit and a flask of drink. “We bring gifts for your campsite.” Her two boys both had matching hair and skin, and their large dark brown eyes watched Jena and Nate carefully.

Jena took the offerings with a smile, and placed them to one side of the campfire. “It will make a delightful change from fish,” she said, and motioned for the women to sit next to their first guest. “We don’t have any more mugs for tea,” she said. “I can’t offer you proper fireside hospitality, I’m sorry.”

The dark haired woman nodded to the older of her sons, who ran off, presumably in search of mugs.

Instead of moving toward the proffered seat, both women stared up at the shimagni. The shifting, blue and violet glow from Rothell’s body was reflected on their faces, making it difficult to read their expressions. They all seemed fascinated by Rothell, but were still cautious.

“She won't hurt you,” said Nate, still standing on the other side of the campfire.

The blonde woman’s eyes sharpened, turning them to dark jewels in the firelight. She was a stunningly attractive woman. “I am not afraid. I simply wish to assess my surroundings.”

“A wise sentiment,” said Rothell softly in all their heads. The women jumped, and the youngest with her baby stood, stepping backward over the log. “I mean you no harm, please do not be afraid.”

“She is here to protect us, not harm us. You are wise to be cautious, but it is not necessary around Rothell.” Nate smiled up at Rothell as he spoke.

Jena sent out a tiny calming spell, and the three women shuffled and glanced at each other, before sitting back down on the log, ruffling their skirts to hide their nerves. The little blonde boys peeked out from behind their mother, curious eyes on the shimmering beast in front of them. 

The little dark haired boy arrived back, gasping big breaths—Jena had an idea he was afraid of missing something good—and holding four ceramic mugs. 

“Oh good. I can serve you tea while you listen to Nate’s story,” said Jena, smiling down at the young boy. He all but ignored her and stared over her shoulder at Rothell.

Jena managed to hold in the amused smile, and poured tea for her guests. With a creature like Rothell around, it was hard to compete for attention. One of the boys whispered in his mother’s ear, and she shook her head sternly.

It is all right. He can touch my side. I will not harm him.

This time, all three women, and all four children stared up at Rothell with matching expressions. This time no one moved.

“See, I told you,” said the little boy to his mother. “She said it was okay.”

“Come stand with me,” said Jena, holding out her hand to the boy. “My name is Jena. I’ll be your guide.” Jena looked to his mother for permission, the same as the boy.

She gave Jena a stern look, but at her son’s entreating face, she broke. “Fine. But do not get too close,” she said. 

The boy moved closer, one hand in Jena's and the other hand outstretched. "My name is Blane," he whispered, not taking his eyes off Rothell. 

"Nice too meet you," said Jena softly, not wanting to spook him. 

The other three boys moved away from their mothers and came forward too, almost like they were compelled. Jena had a feeling most people reacted to Rothell that way. Almost as one, they touched their hands to the shimmering skin on Rothell’s flank.

“It feels… like a cloud,” said the oldest boy. “It’s so soft.”

The dark haired woman stood. “Like a cloud you say?” She said, then walked cautiously over to Rothell. “With your permission,” she said to Rothell, bowing her head and holding out her hand hesitantly.

“Permission granted,” replied Rothell in all their heads. Her eyes wandered over to the other two women. “To all who are here.”

The woman with the baby stayed where she was, but the striking blonde woman stood and strode over. She touched Rothell’s body, and let out a soft exhalation of breath. “It’s soft. Not at all what I expected.” She looked up at Rothell’s head. “So beautiful.”

Rothell nodded regally, like she got compliments like that all the time. “Now, shall we have some tea and listen to the story?” she said.

Jena jumped into action, and set up the offered food on an overturned log, pleased that the distraction of Rothell had eased some of the tension around their campfire. 

The children grabbed a piece of the sweet forest berry each, and then settled close to their respective mothers, who cradled cups of tea in their hands. Jena piled a plate for both her and Nate, and placed his plate next to where he’d been sitting. 

He nodded his thanks and took a deep breath. She could see he was nervous, and wondered how much of the story he was actually going to tell them.

And then it was time for the storytelling to begin.


CHAPTER 25 - NATE 

Just as Nate opened his mouth on the first words, several more visitors walked into the circle of their campfire. Shy expressions and strong features were common among the new arrivals. Each had an offering of food, and they were all women. Nate hadn’t spent much time among the Utugani, but he hadn’t had the impression that the women were the leaders. It had always seemed like such a warrior-led society.

And yet here they were. Some were older and some younger, but all claimed some kind of kinship or friendship with Argus. Nate counted almost two dozen women around their campfire, even as more visitors trickled in. Each time, they brought more food with them, and each time, Jena and Nate welcomed them in. Soon they were helping themselves to the feast they had provided, and murmuring in low voices to each other. Most of the women had moved closer to touch Rothell’s hide—the shimagni had to be getting sick of the attention by now.

“I’m willing to put up with it, if it helps us in our quest,” said Rothell, presumably only in his head.

Nate gave her a nod that he hoped conveyed his thanks.

“Are they all telling the truth?” Nate asked Jena in an undertone at one point, as he chewed on a particularly delicious bread roll. “Were they all close to him?”

Jena looked around the campfire, taking in the faces in the flickering light. “Utugani are a very tight knit community. They usually spend a lot of time together, and family is more than just your parents. It’s the wider community too. He could easily have had the connections these women are saying he did.”

“Why is it only women and children? Where are the men?”

“I wonder if the men even know they’re here?” said Jena, amusement on her face.

“If it’s an initiation, you’d think they would.” He paused. “Maybe.”

“Maybe the men are guarding the Utugani? The fact that he’s unwell changes the usual protocols.”

Nate lifted one hand and rubbed at his chest, trying to soothe the uncomfortable feeling that had tightened inside. Argus had missed out on seeing his family, of hugging and kissing them, swapping stories and living with them again.

And it wasn’t just that he’d missed out this time. There was a chance that he’d never be able to do that again. The pressure to safe Argus felt like it was suffocating him.

“We should be trying to break the curse, not here, telling stories,” he whispered to Jena. “Why can’t they see that?” He clenched the fire ruby that held Argus inside his fist. Being in their midst, meeting Argus’s family, was breaking Nate's heart. He looked around at the increasingly crowded campfire. The women were laughing and joking, eating their food and waiting for him to begin. He pushed aside his fluctuating emotions. Nearby Jena simply watched him, her glowing form motionless, like she didn’t want to spook him.

“This is our initiation. We have to prove ourselves worthy of the information we seek,” she said softly.

“Do you think they can see our glow?”

“They're not commenting on it.” Jena gestured around her. “You'd better start the story. If this is a test, you need to impress them.”

Nate looked around at the women in various stages of eating and talking. He caught the eye of several who were obviously waiting for him to start. “No pressure,” he muttered.

“None at all,” agreed Jena, attempting to hide her half smile. She seemed far more relaxed than she had been since they’d landed with Rothell. Everything had happened so quickly, that they really hadn’t had a chance to catch their breath.

But he didn’t have time to worry about that right now. He had a story to tell.

He strode to one side of the campfire, placing the shimagni behind him, her violet and blue translucent body rising up off the ground, and providing a glittering backdrop. It would allow them to listen and watch the shimagni at the same time.

“Thank you for visiting us, and thank you for your kind gifts of food. We've eaten better tonight than we have in many weeks.”

There were murmurs from the crowd, many nodding their heads and accepting his thanks.

“You’re here to listen to the story of Argus, and how he saved my life. He actually saved my life, not once, but three times in the short time I knew him, and I can only thank you, his family and friends, for his great deeds.” Nate paused and looked around the faces at the campfire.

“Well done boy, you're a natural at this,” said Thornal approvingly.

Nate narrowed his eyes for a moment, ideas on how to get rid of the mage in his head flicking through his thoughts, before he continued. “The first time Argus saved me, he was only just in time. Deadly assassins had surrounded my house…” Nate continued to talk, weaving the story of their trip into the story of Argus, so they would understand what he had meant to them. When it came time to describe how Argus had been wounded and had ended up in the fire ruby, there were tears running down the faces of many in the audience. 

It was true love that had saved him, and cursed him at the same time. 

Nate’s gaze went to Jena; she watched him with dark eyes that glittered in the firelight. He knew she felt guilty for her part in putting Argus in danger. He wished he could convince her that it hadn't been her fault. 

There was silence around the campfire when he finished. “We brought him straight here to his family, hoping to get help.” He left out meeting the murghah, trying not to alarm them. He nodded to show he’d finished. “We have to find a way to break the curse and save him.” He swallowed hard, feeling like he should be doing something more, that he was wasting the extra time they’d been given to save Argus’s life by telling stories.

“This wastes nothing. We need these people to be on our side. Telling them this story is how we find out how to save him.” Rothell’s words inside his head were sharp. He flicked his gaze to her, and gave a quick acknowledgement. She was right. They needed the help of these people. 

His audience started chatting to their neighbors, talking about the story they had just heard. Nate had stuck to the truth as much as he could, and Argus had come out as the hero he was. The low murmuring was strangely soothing, and Nate let out a breath, relieved to no longer be the center of attention. 

In small groups, the visitors started leaving, thanking Nate and Jena for their hospitality as they left. Many were even brave enough to farewell the shimagni, who nodded graciously every time.

“You're a natural storyteller, mage.” An old woman leaned on the handle of an ornate cane, her gnarled hands almost translucent. Long grey hair was pulled back into intricate knots and her face was lined with age. But her smile was beautiful and Nate recognized the eyes. They were the same blue as Argus and Eldrin’s.

“Thank you. I was only stating the truth. Argus's actions speak for themselves.” He bowed respectfully.

“He was always a good boy, my grandson. Thank you for making him come alive for us again. We will do everything we can to reverse the curse and get him healed.” The old blue eyes filled with tears, but they didn't overflow. Whoever she was, this woman had pounds of self-control.

“Thank you.”

She nodded. “It does you credit, young man. As does the young woman who saved our Utugan.” She looked at Jena a moment. “Your sister, they say?” she said, her eyes narrowing on Jena.

Jena looked uncomfortable under the woman’s scrutiny. “Yes, she's a gifted healer.”

“And she loves Argus?”

Jena paused, perhaps startled by her perceptiveness. “Yes, she loves him.” 

Nate wondered for the first time if the Utugani might have banned Argus and Bree getting married if they’d arrived as they’d planned. Argus was of the royal line, there was probably some kind of rule about who he could marry. 

The old woman’s eyes glinted with those unshed tears. “At least he has love to keep him warm inside his fire ruby prison,” she said, then shuffled away, taking the arm of a younger woman.

Jena watched the old woman walk away. “They’re a tight knit community,” she whispered, her voice uneven. “I’d forgotten what that was like.”

“They all love him,” agreed Nate. "You could feel it." 

“And because of us, he’s cursed, maybe dying. I’m surprised they’re able to look us in the eye, let alone come out here and talk to us.” Jena held her mug of hot tea tightly in both hands. 

“Silly humans. They know you are his friends. You are his best hope for being saved.” The shimagni's voice rumbled in their heads.

“Let’s hope so.” Nate wished he could be so certain. 

“Do you doubt me?” The shimagni’s voice sharpened, and her shimmering scales darkened with dark purple and midnight blue.

“No, I don’t doubt you,” said Nate, holding out his hands in supplication. “But you’re the one they came to see, not me.”

“But they left with a story told with heart and truth that will stay with them, whatever happens. You gave them something special, Nate, and I believe it will stand us in good stead with the Utugani.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Nate.


CHAPTER 26 - JENA 

The Utugan's expression was stern, the lines on his face harsh in the bright early morning light. He looked older than he had the day before. He looked tall and ominous, standing at the edge of their small campsite. There were two younger guards standing at attention not far off. 

Jena shifted uncomfortably on the log she was sitting on and managed to swallow the bite of leftover bread cake that she’d been eating, attempting to look like someone the Utugani could trust. 

She risked a quick glance at Nate. He looked equally unprepared for this early morning visit. “Good morning…. Uh... Utugan. I hope you are well?” said Nate, before wincing. “Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.” Of course the Utugan wasn’t well, he’d collapsed the day before.  

“Come. We need to talk.” The Utugan looked sternly from Jena and Nate to Rothell, then turned and strode away towards the far end of the camp.

“That was awkward,” said Jena, taking another bite of her breakfast. 

“Maybe he’s decided to help us already?” said Nate. 

“Without us even asking for it?” Jena shook her head. “Something is going on.” She looked up at the shimagni, wondering how the enormous creature would fit into a tent. 

“I will wait here,” Rothell said softly. “Call me if you need me.” 

“Let’s go. We don’t want to keep him waiting,” said Nate. He absently touched the shirt pocket where he was keeping the fire ruby with Argus inside, kind of like he was reminding himself why they were on this quest. He turned and strode in the same direction as the Utugan. 

Running a little to catch up, Jena joined Nate as he walked toward their possible doom. She looked back over her shoulder at Rothell sitting serenely by their campsite. She wished the shimagni could come with them. At least then she’d feel safer. It felt like things could go either way with the Utugani, especially if they decided that Argus being inside the fire ruby was their fault. 

She knew how capricious the Utugani could be. 

In the distance, standing by a large pot over a fire, she saw Argus's grandmother watching them, a satisfied smile on her face. Jena smiled back briefly, but her nerves were tight at the thought of meeting with the Utugan. She rubbed her scarred hand, smoothing the bumpy skin between the fingers of her other hand. 

At the Utugan's tent, two guards glared down at them. 

“Are we allowed in?” asked Nate. “He did tell us to follow him.” 

One of the guards reluctantly pulled aside the hides and gestured for them to go inside. 

Jena ducked her head under the heavy material, entering a cave-like enclosed room. Lanterns lit the space from several corners. Thick leather hides covered the floors, and flowers poked out of metal urns. The Utugan put his arm wide and gestured for them to sit down on one of the chairs or large pillows in the room. A young girl with long dark hair offered them a steaming lemon drink and small chunks of bread and cheese on a wooden board. 

“This is my daughter, Ellie,” said the Utugan, gesturing to her. “She’s the light of my life.” The young girl blushed, and glanced at Jena and Nate. 

Jena saw something flicker across the girl's face and the skin on her face tightened. She hated it when she noticed people seeing her scars for the first time. It always made her self conscious. 

But Ellie was obviously too practiced at receiving guests to falter for long. “How do you do?” she said as she smiled sweetly, her initial expression wiped away. Jena made herself relax, smiling back and holding out her hand in greeting. The young girl shook both their hands, and then with a curtsy to her father, slipped out of the tent. 

They were left along with the Utugan, and his two guards. The Utugan sat down in one of the large chairs covered in furs. Jena and Nate moved closer and sat down across from him. 

“We need to talk about many things,” said the Utugan, his words clipped. “But first, you need to tell me what happened to my son and how we can save him.” 

His expression was haunted and Jena’s heart clenched in her chest. His pain was her fault. Eldrin had come back to his father with the news that Argus would be returning home, and now he’d been taken from him again. “I’m so sorry,” she blurted. “We allowed ourselves to be tricked by the Mage Remus. We should have known better.” Her guilt hung like a ridiculous cloak around her, uncomfortable and tight. If she’d been more savvy, if she’d just thought about it, she’d have realized it was too dangerous, that Remus wasn’t on their side. 

“My son was a grown man. I do not blame you for his…” he gestured toward the fire ruby that was now in Nate’s palm. “…current state. But I do wish to do everything I can to ensure his safe return.” 

Nate cleared his throat. “I’ve been told that he has approximately fourteen moons, give or take a night. That was two nights ago, so we’re down to twelve moons. We need to find a way to fix the curse and heal him, and we need it now.” 

“I don’t think my people know how to stop a curse from a lavaen,” says the Utugan. “I can talk with some of our elders, see if any of them are aware of such a thing.” 

“She was once a witch,” said Jena softly. “She was turned into a fire creature by her lover, the Mage Remus.” 

The Utugan raises his eyebrows, like the craziness of witches and mages is beyond his ken. “As I said, it is not something I have personal experience with. I will find one of our people who can help.” He hesitates. “If we have no answers, what is your next plan?” 

“We need to go to the Flame City. To complete our original quest.” 

“Eldrin tells me you plan to confront Lothar. I would like to ensure you succeed.” 

I raise my eyes to his face in surprise. “You want to help us take on Lothar?” I’m so used to thinking of it as a fools errand, I’m suspicious of anyone who decides to help.

“Lothar has become a problem for many in Ignisia.” 

Jena’s skin prickled and her burns seemed to harden. This was a reminder that confronting Lothar was about more than just revenge for Thornal’s death; it was about the whole kingdom.  

“What have you heard?” asked Nate, his eyes fixed intently on the Utugan. 

“He destroyed an entire village south of here. There were no survivors. Terrible beasts are roaming; a black winged horse, and wolvans have been seen. Even the Flame City is suffering at his hands. I had never thought to wish for King Harad back.” 

Jena pondered her drink, her thoughts swirling. “What are your plans?” she asked, looking up to watch the Utugan's expression as he replied.  

He looked... worried. Not obviously, but there was a strain around his eyes, a certain tightness to his mouth that spoke of fear for his people. “The Utugani must rise up against Lothar," he said carefully, like they were words he'd said before. "And hope they will be supported by those in the prophecy.” 

Jena swallowed. He was talking about the Rose prophecy. The very prophecy that Miara had said they were all involved in. 

Outcasts unite, the Flames burn bright, and the Way will continue. 

“How much do you know about the prophecies?” asked Jena. 

“We have our own prophecies to guide us. We believe Lothar will turn against the Utugani people next, and we must stop him.”  

“How do you intend to help?” Nate's voice was brisk, but his face was paler than usual. Jena knew he didn't like the talk of the prophecy. 

The Utugan nodded and smiled. His eyes were set deep in his face, and he looked tired. “To begin, we can provide you with the travel rations and clothes you so obviously lack,” he said with a glance up and down each of them. 

Jena looked down at herself self-consciously. She rubbed at a smudge of ash on her trousers. She knew she was dirty with ash and blood, and had multiple rips and holes in her clothes. They hadn't had much time to clean up properly. “Thank you,” she said with a twist to her mouth. 

“We also intend to travel to the Flame City. Some, the youngest and the oldest, will move west of here into the hills. Those able to fight will join me on the road to Flame City. We must move quickly, before the coronation next week. There is a reckoning coming for Lothar and we intend to be part of it.” 

“A reckoning?” 

“As is stated in the prophecies.” 

Jena glanced at Nate. How much did he believe in the prophecies? Thornal made me learn them forwards and backwards, but I wasn’t sure how much I trusted that they’d be able to guide us. Or save us. 

“We can also help you get into the city, and we have contacts who will be useful.” 

“When will you be ready to leave?” asked Nate. “If you can’t help with Argus, Flame City is the next best place to find a mage who might be able to help us cure his curse.”

“We can start breaking camp straight away. My men will be ready to leave by nightfall. It will only be as long as it takes us to ensure the safety of our more vulnerable folk. I will leave Eldrin in charge of the women and children while I lead our soldiers to the city on horseback.” He pauses, a chagrined expression on his face. “He won’t like it, but I am the Utugan. It is up to me.”  

Jena nodded. “In return, we’ll help you pack up here, before we leave.” She folded her hands in her lap. At least they could help others survive. 

I can carry supplies to this new camp. The shimagni spoke into their heads from her position outside. Jena jumped slightly—she hadn’t been expecting it. 

The Utugan blinked, but was quick to mask his confusion. "Thank you for your offer.” 

Jena rubbed her arms, looking around the darkened room. Ellie had returned to the room and was sitting in one corner, her large eyes taking in their discussion. 

How were they going to save the Kingdom? They didn't even have a plan. They'd been told that it was up to Nate to save Ignisia from Lothar. But they had no idea how. A Firecaller who hadn't been trained and a gypsy with the Book of Spells in her head who wanted to be a mage, but would probably end up dead before she could cast anything. 

Not exactly auspicious. 

Nothing like the heroes of prophesy. 


CHAPTER 27 - JENA 

Jena folded one side of the small tent into another, and laid it on the ground. Next to her, Nate was bringing in his half, as they'd been shown. They folded the two halves yet again, and ended with a neat pile. Together they carried it to the covered wagon where it was all being packed. They had been folding and collapsing and carrying for more than half the day. Nate looked as exhausted as she felt. The only break she'd had was a whispered conversation with Bree to make sure she was okay and not being forced to do anything she didn't want to do. 

"I'm fine, Jena. Truly I am. They're being very good to me," she'd insisted. 

Jena sighed. Somehow Jena had ended up as the personal healer for the Utugan, and Jena and Nate had ended up doing physical labor. 

“Here you go, Catarina, this is the last of it.” Jena felt awkward using Argus’s grandmother’s first name, but the old woman had insisted when they had been assigned to help her.

“Thank you. I can manage from here. See if there’s any dinner for you at the main campfire. I’ll be along soon.” Catarina smiled at them, her lined face flushed from the effort of packing, her hair tucked out of the way beneath a richly patterned grey and black scarf. The old woman had worked just as hard as they had. She must be just as exhausted, yet she didn’t show it.

“Thank you,” said Jena, rolling her aching shoulder muscles. “You're going to stop soon as well?”

“Very soon. I have a couple more small things to sort out. Your hard work for me is appreciated. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you both,” said Catarina, nodding her head in a formal manner.

“It’s been an honor to help you, and get to know you as well, Catarina.” Jena realized she meant every word. These people were friendly, loyal and hardworking. She was having trouble matching them with her memories of the hearth where she was raised.

“What are you thinking about so seriously?” asked Nate, glancing at her as they walked towards the smell of cooking meat.

“The Utugani who raised me. You’ve heard me talk about them. They were nothing like the people we’ve met here.”

“Every people, every possible race has good and bad. I'm sure there are some good people here, and some capable of doing very bad things.”

“Argus was insistent that I not sully the Utugani name, and perhaps he was right. They are more good than bad.”

“Think of it like this: at least your own family isn’t trying to kill you.”

Jena looked up into his eyes. It wasn't self-pity. He was trying to cheer her up. She smiled, a ghost of a curl on one side, and he grinned back.

“Speaking of family,” he said. “The delightful mage in my head, your grandfather, has been badgering me about what we are going to do next. He’s not what I’d call patient.”

Jena shook her head. She’d almost forgotten about Thornal. He’d been quiet all day. She straightened her spine. If Nate could deal with Thornal living inside his head all the time, she could deal with the ghosts of her past. “If the Utugan can't find anyone to help with Argus's curse, Flame City is our next best option to save Argus." 

"Agreed. We focus on Argus first, then our other problem." 

"He's not going to magically stop attacking us because we have another problem now," said Jena, a warning in her voice. "We’re going to have to confront Lothar at some point very soon. The coronation is in less than two weeks." 

"Which means it's even more important that we find a way to break Argus's curse, and fast." 

"Then it's settled. We have a destination and a timeframe. We just need a plan.”

“We have to find out more, first,” said Nate. “If we're part of the prophecy, we need to find out in what way.”

“What does Thornal say?”

“That he can’t help with this,” said Nate. “But he says that there is a possibility the royal Utugani line may have knowledge that will help break the curse.”

Jena looked at Nate in surprise. “The Utugan said he didn't know anything.”

“Perhaps they’re testing us? To see if we’re worthy?”

Jena made a face. “We don’t have time to prove we’re worthy. Argus could be dead before we can prove that to anyone.” She looked curiously at Nate. “What kind of knowledge?”

“Thornal says they have ancient memories, passed down through the generations, hidden from sight.”

Jena raised her eyebrows. “Will they trust us with their secrets?”

“We’ll make them trust us.” Nate’s voice turned hard, and Jena nodded. He was right. They had no choice. 

"It might be easier said than done," she said softly. 

“We’ll find a way.” Nate put an arm around Jena’s shoulders, and gave her a quick hug.

Jena relaxed into his comforting arm for a moment. She felt so confused, being here with the Utugani. It was harder than she'd expected. Leaning a little into Nate's embrace felt decadent, but also necessary to her peace of mind. She savored it for a moment longer, then resolutely moved away. 

In all likelihood she wouldn't make it past their journey to Flame City, and she had to concentrate on making sure her death was worthwhile. 

They had to destroy Lothar and put the true king—Nate—in his place. No matter how much the true king resisted the notion.

“So who do we go to for this secret information? How do we arrange it?”

Nate shrugged. “We should talk to Argus’s grandmother first. She liked us.”

“So we convince her to tell us her deepest, darkest secrets, which have been covertly passed down through the royal line for centuries?” Jena paused. “Should be easy.”

Nate smiled as they arrived at the busy campsite. “No problem at all,” he said. “But first, let’s eat. I’m starving.”

***

As they sat eating stew in the main campsite, Jena considered the people around them. Aside from those who were eating, most were still working to break camp at short notice. Even the youngest children were helping their parents by carrying items, or running messages. Close by a group of men worked together around one of the bigger tents. Their movements were fluid and sure as they pulled it down.

“One, two, three, lift,” shouted the leader. They all grunted their replies as they hefted the heavy poles. 

“They work together well,” she said to Nate.

“They have to,” he replied. “They wouldn’t survive if they didn't."

“My gypsy hearth fought all the time, about everything. I can't imagine them being able to organize something like this.”

“Not everyone can do it.”

“Argus told me they weren't like other Utugani hearths. That some had more morals and wouldn’t have sold a young girl. I didn’t believe him. I told him I did, but I really didn’t. Turns out, he was right.”

“You were speaking from your own experience,” said Nate, his dark eyes burning with flame for a moment. “That’s all we can do. My family—my grandparents and my aunts and uncles—sent me away as soon as they could. But I think now that it was because I reminded them of my mother; it was too painful for them. They might not have done the right thing, but it doesn’t mean they were all bad.” He paused. “Well, some of them are. That might have been a bad example.” He smiled wryly down at her.

Jena shook her head. “You turned out well, despite it all.”

“I do my best,” said Nate, with a mocking bow of his head. “There was a time when you would have said I’d turned out like a rotten piece of fruit.”

“You’ve since shown your true character, underneath all that rotten fruit,” said Jena with a small smile.

“And you turned out well for someone who didn't know what the Utugani were truly like.”

Jena raised an eyebrow. “I had a mage who pulled me back into line,” she said.

“Don't say things like that! I'll never hear the end of it from him. It’s bad enough now, with him going on in my head about the spells I need to learn.”

“He was always doing that to me as well. He can’t help himself.”

A throat cleared behind them. “May we join you?” asked a voice.

Jena turned and looked up into the afternoon sunlight, squinting her eyes. It was Catalina. Beside her was a large woman with graying red hair and a bright scarf.

At first, Jena smiled at the women, not recognizing the second woman.

And then it hit her like a boulder to the face; something about the way the woman tilted her head. Or maybe it was how she walked? 

“Elsa,” Jena whispered, her throat closing on any other words. She struggled to take a breath. Pain slithered its way along her burned skin, like a sly old friend.

The woman nodded jerkily. “Yes, it’s me, Jena.”

Jena shook her head in denial, closing her eyes and trying to shake away the memories and the ghosts, to unsee the person who was standing in front of her. She opened her eyes again, but Elsa still stood next to Catalina, a pleading look on her face.

“Jena, I’m so sorry,” she whispered, tears starting to flow down her cheeks. “Please forgive me.”

Jena sneered. 

Elsa had let her son sell Jena. Had let him push her into the fire, had let him hurt her. She wanted nothing to do with her. “What is she doing here?” asked Jena, glaring at Catalina.

“I recognized Elsa from your description earlier, my dear. I thought she should be given a chance to explain her actions.”

“Explain...?" Jena looked between the two old women. "She betrayed me. She doesn't get to explain." 

"Everyone deserves the opportunity to explain their actions," says Catalina calmly. 

"How do you explain burning a child? How do you explain selling her before she’d even healed?” Jena's words burst out of her, fast and furious and raw, desperate to have Catalina understand why it was such a bad idea. 

"I didn't—I wasn't—" Elsa can't seem to form a sentence. 

Jena’s breathing had become short and sharp. She couldn’t get quite enough air into her body. Just as everything was starting to go blurry, she felt the warmth of Nate's large hand on her back. He nudged her forward, until she was leaning over her knees. She immediately felt better. Jena concentrated on the trampled grass on the ground, trying to ignore the feet of the women just in front of her.

“I can see I should have warned you,” said Catalina. “But I know Elsa. I knew she would want to see you again." 

"You're assuming I wanted to see her," muttered Jena. Nate’s hand warmed on her back, the heat spreading across her rib cage and down into her stomach. She concentrated on that warmth, rather than the weak woman in front of her. 

“Is there somewhere more private we could go?” she heard Nate ask as if from a long way away.

She knew he was trying to help, but Jena shook her head frantically. She didn't want to go anywhere else. Elsa had betrayed her. She could still feel the deep cracks that had formed inside her when they'd sold her. They were buried deep inside, some of them mended over by Thornal and her life since then. But mostly, they were gaping sores inside her that would never be healed.

Nate rubbed her back and leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Better to do this in private, Jena, than where everyone can watch. You have to face her. I’ll be right by your side the whole time.”

No! screamed a voice inside her.



CHAPTER 28 - JENA 

She stayed curled forward, comforted by the act of hugging her own body. She wasn’t going anywhere with this woman. 

“A wound that’s ignored will fester,” said Catarina, her elderly voice wavering. 

“This wound is well past festering,” muttered Jena against her knees. “It rotted and died long ago.” 

Elsa made a tiny noise of distress. Jena clenched her fists, hating that part of her wanted to make Elsa feel better. To tell her it was fine. 

It wasn’t fine. It would never be fine. “You sold me into slavery,” whispered Jena, her voice hoarse. “You deserve nothing from me.” 

Nate rubbed one hand over her back, as if trying to soothe an anxious horse. He didn’t say anything, seemed to know that there was nothing to say. 

Catarina didn’t have the same knowledge. “If you don’t want your personal information aired out in front of everyone, I suggest that you do as we ask, and find somewhere private.” Her voice was stern, like she was talking to a recalcitrant child. 

Jena looked up and glared at Catarina. “We’re not talking about some innocent act that can ever be forgotten. These burns,” she gestured at her face and body, “are a direct result of this woman’s neglect. My life as a child slave was because of her. If you’re expecting some kind of happy resolution here, you’re going to be disappointed.” Her voice was practically a growl by the time she finished speaking. She lifted her head and glared at Catarina. To think she’d actually liked the woman after spending time together this morning. Not any more. Not after this piece of meddling. 

“I simply want you to face your demons,” says Catarina. “They hold you back from your true potential. Then I will leave you be.” 

Jena lifted one hand and ran her palm along the lumpy burned skin on her face. Could she sit and listen to Elsa talk about how she was innocent? That she hadn’t known what her son was doing? 

Did she have a choice? They needed the Utugani. And like it or not, Catarina was a powerful member of the hearth. She couldn’t completely alienate her, no matter how much she wanted to. She glanced at Nate. He wouldn’t expect her to do anything against her will, but they’d just discussed how they needed the Utugani royalty onside. 

Her hand rubbed over the knotted scars on her neck. The skin, even after all these years, was still very sensitive. But it was a reminder that she was strong. It was a reminder that she was a survivor. That she never gave up. It was a reminder that she had survived worse than a conversation with an old lady. 

She took a deep breath and lifted her head. Looking up at Elsa, she nodded. “Somewhere private, then.” 

“My... my wagon is just over here,” said Elsa. 

Jena looked over to where she was gesturing, and experienced another jolt. It was the same traveling wagon she’d lived in as a child. The wooden side panels were painted the same bright and cheerful red with yellow trim, although the wagon was now in much better condition than she remembered from her childhood. Flowers grew at the windowsills. A grey horse chewed on grass to one side. 

She hesitated for a moment longer, desperately not wanting to be reminded of her old life. But she’d survived worse. This was just bad memories. She could overcome that. 

Jena followed the two older women, walking slowly, but with care. One leg in front of the other. That was how it was done. She felt the comforting warmth of Nate's hand on her back, and took another breath, managed another step. 

She could do this. 

As they got closer, she took in more and more of the details of the old wagon. The intricately carved trim on the eaves of the roof was as familiar to her as her own hand, and the window sill even still had the scratch from when she’d fallen while climbing out one time. Wordlessly, she followed Elsa and Catarina up the tiny uneven steps into the cramped interior. It was exactly as she remembered it, down to the same curtains and the hand woven rug on the floor. Was she dreaming? Lost in a memory, as she had been earlier? She pinched her arm. No, still awake. 

“Please, sit down. Over there, do you remember?” Elsa's voice was pleading, almost begging her to be kind. Jena saw the small benches and table attached to the walls, remembered sitting and playing cards, eating and joking with Elsa. Her mouth hardened. It was easy to be sad after you'd sold a child. Regret was a wonderful thing. She stayed standing, even when Elsa and Catarina sat down. Nate stayed behind her, supporting her, a solid presence that was the only thing keeping her sane right now. 

“Where’s Otis?” she said, deliberately taunting. She wished he would appear so she could show him what it was like to fight an adult. 

“He’s… He’s dead, Jena. Killed.” 

Her eyes went swiftly up to Elsa’s. “Who killed him?” 

Elsa sighed. “He picked one too many fights. Someone landed a punch that sent him to the other side.” 

“When?” 

“A few years ago now.” 

“He got what he deserved.” 

Elsa opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She nodded. “I suppose he did. He was my son, but he wasn’t a good man. I’m sorry Jena, for what he did to you. For what it’s worth, I tried to protect you.” 

Jena sneered. “No, you didn’t. You don’t get that salve to your conscience. You knew what he was. You let him bully me, you let him burn me, then you stood by while he sold me to the highest bidder. That’s not protection.” Jena spoke clearly and precisely, making every word count. “That’s collusion.” 

A mottled red flush spread up Elsa's neck and onto her face. “I didn’t know what had happened until it was too late. I didn’t let him sell you. He told me you’d run away, and I believed him, because…” Tears were streaking down Elsa’s face, and she reached up to wipe them away. 

“Because it was easier? Easier than having to stand up to your jealous and irrational son?” 

She swallowed. “You always knew how to make him angry; you always seemed to do just what was required to push him over the edge—” 

Nate interrupted with a growl. “She was a child! Don't try to put the blame on Jena. He was a grown man who picked on a young girl,” he said angrily. “If that’s why we’re here, we’re leaving.” Nate put an arm around Jena, and she pressed her face into his chest, grateful that he was here. She leaned her head on his chest, momentarily taking comfort from his defense of her. She’d thought she could handle anything, but she wasn’t ready to hear Elsa defending herself like this. Blaming her. 

“Oh no. No, no, no,” said Elsa, her voice wavering. “I wasn't blaming Jena. I didn’t mean it like that. Otis just wouldn’t see reason when it came to her. Looking back, I can see he was jealous. He’d been my only child for so long. I spoiled him. I know I did. And he took it out on Jena. My sweet baby Jena.” 

Jena looked back over her shoulder at Elsa, unsure what to make of her words. Tears had filled the old woman’s eyes. “When he burned you…” Great gasping sobs emerged from the old woman’s mouth, her flesh patches of red and white, the sagging skin of her fat lined face jiggling as she cried. 

Jena stood, cold and silent, refusing to be moved by Elsa’s remorse. Catalina stood silently beside Elsa, her dark eyes wide. She clearly hadn’t been expecting this level of emotion. Jena glared at her. This was her fault. 

Elsa gulped, and took a deep breath, wiping her tears away with a hand covered in silver rings. “When he burned you, I thought you were going to die. I still don't know how you survived such burns. But you did. It was then I realized he would kill you. I couldn't bear it, so I tried to back away, to make it seem like I loved you less than I did. I was trying to protect you." 

“You just succeeded in helping him convince everyone I was bad luck, that I had caused all the problems in our campsite, not him.” Jena paused, her stomach roiling and her throat thick with emotion. “And you convinced me that you didn't love me any more. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong.” As soon as she’d said them, Jena wanted to take the words back. They held so much pain, they showed too much of what she’d gone through. She didn’t want this woman to know how badly she’d been hurt. 

“I did love you! I did. He lied to me. I would never have let them sell you. Never.” Elsa took a deep breath. “I don’t expect you to forgive me, but please believe me. I did love you. I still do.”  

Jena shook her head, refusing to believe her. “You let him. You wanted his lies because they were easier than the truth, the truth that you knew in your heart.” Jena fought to stay afloat in the emotions that were fighting for control inside her. Mostly she was angry, hurt and devastated. She wanted to throw her fists and cast spells all around her, destroying everything in the small wagon that she remembered so well. It was so familiar it hurt. “You knew what he was, what he did to me. And you let him.” 

Jena said the words like a mantra, repeating what she knew to be true. But there was also another tiny part of her, an echo of that scared and lonely child she’d been, who heard the declaration of love and wanted to believe. Wanted to fall back into the arms of the woman who had meant so much to her—before she’d been sold as a slave by her son. 

But that part of her was small. 

Insignificant. 

Mostly she knew the truth. That Elsa didn’t protect a young child like she should have. That she didn't try hard enough. That she may as well have been the one to push Jena into the fire, because she’d allowed Otis to become so bold he thought he could get away with it. That she may as well have been the one to pocket the gold that Otis had taken for Jena—hell, she probably had pocketed some of it, even if she’d been unaware—because she’d believed what Otis had told her without questioning him. 

Elsa was weak.  

Elsa didn’t deserve her love.

CHAPTER 29 - JENA 

And perhaps that was it. The answer she’d been searching for all this time.

“You’re weak,” whispered Jena, almost wonderingly. “That’s why you let it happen.” She shivered, the hairs on her arms rising in reaction. As a child, she’d never properly seen the flawed woman who stood in front of her now.

But now, as an adult, she could see that Elsa really was weak, had always been that way. She would always take the easy road, the path of least resistance. In her memories of Elsa, she’d always seemed all knowing, all powerful. She’d always known best, so when she’d betrayed Jena it had seemed so much worse. Jena had wondered for a long time what was wrong with her. Why Otis had picked on her, why Elsa didn’t tell him to stop, and why she’d been so easily discarded by her Utugani family. She’d blamed herself, assumed that it was something she’d done, something about who she was. She’d been left flawed and broken, scarred down one side of her body.

Who would want someone so disfigured?

Certainly not Elsa.

Definitely not the Utugani.

Jena had seen herself as damaged and unwanted. It had formed her, made her wary of others and afraid to love again. Thornal was the first person she’d dared to care about after that, and it had take years before his unruffled disposition allowed her to believe he might not throw her away.

But if the problem was Elsa, then it changed everything. Maybe Jena wasn’t to blame. Maybe she wasn’t quite as much of an outcast as she’d thought herself to be.

“I never wanted to hurt you,” Elsa insisted. “Please believe that I wouldn't have let him sell you. I would have stood up to him.”

“You didn't stand up to him when he pushed me into the fire.”

Elsa’s gaze shifted away. “He—He said it was an accident.”

Jena’s gaze jerked to Elsa, whose face had sagged like a wrinkled old mushroom kept too long in the storage basket. “But you knew it wasn’t.”

Elsa looked back at Jena, her tear-filled eyes beseeching. “Not until long after. He let it slip once you’d been gone a few months.” She reached out one hand, then dropped it. “By then it was too late. You’d left me.” Elsa's voice was almost petulant and Jena saw a moment of anger in her face.

The old woman had believed Jena had deserted her. Otis had always been good at manipulation. He’d managed to convince her, too, and Elsa hadn’t been able to think past the belief that Jena had left without saying goodbye.

“So you blamed me, yet again? You knew what Otis was like, but you believed him when he said I’d run away? You thought I’d run away by myself, when I hated to sleep with no one else in the wagon? When I was scared of the dark?” It had been a result of the constant bullying from Otis, and maybe even from the long-forgotten knowledge that there should have had another little girl sleeping nearby. She should never have been alone. She should have grown up in the comfort and safety of a home with a sister who looked just like her.

“I didn’t think. I…”

“You didn’t want to think. You believed Otis, even though you knew what he was like,” Jena whispered. “I had to learn to survive, scared and alone, in the household of a stranger who paid Otis a pittance for me to be the lowliest of the slaves in his home. I was kicked and shoved and spat on, given the worst of the worst possible tasks, and expected to keep waking up each day and continue on. It made me strong, but by the Gods, it was soul-destroying. And you are directly to blame for that. You, Elsa.” Jena knew she was ranting, but she couldn’t help it. She needed Elsa to know and understand what had happened to her, what she had done. It wasn’t enough to be sorry. She had to understand.

Elsa looked like she’d seen a ghost and even Catarina blanched at Jena’s words. Argus’s grandmother clearly wasn’t expecting any of this when she organized the reunion.

“I wish I’d left you by the road where I found you,” muttered Elsa.

The words were spoken softly but they pierced a knife right through Jena’s flesh, all the way to her heart. She choked out a sound, her throat strangled with emotion.

“That’s enough,” growled Nate. “We’re done here. All you’ve done is made this worse. Catarina, I appreciate the intention you had behind this, but we're not going to take any more.” Nate turned Jena around and ushered her toward the door. Jena tried to take comfort from his warmth, of his protection of her, but all she could think was that she’d been right after all. Elsa hadn’t wanted her. She’d thrown her away like a sack of green potatoes.

Elsa pushed herself to standing and took a hesitant step forward, arm outstretched, tears running down her red face. “No! No! Not because I regret knowing you, loving you, Jena. Because Catarina tells me your sister had a much better life than the one I gave you. All you had from me was pain and suffering at the hands of my son.” Tears were flowing down her face. “I’m sorry. So very sorry.”

Nate hesitated by the door. Jena lifted her head and peered cautiously at Elsa. She sounded sincere. Butterflies fought each other inside her stomach. Was it real?

Elsa went to a small cupboard above the food prep area, pulling out a carved wooden box. Opening the lid, Elsa drew out a chain with a silver amulet. She held out the amulet to Jena. “This is yours. I was going to give it to you when you were a little older. But I never had the chance.” She dropped a silver raven pendant into the hand Jena reluctantly held out.

The power hit her immediately, compelling and…familiar. The potent magic swirled over her, insistent and forceful. Jena recoiled back and almost dropped the necklace before she managed to steady herself. She took a breath, balanced out her reaction, pushed the magic away. Then finally she looked down at the silver raven in her palm. It was her father's amulet. The one that was supposed to be protecting her, as the wooden owl amulet had protected Bree. It was intricately designed, with the wings outstretched, reminding her of the raven that curled around her stomach. Her tattoo shuffled against her skin in response.

The dark eyes of the amulet seemed to understand her, and she somehow recognized the piercing gaze. That night, or some part of it, skittered across her mind. She felt rain, heard howls in the distance. Felt the kiss of her mother, the brush of her father's hand. The heavy silver placed on her chest. She’d fought it. Somehow she’d known their parents were leaving them, and she’d fought it.

Even then, she’d struggled against the way things had to be. She’d battled against the inevitable. And look where it had got her. On an impossible mission to fight a powerful enemy, with a skill that would probably get her killed.

“I have to think,” said Jena, her mind whirling painfully. “This is too much.” She’d expected it to be difficult to be here among the Utugani, but she hadn’t expected to meet Elsa again. To be given this piece of her father, or a memory of that night. Her mind felt overly full, swirling with confusing emotions. She pushed past Nate, and ran out of the small cramped wagon. She felt rather than saw Nate following behind her, running almost step for step.

She ran without thinking, trying to outrun the hurt and desolation. She thought she’d overcome the feelings of being sold, of being deserted by the woman who raised her. But it seemed she’d just buried it deep down, hidden it from the light. And now, the gaping wound in her chest had resurfaced, fetid and rotten. As much as she wanted to believe it was all because Elsa was shallow and spineless, there was a ragged, angry part of Jena that believed she was damaged.

So she kept running as fast as she could until she couldn’t run any more, until her breath came in loud gasps and she was so dizzy she saw stars. She was near the river, a spot along the edge that was protected by trees and grass, and a long distance from the Utugani camp. She collapsed onto the ground, still clutching the silver raven, and pulled her knees up to her chin, wrapping her arms tight around her legs. It was like she was trying to physically hold in all the emotions, trying to control the tide that was threatening to break loose.

Moments later Nate sat down beside her. He didn’t say anything at first, he was breathing as heavily as she was, catching his breath. And then he stayed silent, waiting for her reaction. She shuddered, and he put an arm around her, lending her some of his warmth. She leaned into him, too far gone to say no.

“It’s a lot to take in,” he said eventually.

“Yes.”

“She seemed to mean what she said. She wasn’t lying.” Nate said the words softly, tentatively. “She loved you.”

Jena shook her head in immediate rejection of his words. “She should have fought harder. She should have protected me more. She was an adult, and she let me take the brunt of Otis’s rages.”

“You're strong, Jena. And you stand up for what you believe in. But not everyone is as strong as you are. Sometimes people just want an easy life. They just want as few waves in the pond as possible.”

He was defending Elsa? “She let him hurt me,” she whispered brokenly, her voice raw. The words seemed to echo across the water. Jena couldn’t find the energy to pull away from Nate, but she wanted to.

Nate tightened his arm around her shoulder, like he knew what she was thinking. “I’m not saying that what she did was right. It was terrible. I wish I could have been there to protect you from it. But she seemed sincere. In her way, I think she loved you. And I don't think she had any part in Otis selling you. At least not consciously.”

A crack inside Jena broke, like an earthquake erupting inside her body, and she cried out, clutching the silver raven to her chest. The dam she’d been trying to hold in had finally broken.

Heat rushed up her body, her face crumpled, and painful tears fled down her cheeks. She couldn’t hold in the gasping sobs that wracked her body. Everything felt broken and uneven. Her skin was too tight, and her scars ached. The raven moved uncomfortably.

It was all too much.

She turned to Nate, scrunching herself up against his solid warm chest. He held her tight as she cried, great wrenching sobs that felt like they were breaking her apart.


CHAPTER 30 - NATE 

Nate held Jena long after her sobs had ceased. He thought she'd fallen asleep, she was so still and silent, and he tried to hold himself still as well, to let her rest. He hated to see her so upset, to feel the pain she’d experienced as a child. He really did wish he could have been there with her, to have protected her from Elsa’s son, and the terrible things he’d done to her. He couldn’t imagine being sold to a stranger by the people who were supposed to love and take care of you. 

“Thank you,” she said after a while, her voice low and raw. She pulled back out of his arms, and he reluctantly let her. Her face was pale, and her dark eyes stood out. She looked like a ghost. 

“Any time,” he said, and he meant it like a vow. He hoped she couldn’t hear what he was really saying. She would probably run away scared. 

She sighed. “You always seem to be looking after me when things go wrong.” 

“Right place, right time.” Nate pushed down the other words that were clamoring inside his head, trying to be heard. It wasn’t the right time to be asking for more. She needed a friend. Someone to help her through this. “You feel any better?” 

She nodded. “It was just too much all at once.” 

“Catarina meant well.”

“I didn’t tell her who gave me the burns, or what Otis was really like. She thought it was just a silly misunderstanding.” 

“At least you know Elsa wasn’t part of it. That she didn’t know.” Nate watched Jena’s face as she considered his words. Her skin was blotchy and red from crying, and her scars ran down her face like a river, but she had never seemed so strong, or so beautiful, as she grappled with her past, and tried to make sense of this new reality. 

Jena sighed. “I believe she thinks that. But I meant what I said,” she said. “She knew what Otis was like, and she still believed him. When she deserted me like that, it hurt far worse than anything Otis had ever done.” 

Nate heard the undercurrent, even if Jena didn't. Her younger self had wondered what she'd done wrong, just like he had at the same age. She’d blamed it on herself, like she was the problem. “Now you know that Elsa didn't betray you. Not on purpose. At least you know it wasn’t you in any way.”

“She survived something that not everyone could.” Thornal’s voice was soft. “She’s stronger for it. And she’s more Utugani than Elsa or Otis.” 

Nate’s heart lurched into his throat as soon as Thornal spoke. He’d forgotten the ghost for a moment. How much could he hear...? 

“Don’t worry, son. I can’t tell anyone while I’m stuck in here.”

Nate swallowed hard, and had to force himself to continue the conversation, to help Jena, despite the nosy mage inside his head. “Jena—” 

A distant scream broke the tranquil setting, and Nate jerked back, turning to look behind them. “What the hell was—”

More screams filled the air, and Nate and Jena both scrambled to their feet.  

“It sounds like it’s coming from the Utugani camp,” said Jena. “Come on.” 

Together they sprinted back the way they’d just come. A roaring screech filled the air near the camp, and Nate ran even faster, pushing his body. If only they hadn’t run so far. It had seemed like a good idea, to let Jena run herself out. But now all he could think about was the young kids he’d watched playing around the tents this morning as they’d packed up. The women and shy young children who’d come to listen to the story of how Argus had saved him. 

Smoke filled the air as they got closer to the camp, and Nate’s breath hitched. What the hell was happening? It sounded like something was attacking the camp. He heard a familiar cry, and knew that Rothell had taken the to the air to fight whatever it was. It didn’t make him feel better. It meant that whatever was attacking the Utugani was something that Rothell didn’t think they could handle on their own. Beside him, Jena was gasping for breath, but she didn’t let up, any more than he did. They’d made too many friends in a short amount of time to be anything but desperate to get back to them and help. 

They burst through the trees and into the clearing to find the camp in total chaos. At least ten large winged creatures were flying around above the camp, ripping anything that looked breakable with their large claws, pulling the camp apart. They looked like a mage spell gone wrong, somehow mixing a giant insect with a lion. They had six hairy legs with paws like a lion’s at the end, and insect wings that flicked them about like flies. They had the head of a lion and blank golden eyes that seemed to see everything and nothing at the same time. 

People were running around, attempting to save their belongings while staying out of the way of the flying creatures and their sharp claws. Utugani warriors were throwing spears, but the creatures seemed to know exactly when to move to avoid being hit. 

“What the hell are they?” asked Nate. 

“Barker lions,” said Jena, her voice breaking in the middle. 

“What does the book say about them?”

“They’re—They’re…” Jena took a shuddering breath and started again. “They don’t usually attack by themselves. They’re carrion animals, they usually take the dead and dying left by predators.” 

“Does that mean something else is here too?” 

“Maybe. Or maybe Lothar is forcing them outside of their normal instincts, like he did with the Murghah. She didn’t want to be out in the sunlight when she attacked us the first time.” 

“How do we kill them?” Nate asked. 

“Fire. Lots of fire,” said Jena. “I’m going to get to the campfire, use a spell to gather up the flames and throw them, see if that works.” 

Nate nodded. Jena’s mage skills were above and beyond anything he was capable of. “I’ll summon a demon, from here, see if that helps.” 

Jena nodded once, then hesitated like she wanted to say more. 

“Take care of yourself,” said Nate softly.  

Jena blinked, then nodded again sharply and took off. 

You’ll need to use your flames. There are wolvans here too. A demon and the shimagni won’t be enough. Thornal’s voice was grim. 

Nate shook his head. “I don’t want to use my fire. What else can we do?” 

Son, we don’t have time to argue. You can do this. You don’t need to be afraid of your powers. I can help you. 

“Like you helped me in that mercenary camp? I went berserk and killed everyone there! What if I kill the wrong people? What if I hurt the Utugani?” 

It doesn’t work like that.  

Nate ignored Thornal, and crouched down behind the closest tent. He closed his eyes and demanded that one of the demons come forth. Moments later, it was there, glowing softly in front of him. 

“Yes, master?” it said, sneering down at him. 

“I need you to fight those creatures in the air, kill them all—except the shimagni. Don’t hurt anyone else except the barker lions.” 

The demon’s eyes lit up. Usually Nate didn’t let them do anything as exciting as killing. “As you wish, master.” It took off. 

Nate crept along the edge of the tent, wondering if he should summon another demon. He usually didn’t like to have more than one at a time, because they were unpredictable, and often tried to find loopholes in serving his wishes just to spite him. They were likely to gang up on him, rather than follow his orders. 

Don’t summon another demon. Use your own powers.

“I can’t—”

Screams rent the air, terrified and raw. 

The wolvans have started attacking. 

Nate didn’t hesitate. He ran toward the sounds of the screaming, looking around for some kind of weapon as he went. He grabbed a broom that had been left lying on the ground, desperately wishing he had a sword or a knife. 

He turned the corner of the edge of a tent, and almost tripped over a bloodied pile of flesh. It was an Utugani warrior, his body almost torn in two. There were two other dead warriors, with similar wounds. Ahead of him, three more warriors battled a large beast that almost looked like a wolf, but somehow a wolf of nightmares. Enormous, bigger than the three warriors put together, its fur was ragged and unkempt, its ears were bitten and frayed and its eyes glowed red, like it was possessed by a demon. Except Nate knew that it wasn’t. They were just… focused. Once they’d been given a target, they kept going until either the target was dead or they were. 

One of the warriors tripped over a rope from the tent, and the wolvan didn’t even hesitate. It struck out with one paw, swiping its claws over the warrior’s chest. 

The man—one of the guards from the Utugan’s tent—cried out and fell backward. The wolvan snarled but the other two men didn’t even look back. They were trained warriors, and knew they’d be dead if they even tried to help their fallen friend. 

Nate hesitated behind them, his mind filled with the memories of Argus saving him from these creatures when they first met. They didn’t stop, they didn’t listen to reason, and they’d obviously been given the utugani people as their focus. They were all dead if he couldn’t find a way to save them. Jena was powerful, but not against so many attackers. The Utugani only had mortal weapons. 

You must use your powers, Nate. And fast. More people die every second you delay. 

Everything inside Nate rebelled at the idea. 

It’s the only way these people will survive this attack. I will help you control it. 

Fighting his own instincts, which were shouting that he couldn’t control his supposed powers, Nate closed his eyes. He had no choice. 

He would have to let the flames free. 

He concentrated on the powerful core of energy that he kept locked down, and let the flames rise to the surface, fiery and fierce.

They rose up greedily inside him, hungry for the burn. 


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