Heartbeat of the Seasons – Brian Hugenbruch

Heartbeat of the Seasons – Brian Hugenbruch

February 2022

The first time I met Sophienne was outside a small inn at the center of the village of Willowsring. I’d come out of the west, with the faint chill of autumn wind nipping at my horse’s hooves, and found the horse tie rings by the tavern just as she walked by with a pile of firewood. While she gave me a slight smile, she didn’t know me from a summer’s day.

I had little idea, then, how often I’d see that expression in the weeks to come.

A passing peasant watched me watch the red-headed woman walk inside. “I’d not, friend.”

I turned around with a start. “Why not?”

“She’s cursed,” she said. “Nasty business. You hear of Wyrmtooth?”

I had, in fact. I rode toward the northern border on behalf of the Church of Ri’as, and in some haste. While they’d marked the usual sorts of dangers on my map, Willowsring had seemed a quiet enough spot to rest. I hadn’t realized the wizard’s tower was so close by.

“She slew him,” the peasant woman said. At my look, she added, “Sort of. It didn’t quite work. But her life since ain’t been worth a single damn.”

“I’m not so quick to measure a person’s worth,” I said. “And if there’s aid I can offer, I certainly will.”

“On your own head be it,” she muttered.

“Has she spurned your own assistance, then?”

The woman’s face betrayed her surprise. “How could we help one like her? We’re honest folk; we won’t mangle our lives by messing with magic!”

I turned her words over in my mind as the woman wandered off. The Church had sent me as an official Ambassador to broker a peace between the ogre and Fey kingdoms. They were ready to slaughter one another, and us besides. They’d agreed to one more set of talks before the blood began to run.

It would not be an easy talk. The Fey had been arguing over the border with the ogres for centuries now—a territorial dispute lost to antiquity. The region was farmland; the Fey had already suffered through famine, and their claims of ogre aggression weren’t unjustified, if our scouts were to be believed.

The ogres claimed no wrongdoing, because of course they did. What fault of theirs, if the Fey had eaten all their food and did not look as pretty as the ogres did? And now the Fey were trying to claim settled lands for their own.

The Fey had asked for us, believing the Church impartial. On that point, at least, they weren’t wrong—the Bishops had no use for either kingdom. But they also felt strongly that neither ogre nor Fey would keep the bloodshed between themselves.

They’d encouraged me to ride with a bit more haste than usual.

If the maps were to be believed, I was three days’ ride from the border—and ahead of schedule. Ambassador or no, the Bishops hadn’t given me leave to deny a hand to those in need. I couldn’t tarry too long… but if the woman were afflicted by something minor, perhaps I could set her aright before either nation had a chance to miss me.

I suspect I would have tried to help her even if the Church’s doctrine and the call of my goodwill had not been in alignment. As they were, how would I turn my eyes elsewhere?

This time of day, the inn’s common room lay bare but for sunbeams and the kept cats sleeping in them. Even the innkeep had gone missing. The red-headed woman seemed to fill the room, though, with her bemused smile. She sat atop the bar and watched me from behind a tall glass.

She certainly did not seem cursed. Perhaps the peasant woman had been telling tales for sport? Common enough when city folk found the countryside, and usually harmless.

“You in charge here?” I asked her.

“Nay,” she said. “But Homish does not mind it if I serve myself. I can let him know a nobleman’s here, if you’d like.”

“Do I look much like a noble?”

She nodded toward my boots. “Finer quality than the farmers’ own, those. But I jest—that Ri’as sigil tells me you’re a priest from the capital. Someone sent to heal or to harm, depending upon the moods of those you’d call master.”

“Heal,” I informed her. And it was true, as far as it went. A continued peace would be healthy for everyone. The Church had tried using me for other ends… but it’d not gone the way they’d hoped. My instinct to fix what was broken was too strong. They’d learned their lesson; so had I.

The woman nodded in approval. “You here long, stranger?”

“Brother,” I corrected. “And Dalen is fine. Just passing through on my way to the border.” I tilted my head and studied her for a moment. “Actually, I need someone capable to show me around. Do you have time this evening?”

She lowered her hand toward a sword on the bar. Long fingers found a green gemstone pommel. She said, “This evening? I’m sorry, Dalen. I’m off to smite a wizard. I’ll be back before the morn—we’ll speak then, perhaps.”

“Of course,” I said. I had no idea if another wizard had arrived, or if Wyrmtooth really had returned—but she seemed confident and amiable. If she were off to finish the slaying she’d started, I had no desire to stand in her way. Especially since she handled the sword with obvious expertise. “A pleasure, miss…?”

“Sophienne,” she answered. Then she finished her tankard and disappeared into the back.

The second time I saw her was in the bustling common room the following morning. A familiar pommel bumped against my table as I finished my gruel. I looked up and saw her smiling down—with much the same expression she’d had the day before. I was almost done, in any case, so I cleared my space and offered my spot on the shoddy wooden bench.

I asked, “How fared the battle?”

“Have we met?” she wondered as she sat.

“Briefly, yesterday,” I reminded her. “Brother Dalen, from Ath-Olomahn.”

“My apologies, sir. I’ll let you know tomorrow, for my battle is yet before me. Wyrmtooth will rue the steel of Sophienne, I swear it. I venture out in some hours and will be back before the morn—we can toast to victory then.”

“Of course,” I said, though a bit less certain than before.

I brought my dishes up to the bar. The old innkeeper, Homish, gave me a sympathetic look. “She never remembers,” he told me. “It ain’t you.”

I thought back to the woman I’d met when I arrived and shivered a bit. “What happened?”

“She came to us young,” he said as he took my bowl. “Her own home was destroyed by that monster in the tower. She’d tried to slay the bastard for years—she studied the sword and lost friends against him twice ‘afore yer war broke out. No one asked why she joined the armies, but she led the way into Fey, and was part of the legion what stormed their capital.”

I closed my eyes as I tried to parse this. “We haven’t been at war with the Fey for forty years.”

“I know,” he said. “I was there. I was just a boy back then, but I remember her fightin’ like a woman possessed. And then, when the war ended, she wasn’t long ere she fought Wyrmtooth for the last time.”

“But the wizard still lives, does he not?”

The old man grunted. “Every morn she wakes in her room as though nothing happened. She does whatever chores we can find for her—chop wood, haul water, chase down horses. Soph is honest like that; always a hard worker, no matter what’s on her mind. Then she orders the same meals, sharpens her blade, and sets off to slay him every evening. She ain’t aged a damn day in all that.”

I shook my head. “I’ve never heard of such things.”

“Fey territory has strange magic,” Homish reminded me. “Stranger than your Church, or even that o’ Wyrmtooth.” His voice lowered a bit and he told me, “Most folks here, well, they don’t much care for magic. Ain’t done nothing but kill us for as long as we can remember. And to be right honest, yer Grace, we’ve killed our share of witches round here.”

I glanced in the direction the woman had gone. “But she’s still welcome here, of course.”

I could feel him shrug. “Sophi… she keeps the wizard at bay, in her way, so we’re happy to let her be. She does her chores, eats ‘er gruel, then heads on out to slay the bastard again.”

“How many times can a man be slain?” I demanded.

“As many as it takes? She reappears in her bedroom every morning. And the wizard’s tower rebuilds itself at dawn, ‘round the same time.” The old man filled another bowl of gruel and slid it down the length of the bar toward a waiting patron. The wooden dish skittered across the uneven planks; the man at the other end caught it deftly.

“Sounds horrible,” I murmured, “dying every night.”

Homish shrugged. “It ain’t us dying. We’ve got used to it, and she don’t seem to remember. Besides, in forty years, we ain’t found a way to stop her going.”

I had the distinct impression, from Homish’s expression, that the villagers of Willowsring hadn’t tried too hard. Indeed, everyone in the common room watched the red-headed swordswoman with the sort of wary stare saved for a wild animal. She wasn’t one of them, no matter what the innkeep said; she was merely an enemy of their enemy.

As I watched her rise to leave, I had the sudden sinking feeling I would not be early to the border. If anyone else from the Church had been here, I might have left the town behind… the calm at the border would not hold forever. But there wasn’t, and the magic at work made me shiver. Someone had to help this woman.

For lack of an alternative, someone was me.

The village seemed idyllic. If they knew of this place, the richest citizens of Ath-Olomahn would pay to escape the city and flee here for a fortnight. Farmers worked through the harvest of early crops. The local farrier patched shoes and made nails. A few children, old enough to cling to apron strings, played in dirt lanes near the well, but the town itself seemed older than its years; most of its children had grown and not been replaced.

Noblefolk would love it, sure. It seemed like five hells to me: a world where nothing ever changed, where time meandered at its own pace. This was even worse than the Monastery.

Willowsring itself was perfect—and that was the second mystery. They were by far the closest town to the border, but no one seemed particularly bothered by the looming war—it was three days’ ride away, over several hills and rivers, and in another country besides. Didn’t stop what few folks with whom I stopped to chat from gabbing about the last battle. Yesterday’s dead were part of their oral history. Tomorrow’s dead were imaginary.

In my experience, this wasn’t uncommon. Citizens of Ath-Olohman loved their fashion and court society gossip, but the outlying territories couldn’t be bothered. All talk steered to crops unless the sky was raining fire. Made my job two hells hard; what was some city-boy going to know about manure and field care, anyway?

They weren’t wrong; I couldn’t give a shit about manure. But I knew well enough their harvests depended on it. And they did so well that their crop yield was the same, year over year, whether the rest of the nation met floods or drought. Something that right was a symptom of something wrong.

So I saddled my horse an hour before dawn and rode north. I had to see for myself.

The wizard’s tower lay in smoking, smoldering pieces. Grassless ground and scorched rock circled the ruins for a mile. The remnant brick glowed with a ghastly green light. Curious, I picked up a pebble and tossed it toward where the tower would have been. It turned to dust in mid-air and landed as a line of fine sand at the edge of the blast.

Good thing I hadn’t put my damn hand inside the circle.

I hadn’t been waiting long when the sun peeked over the mountains. The light coalesced into a mist that moved of its own accord. Some force plucked the bricks from the broken earth, hauling them back with a disregard for the flow of time, as though the tower were exploding in reverse. It rebuilt itself, whole blocks returning from ash and casting aside scorch marks. All the while, a high-pitched shriek filled my ears.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped.

A wizard’s tower stood there, surrounded by barren land and burned rock, raised once more in some sort of rude gesture in the face of normal time. Having no context, I could only assume that this was how it had always looked. I wheeled my horse and rode away before Wyrmtoooth had a chance to reawaken.

As I galloped, two things occurred to me. The grass near the tower had not regrown, which meant there were boundaries and parameters on the spell. And the pebble had not returned—so interfering with this magic might well be lethal.

I reached the tavern at Willowsring not long after the commotion of the morning rush had ended. Homish had some gruel waiting at the end of the bar for me. Sophienne was standing, her own meal completed; she looked right through me. She seemed as though she’d just woken up, again, for the last time. Tiredness had nothing to do with her surprise.

I came downstairs a bit after lunch. After the morning’s adventure, I’d needed a bit of rest to set my mind aright. Sophienne looked up from the far side of the room, where she was sharpening her sword. She remembered me from the morning—confused, perhaps, but a bit less than before. It was, I admit, strange to see her look at me with recognition, but a relief to see a wary smile grow more at ease.

“Homish left some food for you on the counter,” she called over. “And a letter came.”

“Thank you,” I said. I found them not far away; I gathered them both and brought them to a broader table—a place I could set my notes on the conflict for study. I opened the letter and skimmed it before my hand found a piece of bread.

The situation at the border was tense. The Fey were growing impatient in waiting on the human intervention and had started to agitate for an incursion into ogre territory—something about a stone they claimed the ogres had stolen. It made no sense to me, but Fey magic never had; their reasoning often came dressed in riddles’ garb.

More to the point… while our army had set up barricades and bulwarks, the two other countries wouldn’t be shy about trampling us if we got in the way. If I were going to be of any use to these three nations, I’d have to abandon my investigation of the town and leave this evening.

“You have the look,” Sophienne said, “of someone whom bad news has found.”

I laughed wryly. “War’s bad news, isn’t it?”

She rolled her eyes so hard I felt it across the room. “What, are those varicolored cobweb-sniffers spoiling for another fight?”

“With the ogres, not us,” I told her. “They say they’d stolen a…”

I trailed off and stared at her sword for a moment. Then I looked down at my notes. It hadn’t been part of the initial briefing, but I’d liked the name of it. L’cormijn sae q’vek, it said: heartbeat of the seasons. A green gemstone of high value and religious importance to the Fey, mentioned toward the back of my papers, in a footnote no less. It had been presumed stolen decades ago by ogres looking for battlefield salvage.

I resisted the urge to look at Sophienne’s sword despite the heat rising up my cheeks. If the Fey learned it had been in our lands all this time, peace would never happen. And if the Fey decided they were upset with Ath-Olomahn, I wasn’t certain our army could stop them again. Even their friendship could be deadly. War would be brutal.

The sound of boots on wooden planks brought me back. To my surprise, Sophienne sat down next to me. Her smile was gone.

I offered her a tentative smile of my own and asked, “Yes?”

“You seem a good sort,” she said abruptly, “but perhaps I must say the obvious to you. If you try to stop me from slaying the wizard, I will kill you. I will regret it, but I will still do so.”

The cold fury of her seeming calm caused me to set aside the letter. I looked at her serene, assured face. “Milady, I wish to stop nothing. But… is that stone not from the kingdom of Fey?”

She grimaced. “It turned the tide against their armies, you know. And they’ve not missed it, this year since.”

I opened my mouth and closed it. “And if I told you that war comes once more around the corner, would you surrender it?”

She shook her head. “Tomorrow. I need it to destroy the wizard. Wyrmtooth prolongs his life with magic dark and terrible. He’s terrorized the north of this country for one hundred years, has he not?”

I checked my records. “Give or take,” I admitted.

“Did he not kill my parents and leave me for dead?”

I inclined my head. “If you say it, it must be true.”

“Then,” she growled, “I shall slay him. I need the stone to break the spell that binds his soul to our world.” The woman made an insouciant gesture. “After that, I care not. Take it back. Take me as a prisoner, if the capital feels strongly about it.”

I winced a bit at this. The Bishops would certainly offer Sophienne as sacrifice at the altar of peace. Fortunately for her, I was here and they were not… and if she were willing to part with the stone after one more battle, I was less willing to use her as a scapegoat. Honesty should be rewarded—even if she was thirty-nine years behind schedule.

“Let us hope it does not come to that,” I suggested. “In the meantime… did you plan a final meal, ere the battle?”

We spoke for most of the afternoon, between mouthfuls of goat and the finest wine the border could muster. Few citizens of Ath-Olomahn had been into the Fey Kingdom; it felt strange to find someone who’d seen any of the same sights as me. Legend said the Fey had once enjoyed an effervescent spring even when winter raged not ten feet past their borders. Even now, their roads were littered with gold and diamonds we couldn’t touch, and the rain tasted like expensive wine. I’d found it easier to walk there blindfolded.

“That,” she chuckled, “would have made my job more difficult. But perhaps you can make peace without looking someone in the eye?”

I shook my head. “No. I’ve never found much sense in hiding from truth.”

“That,” she pointed out, “has never been how I understood politics.”

“It’s probably why they keep sending me away from the capital,” I told her.

As the autumn sun moved away from the tavern’s western window, she stood and grabbed her sword. I asked her not to go, but she brushed my words aside. She shouldered her sword, filled a waterskin, and urged her horse toward the mountains at a graceful canter.

I watched her leave. This time, she turned and waved at the edge of the village.

When we met for the fifth time, the following morning, she asked, “Do I know you?” But she did not.

Sophienne would not yield. I followed her twice to the base of the wizard’s tower. She marked me each time and drew her sword when I came too close. Her tone grew colder as winter’s wind inched closer to the border. “You have no place here; your aid is unasked-for and unneeded. And I’ll kill you if you try to intervene—the wizard must die.”

I rode back into town and stabled my horse. The hands there paid me no mind, but I expected as much; I’d tossed them no coins. I paid them little mind myself; some miles north, a woman had just died again, and it ate at me.

I could ride to the border now… but every fiber of my being told me that arriving without the stone would be worse than useless. The Heartbeat had been vital to the Fey before the last war, and while it was almost a footnote to them now, it might well solve some of their problems with food and trade. Without it, the ogres would continue to nip at their heels until blood was drawn.

No. The stone was vital. I needed it if I were to help avert the deaths of thousands. That meant I had to pull Sophienne out of the whirlwind into which she’d been drawn. And if she wasn’t willing to part with the stone toward the end of the day… perhaps she’d be more amenable at the start of it.

My stomach churned a bit as I stepped inside and paid Homish a silver crown to wait in her room overnight.

“When this first started,” he told me, “I tried to rent her room. She broke the man’s arm when she threw him out the window. You sure you want to do this?” When I nodded, he shook his head and muttered, “On your own thick skull be it.”

He took the coin all the same.

The room was empty save for a tall knapsack—belongings unnecessary for her daily battle. The bed was tidily made. The window was open to the cool of an evening breeze. And why not—who else would dare to enter? The swordswoman would skewer anyone who tried.

I wasn’t certain if her magical absence gave me the right to intrude. Okay, that’s a lie—I knew it did not, and my nerves burned for it. Knowing that this town, and many others like it, would be turned to ash if the Fey were not appeased did little to ease the taste of bile in my mouth.

She appeared just as dawn’s light found the windowsill: clothed but unarmored, with the sunlight catching her hair as it spilled across her pillow. The sword appeared against her bed, resting in its sheath; the green gemstone fell with a thud onto the floor beside it.

Sophienne breathed easy in her slumber. If time had made hells of her travails, she never seemed weary.

The stone’s light caught my eye. The green of it: so like the magic that clutched the bricks of the tower. I did not know for what the Fey had used it, but they were willing to kill thousands to see it home. It wasn’t on me to say whether they deserved it returned; they had made it, it was theirs, and if I could save Sophienne, the village, and thousands of soldiers by returning it…

Then I felt the chill of steel against my throat.

“You don’t belong here, Dalen,” the woman said. “You’d best leave while you still have your head to see you out.”

“I can help,” I blurted. “If you give me the stone, I—” Then her words slid like steel into my mind, past the fog of a long night. “You know me?”

Her mouth hung open for a moment before an uncouth word passed her lips.

I’d been ready to argue that I was from ‘the future’, that I could help her break the cycle of her own continuous death and loss of memory. But she knew me. She remembered. Every day we’d met: a facade.

For what?

I looked into her eyes and saw cold calculation there. She weighed whether or not she could let me live. The villagers wouldn’t care if she killed me—I was a useless diplomat from the capital, and I’d entered her room despite warnings. On my own head this was.

Or, as the case might be, neck.

“I want,” I breathed, “to help you.”

“I don’t need help,” she snapped.

“Don’t you?” I gestured toward the stone on the floor. “After however long? You and your sword weren’t here last night. And the tower falls every evening. Do you remember dying, too?”

The edge of the sword backed away, if but an inch. “Every night,” she told me. “For forty years, every night. Skin burned and every bone broken. My body ripped apart as the tower blows.” Her sigh sounded ragged. “It’s penance for stealing the stone.”

“I’m no judge of Fey law,” I murmured, “but I would say you’ve paid it.”

“Have I?” She nodded out the window. “War comes because their people are scared and hungry without this thing. Isn’t that what your letters say? I knew what I stole. It was war, it was survival…” Wide blue eyes found me waiting at the edge of her sword. “I suspect it’s why they sued for peace. I know not if there’s penance great enough.”

I shrugged. “That’s not for you to decide. If we head to the border—”

“—I will catch fire and die before we reach it, and appear here come morning. With the stone.” She lowered her sword and gave me a look. “Do you think me dull?”

“Forgive me.” I gave her a bow, mostly to cover my burning face. I really had. She’d seemed the sort to solve her problems with her sword; to hammer a rock until breaking. I should have realized that forty years, now accounted for, had given her seasons of painful hindsight.

Sophienne glanced out the window again. “Meet me at the stables ere sundown. We’ll go to the tower together. In the meantime… they’ll notice soon that I’ve not emerged. I’d better throw you down the stairs.”

The words took a moment to register. “Wait, did you say—”

Then she had me by the collar of my tunic. We weren’t of an uncommon height, but she lifted me like a pile of fallen leaves. She hauled me out the door and shouted, “Never bother me again, stranger!

It seemed overdone, but bouncing down the stairs left me with no capacity to protest. The laughter below, from regulars clearly expecting a show, was punctuated by the sound of my arm bones breaking. I rolled onto my knees and scrambled out of the tavern; the laughter followed in my wake.

I found refuge in the stables. When no one was looking, I put a strap of leather between my teeth and set the bone. I applied a salve from the Church before dressing it in a sling. It would accelerate the healing and numb the pain, but we had no magic to speak of. Unless one counted our ability to meddle; that, I’d got in spades.

I came to some hours later when Sophienne nudged me with her boot. “Wake, stranger.”

I groaned as I stared up at her from my pile of hay. “Dalen,” I corrected her.

“You are well-met,” she said with a wry expression. “Follow.”

I saddled my horse, albeit slowly with one arm, and followed her out of town. I marked the sun to be an hour away from setting. It was the usual time of her ride, and I followed at a distance. While the villagers paid her no mind, they’d be more mindful of me.

The tower of Wyrmtooth stood when we came over the hill. At this point, it would not have surprised me to have found it half-exploded and in a state of structural undress. I slowed my steed, but Sophienne charged into the grassless circle, fearing neither spell nor spear. When she wasn’t slain on the spot, I urged my horse onward once more.

The red-headed woman opened the door to the tower.

“It’s unlocked?” I asked, surprised.

She shrugged at me. “Wyrmtooth had no fear of unwanted guests, I assume.”

We were halfway up the stone stairs of the tower when her words struck me. “Had.”

“You said what?”

“Wyrmtooth had no fear. He’s dead?”

Sophienne grunted. “Some forty years ago. He rued my steel, and the stone, both.”

“Then why do the villagers think he’s alive?”

“Would you give credit to my life and his tower to a soldier-woman, if you were they?”

I waved a hand from side to side. “I might, if she told me the truth of what had happened. Instead you’ve hidden it all—even your memory of the past forty years.”

She paused before me, blocking my path along the stairs. She gave me a look when she turned. “You know they’ve killed witches before, yes?”

I thought back to the first conversation with Homish. “They’ve said.”

“They did not lie. Fortunately for me… I return to life no matter how or where I die now. I feign ignorance, I do their chores, so they do not waste my time by killing me again and again. And while they still hate me, they are now… comfortable, yes? I am of use, and they can be content. And leave me to die in peace.”

I shook my head. “That’s monstrous. The Church would have intervened, if we could, if we’d known.”

“Why tell you? They fear a cure more than they fear me now. Why risk all that for someone not of their village?”

We came to the top of the stairs and found… a library. Bookshelves stretched for multiple stories up toward the pointed pitch of the conical roof; tables and chairs were arranged in a half-circle around a fireplace. For all the stories of his madness, Wyrmtooth had been a practical decorator. Tasteful, even.

The swordswoman gestured toward the books. “The wizard’s spells and studies. I’ve learned something of the stone here. I took it because I’d heard their Queen used it to keep herself young and beautiful—a perpetual spring flower in the midst of a painted grove.” She stared into the stone, blue eyes catching green light. “In truth, they used it for their crops more often, and the books imply it could be used to opposite effect. It accelerated Wyrmtooth’s march to dust. The wizard’s last act, though, was to stab at the stone itself. That’s what destroyed the tower, and killed me.”

“…but you both return, do you not?”

The woman shook her head. “I’d smashed the cage in which he kept his soul. He’d disintegrated well before the explosion.” She looked up at me and frowned. “I’ve spent forty years with his books, an hour a day before the explosion kills me, hoping to find the trick of it. I think he tried to turn the stone into another anchor, hoping to find refuge here. The stone reacted badly… and instead of saving himself, he’s tied me down to the Willowsring of some decades past.”

I sat in one of the chairs; my skin crawled a bit, though I wasn’t sure whether it was for wizard or stone. I closed my eyes and rubbed them a bit with my good hand. “We know,” I started to say, “that there are limits to the spell. Time. The circle around the tower. The village—you always appear there. Your anchor point?”

“I think the village is almost as locked as I am,” she told me. She spoke a bit haltingly at first, and then in a rush, her face seeming more relaxed as she went. “Perhaps because I was there the morn of the battle. They don’t know it, but their routine is a well-trodden path.. and their harvest has had the precise same yield every year. I cannot prove that it’s because of this, but that does fit, does it not?”

I’d wondered about that; it was good to hear her confirm it. “The Church thought that was the Fey nearby,” I admitted. “But your idea does make more sense. And we know you can’t make it to the border fast enough. Has someone else tried taking the stone?”

Her look of horror answered that fast enough.

“Okay,” I added, “what if someone else held the stone and stayed here?”

Her eyes narrowed. “I know not. No one else has held the stone in all this time. I buried it a few times; it reappears beside me on the morrow. I believe the stone is the anchor for the town and for me—the source of the spell that binds us, and it follows us every time we’re reborn.”

“If you give me the stone,” I told her, “of your own will, we can see what happens. Perhaps you’ll be free.”

“And perhaps you’ll be trapped,” she snapped back. “Do they not need you at the border?”

“Will they not come looking for me?” I countered. “And the border is but three days away. If you go to them and ask for help, I suspect I won’t be long held.”

“Why not just go yourself? They can find me as well as you.”

I hesitated for a moment, uncertain of how to phrase it. “It will help the peace,” I told her. “You’re the one who stole it. It would be an honorable gesture for you to return it. And given the situation, I expect the Fey will help.” Then I turned back and stared her full in the face. “Besides—I came to heal, not harm. Have you not suffered enough?”

She turned away from my gaze. “I’ve not been one to ask for help for all my life, Brother. Every time I’ve tried, someone’s died for it. And the Fey… their idea of aid is lethal, betimes. You know this. And either way, they may kill me where I stand.”

“They may,” I admitted. “The Fey are a strange people, and they’ve suffered through your actions. But do you know what happens if we do not try?”

Sophienne looked back. “What?”

“Nothing.”

She studied me for a long moment. “I could just run off,” she said, “if this works. Let you all hang.”

“I know it hasn’t been long, but I like to think I know you better than that.” I reached out my hand. “I’m here. Will you trust me?”

She let loose a shuddering breath and closed her eyes, nodding more to herself than to me. She reached out her hand and… did not let go. I watched her, her body quaking against the bars of a prison she’d made for herself. Forty years without trust. To wrestle with the habit of decades, against the fear of being slain instead of merely killed?

I hadn’t been keeping track of the time, but I saw the sun start to set through one of the tower windows. I didn’t know precisely when the fire would come, but I’d been hoping, perhaps in vain, to avoid it in the handoff.

Then she opened her eyes and looked at me, smiling slightly… for once, as though she knew me well. The stone fell into my open hand, and my fingers closed around it instinctively, to catch it—

I woke to the sound of the bones in my arm breaking. The words Never bother me again, stranger! echoed in my ears, but there was no one there to say them. I clutched at my arm and looked around; everyone in the common room of the tavern had stood, confused, looking at one another.

I rushed out to the stable to find some salve, but my horse had gone. I grabbed a leather strap instead, righted the bone, and ripped enough fabric off my sleeve to make a crude sling.

An old man—Homish, from the tavern—approached me later in the morning. “Have you seen Sophienne?” he asked.

“Not since she threw me out of her room,” I told him.

His face fell. “I see. Well… expect you’re here for a while, yeah? If you want room and board, we’ll need to see about giving you some chores.” He glanced at my arm and sighed. “…such as you can do,” he muttered as he walked away.

Sophienne, I realized, was gone—taking her seemingly immortal labor with her. Of course the town would seize upon her replacement. She’d chopped wood and cleaned stables, they’d said. Unfortunately for them, I was far less useful—what did I know about manure or field care?

I looked around and found no trace of her: neither sword, nor stone, nor either horse. When I tried to borrow another steed, to return to the tower, a burly stable hand stopped me with ease. It was clear to me, then, just how much of an impediment the town must have been to Sophienne.

I was still standing in the center of the square when sundown found me. Green fire rose all around; I could feel it sear the flesh from my body. And the crowd looked on in horror—not for me, but at what I could only assume was their new normal.

I woke to the sound of the bones in my arm breaking, again and again and again.

I don’t know how long it lasted. It lasted until it didn’t. I don’t know how Sophienne held onto her mind as long as she did. And when I woke, with no dreams to guide me from the fire to the snap of my ulna, I was almost certain I’d lost my own.

I woke to the sound of the bones in my arm breaking… but this time it was against rock, not the wooden floor of the tavern. I was so surprised that, for a moment, I forgot to feel the pain. Instead I looked at the village of Willowsring… a village of some hundreds, with perfect weather and ideal crops.

Every cottage had been razed to its roots; the tavern was a pile of rubble. Every building around me lay in smoldering ruin. I stumbled to my feet and staggered toward the town square.

“Brother Dalen,” a voice called.

It was light and billowy, the voice; I recognized the accent as coming from a place where it rained nothing but wine. They were tall, this figure, with translucent wings folded like a cloak behind them. Garishly dressed, of course; but I would have known them for Fey without that added effect.

They weren’t alone. Soldiers both of Ath-Olomahn and the Fey milled about, looking at the ruins in surprise and consternation.

“Something happened,” I said. “Sophienne?”

“The woman found us,” the Fey admitted. They gave a bow. “Tithas amh Alast; I would have been your counterpart, if we’d met at the treaty table.”

I bowed weakly. “A pleasure.” Then I sat back down. My arm hurt to the point my stomach churned.

Tithas frowned. “We can wait, if you require the medicines of your people to—”

“No, please. How fares our peace? What happened?” And, after a beat, “Where is she?”

The Ambassador walked toward me and crouched down to meet me at eye level. “Brother Dalen, war was averted. Thanks to the human woman’s intercession, we found the stone unguarded in the wizard’s tower. We’d hoped to find you with it, but you appear to have had more difficulties than she had done.”

I looked around. “A bit. But if war never came… what happened here? Did the wizard return?”

The Ambassador shook their head and sighed as they pulled a familiar green stone from inside a coat pocket. It pulsed at me in some form of recognition. “They are magic, these stones,” they said. “They were the heartbeat of our very seasons. They do not make time, as your friend thought; they take shortcuts to a future. When we recovered the gem, once your soldiers let the woman through to us, we broke the loop and set time straight… like one of your doctors fixing a broken bone.”

They waved their free hand, long and silver-fingered, over my arm; I felt the wound mend itself. After a moment, all that remained was the ghost of pain and the roiling of my stomach. They watched my face carefully for a moment, their own a blank mask. If they had emotions, it was in a different language than mine.

“Thank you, Ambassador,” I said.

“You are welcome,” they answered. “But you feel, even without the injury, a lingering effect, is it not so? It is the same here. When we fixed time, this village had… a seizure of seasons. It was just as with our people, when the woman stole the stone from us—all our fields were destroyed by it. While we were more careful than she, we still untethered all the anchors that bound this region in loop—yours, hers, and all the others.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” I admitted.

“You have a mind, I expect, that works to unravel a knot rather than to tear it asunder. I suspect your friend never considered that approach, or feared for someone’s safety if she had done. We have started time anew, turning over this loop of life like a garden bed—if she had done such, she would have been freed long ago.”

I didn’t know that for certain—whether Sophienne knew what would happen, or if the many years of her limited time simply didn’t let her reach that conclusion. Self-taught and with no one with whom to converse, she might well have been embedded in her own assumptions.

Of course, she might well have reached a point where she feared success as much as failure. And if this was the result… I could not blame her for it.

I glanced around at the tumbled buildings. What wood that wasn’t petrified seemed ready to crumble; the large stones looked as though they’d been scorched by a thousand summers. I thought of Homish at the tavern, and the rest of the villagers, caught in a conflagration beyond mortal comprehension. Of children aging to dust as they tried to run away. With all that time, all at once, none of them would have had a chance to scream.

“Forty years,” I whispered.

They placed a long-fingered hand on my shoulder and smiled a bit too sharply. “We are not always honored to be of aid. This does not bring us joy… even if, from our end, all is resolved.”

“Is it?” I asked. “You’ll sign a formal treaty? And the ogres will abide?”

They produced a small scroll and tossed it at my feet. “We already have, and they say they shall. Tell your Bishops, when next you see them, that they have their peace. All prices are paid… and we’ve had enough of death.” Then they rose and walked back toward the Fey soldiers.

I did not watch them go. Instead, I sat in the rubble and dust where Sophienne’s room had been. The soldiers of Ath-Olomahn gathered round; they spoke of borders and zones and shifting troops toward the heretics of Zhe Tahra, far to the west.

Our nation was never without its enemies. There would always be another problem to solve—whether they’d like me to do so or not. My own problem, more immediate, would be how to explain all of this to the Bishops of Ri’as. The Church had no understanding of this sort of magic… and everyone else who’d lived it was dead.

Then I heard the faint shuffle of boots on pebbles.

I looked up and saw a white-haired woman, still strong, though bent by age and hardship. She’d given up armor for a thin robe, and her sword was nowhere to be found. Still, she sent guards scurrying out of her way with a stern gaze from clear blue eyes.

I pushed myself up and gave a bow as relief swept away the nausea and fear.

“Sophienne?” I asked. “It’s done… you’re free. Are you all right?”

She paused and looked at me, a slight smile on her face. “Do I know you?”

But she did not. Her face, now lined with cares beyond measure, said she did not know me from a summer’s night.

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