It was close to noon when we found her. Rusk and I halted about twenty paces back to observe her and her surroundings. We’d been expecting a tent, but the Beldane must not have trusted her with one. She sat in a small clearing, alone and quiet. A long chain ran from her ankle to a thick oak tree, suggesting that she’d tried to run. She looked about seven or eight years old, with red-brown hair cut short around a round, tear-stained face. As we watched, it seemed some insect crawled onto her leg, for she suddenly gave a yelp and slapped at the spot, a shower of sparks erupting from the impact. This only upset her further. She pulled up her knees and wrapped her arms around them, her tears resuming.
I felt Rusk shudder beside me at the confirmation of her magic. I made one final check for any sign of approaching Beldane, then moved forward.
At our approach, the girl’s head snapped up to regard us warily, but she said nothing. Rusk stopped just inside the clearing and knelt, bringing himself down to her level. “I’m sorry to scare you,” he said softly. “We’re here to – to take you away from the soldiers. Would that be all right?”
She only stared. Rusk looked over his shoulder at me, his forehead creasing. His training hadn’t prepared him for dealing with traumatized children.
“Show her your gift,” I said. “The chain. Deal with the chain.”
Rusk turned back to the girl. “I can take that chain off for you. See, I can do what you can do – with the fire. I’m going to use that to get the cuff off your ankle. Can I do that?”
Her eyes had widened, and she gave the barest nod.
Gingerly, Rusk reached out with both hands and clasped them around the iron cuff on her ankle. “The fire isn’t going to hurt you,” he told her. “But you can close your eyes if that would be better.”
It became clear after a moment that she didn’t intend to look away. Rusk inhaled deeply and went tense, a ball of fire showing between his fingers. On seeing this, the girl gave a squeak and wriggled back a little.
“Hold still,” I told her. “This will just take a bit.”
I could see the metal glowing red in Rusk’s hands. The color shifted slowly as the heat increased; I could feel the air in the clearing growing warmer, but it was plain that the temperature had no effect on the mages. When the iron had reached a vibrant orange, Rusk cut off the flames and took a grip on either side of the cuff. He gave it a hard tug, and it split apart, falling in pieces to the ground.
“That’s done,” I said. “We need to leave, now. Rusk, can you carry her? I need my hands free for my bow.”
The girl was still fixated on him. For the first time, she spoke: “How did you do that? With the proper fire and all, not just sparks?”
“I can show you how to do that,” Rusk said to her, smiling. “It’ll just take some practice. But you’ll have to come with us to learn.” He extended a hand, and she took it, getting to her feet. He got up, too, and offered his back for her. She clambered up. There was a second in which I was afraid her weight would be too much for Rusk, but he got his balance and straightened up.
It was then that I heard the shout from beyond the clearing. I looked to see a patrol of two Beldane making for us at a run from the direction of the main camp. “Go,” I told Rusk, unshouldering my bow. I set an arrow to the string, sighted, and drew. I had a clear shot at one of them, and I caught him through the throat, dropping him. The other, seeing his fellow fall, came to a sharp stop and turned back. He’d just begun to yell for reinforcements when my second arrow drove into the back of his skull.
There was no telling who had heard the shouting. I ran for it, following Rusk. He wasn’t going to be able to make good time, burdened as he was, but he was trying. I hoped fervently that the distance between the clearing and the Beldane camp was enough to swallow the sounds that had been made. If there was any justice to be had in the order of the world, we would be permitted to get this broken child away from the army.
There was justice, apparently. But the way back to the horses was hard on all three of us: me, turning every other step to look for pursuit; Rusk, sweat beading on his forehead, struggling to keep pace; the girl, clinging wordlessly to Rusk. It seemed a hundred times longer on the return, though we were moving faster and with a good deal less caution. Every frantic heartbeat was an edict to go, go, go, and I did the best I could to obey. We slowed gradually out of necessity, which made the agitation all the worse.
The horses lifted their heads as we reached them, their nostrils flaring at our palpable disquiet. We stood against the stony rise, catching our breath, still listening for any noise from the Beldane. There was nothing to hear but the stamping and blowing of the horses. I did what I could to settle them before turning to Rusk, who still hadn’t put the girl down.
“Come on,” I told him. “We can’t stop here.”
We mounted up, both mages on the same horse, and kicked them forward. From here, the terrain was more open – I couldn’t keep from twisting in the saddle, acutely aware of our visibility.
“It’s alright!” Rusk called to me. I looked back to find him smiling in spite of his fatigue. “They’d have caught up by now if they were coming!”
The girl was smiling, too, I found. Only a small smile, but it was there, and it startled me. I realized abruptly that I didn’t know her name.
“Sorry – we haven’t told you who we are,” I said to her. “I’m Merric, and this is Rusk. What’s your name?”
She leaned back to whisper it to Rusk first. He passed it on to me: “Lirvan. And she says she’s hungry.”
The rest of our ride was occupied with eating the field rations we’d brought in our packs, and with funny, stilted conversation in which Rusk had to play two parts. It was the first time I’d ever seen him look so relaxed. I wondered if he would say the same of me. We discovered that Lirvan had a wonderful laugh that sprawled out and out – and, when she really got going, little flickering sparks played along her cheeks and the backs of her hands.
I wasn’t sure why my chest was aching, watching her, but it only got worse as we neared camp. And then, as we crested a low hill and looked down at its smoking, bustling expanse, I heard Lirvan’s laugh cut off in a gasp, and I saw her go very still, her sparks dying away. Glancing from her to the camp, I realized that it couldn’t look much different from the Beldane encampment she’d been brought to in the night, full of soldiers who stared at her like if they looked hard enough they could see right through her human skin to the monster that was dressed in it.
I had never seen the Beldane commander, but I imagined he had looked at Lirvan much the way General Tormund would. Much the way Tormund looked at Rusk.
I sought Rusk’s eyes, and found in them what I was feeling – the certainty that this camp was no place for this child.
Rusk spoke first. “They hang deserters.”
“If they find them.” A pause. Then, “Don’t you have a noble name to uphold?”
He shook his head. “There’s no redeeming it.”
Lirvan was listening, her round face full of trepidation. I considered her one more time. Then I turned my horse away from the camp, Rusk following suit.
“To the east?” he asked.
“To the border. They’re not fighting a war over in Jilvern. They won’t need to make use of us.”
We urged our mounts back down the hill, building speed until we were at a gallop. Rusk gave a shout of laughter that was joined by Lirvan’s delighted voice.
Go, go, go, said my heartbeat. Behind us, sparks as keen as hope rose on the wind.