So, way back in July 2014, I wanted suddenly to write something… Different. So I decided:
A) To fill a plot hole with Zeel's point of view, because that is never NOT interesting.
B) To mash her together with characters she doesn't interact with much, because awkward conversations are delightful.
C) That Ogden happily volunteering his daughter for unimaginable peril for a third time made absolutely no sense and needed fixing.
C.2) That Emily Rodda also makes absolutely no sense and needs fixing.
D) To write half of the thing, put it on the backburner and forget about it, and then find the inspiration to write more of it 6 months later, and finish it another 6 months later.
E) To, in the meantime, engross myself in Deltora Quest and Three Doors, and to form convoluted fan theories about how Rowan, Lief, and Rye, and all their friends/family are just reincarnations of the same hero and his friends/family, reborn every time the Shadow Lord is being particularly awful, but that is another story….
E.2) To blatantly ignore the fact that I had recently turned 22, not 12, and should not care so intensely.
F) To also write something from Perlain's point of view, because his particular brand of sass is also delightful, and there wasn't nearly enough of it in the books.
And so, For Flight was born.
The rainbow cavern was frigid and almost deathly silent. The sound of pattering water seemed ominous in the silence between the three men. Perlain wished he had the nerve to break it, to say the things he desperately wanted to say; but for the moment, he was too startled and afraid to say anything. Startled at the suddenness of the Keeper's terrible vision. Afraid for his friends, too far to the west to be reached or helped.
He was also far too formal to let any of this show on his face. He wasn't even sure if he should have been a part of this meeting, but the Keeper had insisted. He had needed someone trustworthy to be there, if only for emotional support. Perhaps he was the Keeper, but he was still a boy, after all. In most ways, he was still the same Doss that Perlain had watched grow up. In a small sense, it was comforting.
Right now, the boy's glassy eyes were very concerned, but determined. There was little he could do from here, hidden away in the Cavern of the Crystal, but there were others who could act for him. That was why Ogden had been summoned to the cavern so long before daybreak, to be informed of the vision, and to help formulate a plan.
Because something obviously had to be done. The Keeper's vision of the world locked in an endless winter, and the prophecy that had come with it, made it more than clear that something was terribly wrong in the west. It was also clear that Rowan, their shared friend, was walking into danger. Again. The Keeper owed him much. The very least he could do was send some kind of help.
Perlain's first instinct was to offer his help without hesitation. To run from the cavern and rally a small band of friends to plough through the snow, and get to Rin somehow. But he felt clearly that he was missing something, as the Keeper and the leader of the Travelers stood staring gravely at each other, locked in what seemed like a battle of wills.
"I will not send her," Ogden said in a low voice. "I know what you want of me, and I will not send her."
"They need her," the Keeper answered simply. "The prophecy—"
"Does not speak of my daughter, I am sure. I will not knowingly send her into danger again."
Perlain suddenly understood why Ogden had been summoned so specifically. The prophecy had spoken of four souls—including one for flight. And the Keeper's thought was that it must be Zeel. Now that he was thinking of it, himself, Perlain saw nothing but reason in the assumption. There were few other people who could do what needed to be done. And if she was asked to do it, she wouldn't hesitate. Rowan was her friend, too. There was nothing she would spare to help him.
So he understood why the girl's adopted father would be upset and afraid. But if she was the one the prophecy spoke of, he didn't see the sense in denying it or trying to avoid it.
"She deserves to know, at least," the Keeper argued in a diplomatic tone. "She deserves to make the choice for herself."
"No. If there is a choice to be made, she will make it. Zeel is a brave and loyal friend, but she is also young and rash as any child. Too often in the past, I have given her that choice; and too often, she has chosen danger. I will not send her again into trouble. Once was more than enough. Twice was unbearable. And this... This is far beyond her ability, and I refuse to allow it."
"Will you not even warn her that something has happened? If her friends are in peril—"
"She will rush headlong into her own death, and not think twice about the consequences."
"But she would want to know."
"But she would make a command decision, as she always does. I am her father, and I will not let that happen again. She will not know. She cannot know. I will not lose her again."
There was a desperation and fear in Ogden's voice that made Perlain worry even more. It was unlike the tall, dark man to be so afraid. Something was troubling him deeply, even without this prophecy threatening his daughter. That couldn't possibly bode well.
That only served to make him feel even more that Zeel was supposed to be a part of this. The idea that their friend needed her help, and that she wouldn't be told of it, not even given her own voice in the matter, made him anxious. It seemed wrong. So very wrong...
Seeing that he wouldn't win this argument, the Keeper bowed his head and sighed sadly. "Then there is nothing more to be said. Forgive me for troubling your sleep. You may go."
Ogden bowed stiffly, then hurried out of the cavern without looking back, or stopping to acknowledge that Perlain was even there. He seemed to have forgotten that he had been in the cavern at all. Mostly, he seemed indignant and tired.
Once they were alone, the Keeper turned to his emissary.
"Perlain, what do you think of this?"
"I think she should know of this," he answered in his formal voice. "I cannot believe it right of him to hide this from her. Zeel could be of great help, in any case. If she knew that her father, who she trusts, is keeping something so important from her, she would be furious."
"And what do you intend to do about it?"
The question was surprising. Perlain hadn't been sure there was anything he could do about it. Overwhelmingly, though, he wanted to do what he felt—knew—was right.
The Keeper surely knew what was on his mind. The boy took a deep breath, choosing his words slowly and wisely.
"Perlain, I cannot tell you what to do, after you leave this place. All I can ask of you is to do the right thing. I do not know what the right thing is; but I think you do. And if you do not, then listen to your heart. It will tell you."
It was unlike any Maris to listen exclusively to his heart, when feelings can be so fleeting. But Perlain understood at once what the Keeper meant. He was almost moved to pat the boy affectionately on the head, as he had done so many times in years past. But it would hardly do to be so informal with the Keeper of the Crystal. Instead, he gave the boy a grateful smile.
Seeing that he had been understood, the boy smiled back and nodded. "You may go, my friend. Good luck."
Perlain emerged from the cavern into an unnaturally chill spring morning. In fact, he could have sworn it was colder this morning than the one before. And perhaps it was. The idea of a world locked in the vice grip of a winter with no end sent a shiver down his spine. The thought of four souls climbing a lonely mountain pricked at the back of his mind.
Something had to be done.
But it wasn't his place to come between a father and his child, when he was only trying his best to protect her. Any father would do the same.
But something had to be done.
Perlain clenched his webbed fists to keep them from shaking, and tried his best to blame it on the cold, not nerves. This internal struggle was driving him mad. He had a choice of his own to make, and he didn't like it. He faced the horizon, where the pink and gold of dawn was beginning to rise over the waves.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, taking the Keeper's advice and looking into his heart for an answer. His head was being of no help, and his stomach was knotted with anxiety. His heart was the only place left to find an answer.
And almost at once, he found it. He knew what he had to do. He set off for his house, where he could make preparations in secret.
"It is so cold. Why did we even come outside?"
"To start a fire so we won't be so cold, silly."
"Something isn't right. I can feel it..."
"It's your imagination, Zeel. Come sit by the fire. You'll feel better."
But Zeel didn't feel like sitting with her brothers. She felt like pacing, because something deep inside her kept telling her that something somewhere was definitely wrong. She also felt tired, and cold, and tired of being cold. And she felt that she shouldn't be sitting around in the camp outside of Maris, when she was supposed to be doing... Something. An unseen force was calling to her, and she couldn't begin to explain it.
She wondered where Ogden had gone, so early in the morning. She vaguely remembered him getting up and leaving suddenly before sunrise, but she had only been half awake and hadn't heard where he had gone, or who he had gone with. It was just past dawn, and he hadn't returned. That also felt wrong to her, somehow. Something of importance must have happened, and she was burning to know what it was.
Something, somewhere, somehow... It was far too much uncertainty for her to stand.
The three forerunners all jumped at the familiar but unexpected voice behind them. A blue-clad Maris had appeared behind them, the hood of his cloak pulled over his face. Zeel didn't need to see his face to know who it was, though.
"Perlain! What are you doing here?"
The Maris raised a finger to his lips and hushed her, begging her to keep her voice down. That didn't stop her from giving him a welcoming hug, even though she knew he didn't like to be hugged. To her pleasure, he relaxed slightly and awkwardly hugged her back.
"You are happy to see me," he commented flatly.
"Just to see a friend again," she answered. "I've wondered why you haven't come to see us recently. Where have you been?"
He regarded her gravely. From his look alone, she knew she was about to find out everything that was wrong this morning.
"Zeel, I must ask you to come with me right away. I must speak with you. It is of great importance."
She nodded slowly and turned to her brothers. "I'll be back later, okay?"
The two boys exchanged a wary glance, clearly disliking to be left out of her business yet again. Twice before, they had been left behind to wait in silence, while she had run off into danger, unable to help her. They were forerunners, after all; in times of peril, all they had was each other. Being so useless when she was in trouble hurt them. And it was obvious that she was probably about to be in trouble again.
As before, all they could really do was nod back and let her go.
"Try to be quick," Mithren advised slowly. "If Ogden returns before you, he will wonder where you've gone."
She forced an agreeing smile, and turned to follow her friend into the town beyond the camp. Perlain paused and looked over his shoulder.
"When he does return, I would appreciate it if you did not mention my name," he said, still in that grave tone of voice. He was trying to sound casual, but Zeel saw through it immediately. She knew him too well by now not to. Perlain was a grave and solemn man by nature; but there was fear behind that this morning, and a sense of grim determination.
This could only mean trouble, indeed. She let him take her by the arm and haul her out of the camp. It was quiet, and there were few people about yet; most of them were still asleep, bundled up in their beds, trying to keep warm. Maris was little different. By now, the streets should have been coming to life as its people woke and began their day. Instead, they were deserted and cold.
"You've brought your kite, I see," Perlain mentioned absently, once they were alone. "More of a cloak than a kite, today, though."
Zeel wrapped the bright yellow silk closer around her, but shivered in spite of its meager warmth. "It serves many purposes. Have I not told you before? When it's cold, my brothers and I will layer our kites over each other and sleep beneath them for warmth. Many a band of forerunners has done so, in the past."
Perlain nodded understandingly, but he was clearly not in the mood for talking in the open. "That will save us precious time. Good. Very good," was all he said. After that, he returned to silence. Zeel sighed in vague frustration, feeling awkward and anxious in the silence.
"Silk is truly a remarkable material," she said quietly, hoping to prompt a response from her friend. But the Maris kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, and didn't answer. She hummed to herself in disappointment, deciding not to try again.
He led her to a small house which must have been his own, and ushered her inside. It was a simple and sparsely furnished home, as she felt she might have suspected. Perlain had never invited her to his home before; in the past, he had always come to her if he wanted to see her. She had never begrudged him his privacy, but she wondered furiously what had made him do this so suddenly.
He shut the door firmly behind them, and removed his heavy cloak with a sigh.
"Now that we are alone, I will speak plainly and briefly; as I said, time is precious. It seems that our small friend is in danger once again."
Zeel felt icy anxiety gripped her heart faster than she could control it. "Rowan," she gasped, a little more forcefully than she meant. "I might have known it! What has he done this time?"
"I am not quite sure," Perlain said shortly, leading her to a table in the center of the main room. "All I know for certain is that the Keeper had a strange and terrible vision this morning—our world engulfed in snow, the sea frozen solid, even the eastern wastelands iced over—and that it is all because of Rowan, somehow. Also, there was a riddle."
"There's always a riddle," Zeel scoffed, looking over the table. There was an empty canvas pack waiting there, surrounded by various odds and ends that were clearly meant to be stuffed inside it. There was a neatly folded blanket; a canteen; a small pot and a copper mug; a hunting knife; packets of dried fruit, nuts, tea, and hard biscuits; a small bottle of honey; a coiled length of rope with a grappling hook. It seemed as though Perlain was packing for another great adventure.
Or, perhaps he hadn't packed for himself, she realized.
"The riddle speaks of four companions," Perlain commented calmly, and began to stuff the various items into the pack. "One to weep, fight, dream… And one for flight. As you can imagine, the Keeper is extremely concerned. This was the reason why I was sent to collect your father this morning. The Keeper wished to speak to him about the matter, and perhaps think of a way that we can be of some use."
"Why, no one could possibly reach Rin in time to be of any help," Zeel pointed out, even more uneasy than before.
Perlain hummed in response, but continued packing. "Apparently, most of the people of Rin have left the village. They are journeying this way, as we speak. From what we have come to understand, if they had stayed any longer they all would have perished. In my humble opinion, Rowan could have informed us of this earlier—it is a large influx of people, and Maris is hardly prepared for it. If he shares such a deep bond with the Keeper, the least he could have done was warn us."
At first, it seemed to Zeel that Perlain was being unusually curt. It wasn't like him to be so offended. And then it dawned on her that perhaps he was focusing his energy on something practical, to distract himself from fear.
"However," he continued, "Rowan is not with them. He has stayed in Rin, with a few of our other friends."
Immediately, Zeel felt a sinking feeling in her stomach, and swallowed a painful lump that had appeared in her throat. "Please don't tell me it's—"
"Shaaran and Norris, yes. I know you asked me not to tell you so, but it is the truth and cannot be avoided. I am very sorry. I know that the four of you had become quite close, and that it must worry you terribly."
"Terribly?" she demanded. "It worries me impossibly! Oh no… They are the ones of the riddle, aren't they…."
Perlain shrugged. "That is what the Keeper believes. My, my, how good you have become at this, Zeel."
She pinned him with an incredulous look, and then crossed her arms as she considered this. The idea had occurred to her out of the blue—because, as Perlain had said, she had grown entirely too used to riddles. It made awfully perfect sense, now that she really thought of it. Shaaran had a strong spirit, but she was frail and innocent; she would be the one to weep. Norriss was tall and strong, a born fighter if there ever was one. And when was Rowan not dreaming, seeing the plain truth, and discovering answers?
So, then… Who was the fourth? Who was the one for flight?
Zeel looked down at the floor, happened to glance at the yellow kite around her shoulders, and felt grim realization come over her like a wave.
"I am the one for flight," she said quietly.
"That was the Keeper's thinking, and mine as well," Perlain agreed, speaking slowly, cautiously. "Ogden does not like to think of it, though. In fact, he had planned not to mention it to you at all."
Zeel snapped her head up to look at him furiously. "I don't believe that."
"Well, you should. I heard it with my own ears. He fears for you, that is all. However, he knows full well that it is true. He denies it at his own peril—at everyone's peril, I think. If you are needed elsewhere, you ought to go, do you not think so?"
Zeel leaned against the wall, her head reeling. "How could he do such a thing? The least he could do is tell me that my friends are in trouble!"
"Indeed. That was what the Keeper said. But Ogden would have none of it. He is unusually concerned with the west. Frightened, even. I wonder at what he could be so afraid of, but he certainly does not want you tangled up in it. What else would you expect from any father?"
"That hardly makes it right," Zeel snapped at him. "I should have been told of it as soon as it happened! I should be there right now! How could he have done this?"
"You must not blame him, Zeel, he is only doing what he thinks is best for you. You would certainly do the same for your own children, if you had any. Would you really encourage your child to run headlong into danger? Of course you would not. You must try to understand what this is like for your father. You did give him quite a scare this past spring, after all."
She was still angry and indignant, but that, too, made sense. Looking back, she supposed that she had always volunteered for the dangerous missions. Because she was different from other Travelers, there were many things she was able to do which they were not. She had always been proud to offer her unique abilities in moments of need, and she had always proven herself.
But Ogden had always tried to talk her out of it, because he worried over her as any father should. She had nothing to prove to him, he always insisted. He loved her exactly as she was, and he preferred her alive and whole.
Yes, of course he had chosen to deceive her. It still didn't make it okay, but she supposed she understood well enough.
While she thought of this, Perlain suddenly thrust the stuffed pack into her arms. "This should suffice for right now. The flight itself will take a few hours and be uneventful. The mountain will be a different story."
"Certainly. Where else do you suppose they will go?"
"Has it been… seen?"
Perlain shrugged again. "All signs seem to point to it. You shall just have to figure out why the four of you are needed there when you arrive. I wonder if Rowan even knows quite yet. All that is sure is that the four of you must go there. Threes are all very well, I suppose, but things happen more frequently in fours around here, I have noticed. It has a feeling of wholeness, do you not think so?"
"I suppose I've never thought of it."
"Then you should think on it while you fly. I thought of it myself, while walking to fetch you, and I find that I cannot stop thinking of it. I find it fascinating. Just think of what the four of us accomplished last year. And now here are the four of you, off to do some other amazing thing. As if the whole is split into four quarters, and must be united."
"Perlain, you didn't have to do this for me."
"On the contrary, of course I had to. You must reach Rin somehow, and Ogden has resolved to be of no help whatever. This feeling of dread I bear cannot be for nothing. If you are meant to go, then I shall help you."
He held out his hand to take her kite while she shrugged the pack over her shoulders. When she finished, he handed it back and watched in silence as she wrapped it around herself once again.
"Yes, yes, indeed, you should be prepared for nearly anything now," he commented.
"You've gone to a great deal of trouble, doing this for me," she said humbly. "And if my father learns of it—"
"Never you mind what he will do. That is quite irrelevant. The important thing is that you get where you need to go in a timely manner. I shall deal with what comes later on my own."
Again, she knew how Perlain disliked being touched without an invitation; but Zeel was moved, and simply couldn't help herself. She grasped his hand firmly in her own and held it for a long moment.
"Thank you, Perlain. Thank you so much."
"Think nothing of it, really," she said lightly, leading her back to the door and opening it wide for her. "Now please, go quickly, before our friends get themselves in more trouble."
Zeel stepped out into the streets, wind-whipped and deserted—more than suitable for a speedy take-off. She looked over her shoulder briefly at her friend, hovering in the doorway to see her off, and she flashed an encouraging smile.
"I shall see you again," she murmured.
She spread her kite, and let the wind whisk her away.
Zeel had hardly been in the air for half an hour yet, when she began to realize how hastily thrown together this whole plan really was. As usual, she had refused to care a button for her own safety, while her friends were in peril. Now she felt underprepared, and that she had certainly forgotten a number of things in her haste. Her only protection from the cold was a wool parka covered by a leather jacket, a knitted scarf, and a pair of fish skin boots she had bought in Maris—because she had never before needed such protection. Now she was flying through the air at a great speed, and was already chilled to the bone.
Rin was still three hours away, at this pace. She shuddered at the thought, and at the cold.
What would happen if she fell? If at last she froze in midair and plummeted back to earth? No one alive except Perlain knew where she was, or where she was going. Perhaps no one would find her…
She tried desperately not to think of this. Instead, she pinned her eyes on the ground far below, at the wide, blackened road that had been burned through the pure white snow. Perlain hadn't mentioned it; but Zeel could feel the presence of magic radiating from it, rising all the way up to meet her like steam.
Suddenly, she strongly suspected Sheba the witch was behind the burned road, and her skin crawled unpleasantly at the idea. But this was good, she realized. This meant that if she kept following the road, she would eventually reach her goal. With all her usual landmarks covered and smoothed out by a seamless blanket of whiteness, she had wondered at first how she was to find her way.
Biting her numbed lips, trying to let the road fill her with optimism and new energy, she soared on above it.
She continued to fly like this, determinedly following the burned road, trying to ignore the loss of feeling in her arms and legs, for a long time. The road beneath her was the only disruption in the snow; she couldn't even see tracks of scurrying creatures or hunting wolves. Aside from the wind, it was awfully silent.
And then, as she was reaching the last leg of her journey, sounds began floating to her ears on the wind. Sounds of tramping feet and low voices. It sounded like she was approaching a small army.
And then she remembered. The valley people had fled their village, and were marching toward the coast to seek shelter. Perhaps they had stopped to camp for the night; but true to their natures, they had risen at sunrise to begin the next step of their journey. She thought suddenly of friends who were surely in that crowd, somewhere. She also thought of the friends who weren't there at all.
Nearly frozen, exhausted from a flight that shouldn't have been so difficult, Zeel was sorely tempted to land. As the marching people came into view, though, she sullenly decided against it. They looked as ragged and tired as she felt. Just peering down at them, she saw that her sudden appearance would bring no comfort to anyone. They hadn't the time or the supplies to spare. All the same, she looked as hard as she could for the people she knew, and hoped someone might look up and notice her. If they knew that she was on her way to their abandoned home, it might cheer them to know that someone cared enough to help.
Or perhaps, it would only alert them that something was very wrong, and that they should perhaps be alarmed. She realized this as someone finally did glance up at the sky and recognize her at once.
For a split second that hardly lasted long enough, Zeel locked eyes with Allun, who she had been searching desperately for. And in that split second, she saw a number of emotions on his face. Surprise. Confusion. Cold terror. He raised his hand and seemed to call to her as she flew over, but she couldn't hear what he said. It tore at her heat that she couldn't land and meet him. If any of the people would have helped her in this moment, of course Allun would have.
But by now, she feared that if she landed, she might not be well enough to take off again. Staying in the air was taking all her focus and energy now.
She wondered vaguely what Allun would do, now that he had seen her, now that he had made it obvious to everyone that he had seen her. Would he go back? Would he insist that something was amiss? Would the other people try to scold him to silence? Winter-weakened and afraid, would he submit?
All she could really do was send him a quick, silent blessing, and continue to speed on her way. She would have sent him strength, too, except she was nearly out of it, and needed what she had left for herself. She hated having to put her dear friend from her mind, but there was simply nothing for it.
The deserted village was in as sorry a state as its people were. Houses hulked in their neat rows, half buried in snow. The paved streets were invisible. Even the bukshah felid was empty and silent, devoid of life. If only the beasts had been there, they would have been making all kinds of noise at her sudden approach. And Rowan certainly would have heard them, from wherever he was, and would have come to see what all their fuss was about.
Clearly, that would not happen today. Numbly, Zeel realized that she had probably missed her friends completely. They had likely already started off to the mountain, numbering only three when they were obviously supposed to be four. In the back of her exhausted mind, she scolded them for not knowing better. Who else did they think the one for flight was supposed to be? How could Rowan not guess it and wait for her? He was supposed to be better at this by now…
The only sign of life anywhere was a feeble plume of smoke rising from a single chimney. She decided to follow it and land there, because she hadn't the strength left to hike through the whole village toward it. To her surprise and happiness, she found that that she was flying toward the bakery, the only house she was really familiar with.
She wondered, though, who else was there, keeping a fire lit in that fireplace. It certainly wasn't Allun, or his mother, or his wife. And she doubted very much now that it was one of her friends, or anyone she knew particularly well. Who else wasn't marching toward the coast…?
Finally, as she flew right over the place, her strength gave way and she plummeted into the snow below—decidedly not her most graceful landing. For a long moment, all she could do was lie in the snow, shivering uncontrollably, unable to feel anything. She tried to move and push herself up, but found that it was no use. She had never been disabled like this before, and it terrified her. She hoped and prayed that someone inside the bakery had seen or heard her fall, and was coming to help.
After what seemed like a very long time, a face did appear in her sight. It peered down at her with alarm and concern behind the hood that covered it. The elder pulled that hood back for a better look, and Zeel saw who had found her.
It was Lann, Rin's chieftain, who had apparently not joined her people on their journey. If Zeel had been more herself, it would have puzzled her deeply. She had never cared much for Lann, because she always seemed to go out of her way to be mean to the people she cared about, just because they were different. Still, the woman passionately cared for the rest of her people, and it was odd that he wasn't with them. In this moment, however, Zeel was just overwhelmingly relieved that someone had found her. She would have been glad to see just about anyone.
While she went on shivering in the snow, Lann knelt beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She couldn't feel that hand at all; and even if she could have, she doubted she would have felt any warmth from it. The frail old woman was probably just as cold as she was.
"Oh, this is no good," Lann sighed, sounding almost fretful. "Come, child, let us have you inside. Quickly, now."
Zeel didn't know Lann well at all, but she knew better than to keep her waiting. She was an impatient woman, and quite used to being obeyed at once. She was hardly different from Sheba, in that way. So Zeel gathered her meager strength and forced herself up. The woman kept her hands on her shoulders, steadying her as she lifted herself painfully from the ground, but Zeel wondered why she bothered. If she fell back into the snow, Lann wouldn't have the strength to hold her up.
It must have been a pitiful sight. But Zeel managed to get to her feet, and began shuffling as best she could through the snow, toward the front door. As she did, she glanced around and noticed for the first time that pieces of furniture lay here and there, partially covered in fresh snow. Tables, chairs, what looked like a spice rack, and other tangles of wood and nails seemed to be surrounding the whole building. Zeel had never understood the purpose of furniture, herself, but she wondered why all of Allun's had been tossed into the street like this. Almost every piece was laying on its side, legs sticking up in the air like a toppled creature, as if they had been flung there in a hurry.
But she was too tired and numb to think hard about this. And when Lann pushed the door open for her, the gust of warm air that greeted her drove every other problem from her mind. It gave her a boost of hopeful strength, and she found the will to move a little faster inside. Lann followed her and sharply shut the door behind them.
At last, she was safe for a moment. She stumbled to the fire and fell to her knees, desperately holding her hands to it for warmth. With a start, she saw that her fingertips had turned blue. The heat from the fire was so intense compared to her numbness, it stung and burned; but she let it soak into her skin, and let it revive her. Once she could move a little, she reached for her kite and pulled the silk around herself.
For a long time after that, it was silent. Zeel wasn't surprised, and was a bit thankful, if she was honest. She spent most of that time shivering uncontrollably, her teeth chattering too hard to form words at all. And now that she was more herself and could think clearly, she was slightly nervous to have to speak to Lann by herself. The woman was intimidating, and she had never faced her alone before. She still wasn't sure how Lann felt about her, either. The woman was a famous warrior, an ideal daughter of Rin, who despised the Zebak more than anything else in the world. Having to bring one into the bakery this way must have been horribly uncomfortable for her, even if she knew that Zeel was a friend.
As it was, she couldn't see Lann. She could hear the old woman in the kitchen, most likely avoiding her for as long as possible. In a corner, she caught sight of a figure asleep on the floor, covered in blankets. For a split second, Zeel thought it might actually be one of her friends, left behind after all, sleeping too deeply to have heard her come in. A closer look betrayed this hope. It was a woman she recognized faintly, though she couldn't remember her name. An even closer look showed that woman's face was deathly pale, and that her breathing was ragged and slow. She looked terribly sick.
Before she could think much about it, Lann reappeared with a steaming mug in her hands. She bent and pushed it urgently, though not unkindly, into Zeel's hands.
"Drink this," she commanded. "It will help."
"Thank you," Zeel murmured back, and sipped the broth with relish. It was only a small comfort, but it immediately worked wonders. She was already beginning to feel better. Unable to help herself, she glanced at the sleeping woman and cleared her throat cautiously.
"What happened to her?" she asked.
"She has been injured," Lann answered simply. "A misadventure in the night, I'm afraid. We've another plague from the mountain, it seems."
Zeel groaned softly. "That's what I thought…"
"And why you came here, I have no doubt. It was a foolish thing of you to do alone, young lady; however, I am glad that you have done it. I had a suspicion you might come, sooner or later. I will be thankful it was sooner."
Zeel gripped her cup of soup, letting its warmth fill her hands, and then she sighed heavily. "Please, tell me what has happened."
She had expected Lann to be curt and gruff with her. Instead, the woman seemed pleased that she had asked so much with a single question.
"Monsters have come down from the mountain," the woman explained. "I believe Rowan called them ice creepers this morning, though I don't know where he came by that knowledge. He is speaking in rhymes again, though it says nothing of these creatures. It spoke of beasts, and hunger, and sacrifice…. I do not like the sound of it…"
"I know the rhyme," Zeel said helpfully. "The Keeper of the Crystal heard it, too. Perlain told me of it, and so it was decided that I should come and help."
She thought briefly of adding that her father had tried to prevent this and knew nothing of it, but decided to keep that to herself. As if reading her mind somehow, Lann nodded in approval.
"Then that will save me a great deal of time," the woman said crisply. "So, you know the words, and have guessed at their meaning as the rest of us have, and will be unsurprised that your little friends have already left."
Zeel scoffed and rolled her eyes. "I can always count on Rowan to keep me out of his troubles. He knows that I would help him, if only he would let me."
"And that is exactly what he fears, I think," Lann answered with a shrug, walking off toward the nearby couch. It was the only piece of furniture that seemed to be left in the house. "He is very fond of you, and he is always in trouble. He would spare everyone that, if he could. Luckily for him, his closest people are just as stubborn as he is."
Suddenly curious, Zeel tilted her head to one side. "I know it is a silly thing to ask at a time like this, but why have Allun's things been thrown outside? Did he do that?"
"No, no, that was my idea. These ice creepers fear fire—that much we have learned. And we encountered three in the night, not far from this house at all. If more venture down and wander into the village, I will set those things ablaze. I've already doused most of them with oil; in fact, it was why I was outside at all when you crashed. It will be a feeble protection, but it is the best I can do for the moment."
Lann was fussing with something that had been on the couch, but now she looked up and gazed at the sick woman on the floor. She sighed sadly and shook her head.
"I can't imagine that Allun and Marlie will be greatly pleased with me, on their return. I've dragged everything in their house I could carry outside, and soaked it all in fish oil. They will return to find their furniture reduced to ashes, most likely. And I don't look forward to seeing Bronden's face when she discovers it, either; she will have a relapse, no doubt."
"Why is that?"
"Well, she will have to make them new furniture from scratch. It will be an enormous delay and a load of work she is unfit for presently. That aside, she and Marlie have been at odds since they were children. It will be unpleasant for all four of us."
Zeel sipped her soup, having nothing to add. She knew less of Bronden than she knew of Lann—so she knew exactly nothing about her. She didn't understand how there could be so much fuss over a bunch of wood, tacked together with nails, which served no purpose in her mind. She also didn't understand how anyone could be at odds with Marlie the weaver, because the woman was so pleasant and kind.
"In any case," Lann continued, "you have important work to do presently, and you won't accomplish it dressed as you are. As such… I have something to aid you on your journey."
Zeel turned to look and saw the old woman holding up a strange-looking garment for her to see. It was a long hooded cloak, and seemed to be made entirely of wooly bukshah hide. She feebly climbed to her feet and came closer for a better look.
"I believe I have heard of these," she commented, stroking the thick wool with reverence. "The Travelers tell tales and sing songs of them."
"Yes, indeed they do. By some miracle or trick of destiny, I have been in possession of the last four that remain. I've already sent your friends off with three of them. Norriss and Shaaran wear those that were worn by my own parents. Rowan wears the one that belonged to his grandfather. This last one was my own, presented to me when I was only little older than you are now. Please, try it on."
Well, now. That certainly did have a touch of destiny about it. Zeel shrugged off her kite and took the cloak, fastening it around her shoulders and pulling the hood over her head. It was heavier than she had expected, and felt a bit bulky to her. As she pulled it around herself, though, she began to feel warmer right away. All the cold was blocked out, leaving a warm shelter inside. It was the warmest she had felt in weeks. She took a deep breath and smiled, savoring the feeling.
Seeing that the cloak fit her well, Lann nodded in satisfaction. "It suits you," she said. "It has been waiting for you, I think. I regret that I have little to spare you in this moment, but this small gift will serve you well."
Zeel pushed back the hood and shook her head. "This is no small gift at all. Why, it has changed everything! I barely made it all this way, and had wondered how I would survive on the mountain. I would have done it, somehow, if I had to. I'm glad that I won't. Thank you."
Lann waved away the thanks and moved back toward the door. "Thanks are unnecessary. If anyone is to be thanked, it is you. Are you well enough for another flight, child?"
It was tempting to linger by the fire a moment longer, but Zeel knew that another moment's hesitation could be deadly. She picked up her kite and her pack and strode to the door, feeling full of purpose.
"I think I'm well enough for anything, now," she said. "Will you be alright on your own like this?"
"Don't worry about me. I, too, will survive somehow. Now fly with all haste to your friends. They need all the help they can find."
"Then they won't have to look far for it."
The two shook hands, and Zeel felt that they had come to an understanding. It seemed that the woman had changed greatly and suddenly since they had last met. She had never known Lann to be so welcoming, so helpful, or so trusting. It was unexpected, but Zeel decided that she like it.
She would have liked to marvel at this longer, but knew that there was no time. Instead, she let herself out and unfurled her kite, pointing herself toward the foreboding shape of the mountain. She paused for a final moment to look back over her shoulder.
"I will see you again," she said for the second time that morning. Then she let the freezing wind sweep her up and away, toward her destination and another adventure.
WELL. This thing only took a year and a half to remember to finish. Well done, Freida.
I mean, honestly. Who didn't want to see what was happening on Zeel's end of things? She shows up in Ice Creepers—just kinda rolls up into the club like, "The Keeper told everyone about the riddle. And then I flew here in the freezing cold. And then Lann gave me this weird cloak. But nevermind all that, let's climb Death Mountain!"
Yeah, her perspective couldn't have possibly been boring. Besides, Zeel is made of glitter and fabulousness, and automatically makes everything 1000000% better. XD
So, that is this thing. I hope everyone has enjoyed it!
Roses to all,