Numair shivered and drew his cloak closer around him as he observed his young friend. The late autumn air cared little for his layers of clothing, and chilled him to the bone. He silently cursed whichever gods had decided that he should be spending his day freezing in the middle of a pasture instead of by their campfire or, better yet, back at his rooms in the palace where he should have been a week ago.
What kept him there was his friend and student, if he could reasonably call her that anymore, whose attention was firmly focused on healing a lamb—her ninth that day. Their return from Dunlath had taken a detour when Daine had heard gossip, passed among the people, of a sickness spreading among the livestock to the east. Recognizing a losing battle when he saw one Numair agreed look into the situation with her.
She'd been working for three days straight and, despite her power, he was getting worried that she was wearing herself too thin.
With a bleat the lamb jumped from her lap and ran towards the rest of the flock. Daine opened her eyes and wiped a sweat-soaked curl from her forehead.
"At least they bounce back fast." She said, accepting the wineskin from Numair and drinking deeply. "There's just one left."
"Daine," he took the wineskin back, eyeing her warily.
"Just one," she reached to a sheep with gray spots that had approached her. "I'll be fine; I promise. I think she's the last of them. If there's no sign of the sickness tomorrow we should be able to leave the day after." She pulled the animal closer into her lap and Numair sighed.
"Fine, but that's it and you need to eat." If she had been trying to hide how her hands trembled she had failed. Daine looked over her shoulder, towards the village, and bit her lip.
"I'll go," he offered before she had to think of an excuse. "Just go slow," he strode away from her, practically feeling her roll her eyes.
His long legs carried him swiftly, but nonetheless dusk had begun to settle around him by the time he reached the Inn. The building glowed softly, candlelight seeping from every opening, beckoning him with the promise of warmth.
He entered in a gust of autumn wind and noticed that any eyes that turned to him turned away again just as quickly. Numair rubbed his hands together; the room was stuffy but a welcome relief from the chill outside. As he waited for the innkeeper he could not help but overhear bits of conversation among the din: witch, freak, dangerous.
He breathed deeply, reeling in his both his temper and gift—eliminating the sparks of black fire that had appeared at his fingertips. A magical display would do nothing to help the villager's opinions. He was used to that kind of talk after all these years but for once it wasn't about him. Now it was Daine that they whispered about.
Word about what had happened in Carthak just a couple months ago had spread quickly. While few knew the real story, most people had an idea of what had occurred. Some versions were obscenely exaggerated while others, he had noted with some amusement, were less fantastical than the truth. Nonetheless, the effect on Daine's reputation was swift. She had been an oddity, to say the least, for years. Now she was a force of nature. Despite her protests at his saying so, she was one of the most powerful mages in the Eastern lands and people were taking note—for better or worse.
The innkeeper approached Numair and made a sound in his throat, but did not speak.
"Bread, cheese, and a skin of mulled cider please." Numair placed his money on the counter but it wasn't until he added, "to go," that the man silently took it and turned away. The man had been much more hospitable upon their initial arrival. By the second night, however, word of exactly who they were had spread through the village and the tavern had emptied out but for the few bold enough to come and make their feelings clear as to what exactly they thought of his friend. They had decided to camp after that. Daine said it wasn't worth the trouble, but he saw the hurt in her eyes as they packed their things.
The innkeeper placed a parcel and a small skin on the counter and Numair collected it, noting that the skin was lukewarm at best. Disappointed, but not looking to make a scene, Numair took the parcel with him as he departed back into the chilly evening.
The return seemed to take longer. He generally saw well in the dark but with no moon to guide him he stepped carefully. He had not thought to spell something to provide light for her, knowing she could shift her eyes to suit the darkness, and was forced to call her name as he neared where he thought she should be.
"Daine?" He called again, approaching a dark outline. There had been one particularly feisty ram that did not like him one bit and it would be just his luck if he stumbled upon that creature before he did Daine.
"Over here." The figure lurched, becoming taller, and Numair conjured a magelight. Daine was illuminated, looking tired but otherwise well.
"All done?" He reached out and lifted her chin, inspecting her face carefully for signs of overextension. She brushed him off.
"Yes, with any luck that will be the last of it." She extended her arms, stretching out her limbs. "I'll be feeling the effects of staying in one position for three whole days longer than any magical toll."
He laughed at that and they began to walk towards the path, guided by Numair's gift.
"You'll have to watch your posture when you heal. You know there are students who have hunchbacks by the time they earned their robes."
"Oh, well that explains it," she eyed him and he nudged her lightly with his elbow.
"It's taken years of practice for me to correct it," he laughed. "Did you know I used to have my robe specially made?" He took a sip of the cider and grimaced at the thick, cold liquid.
"Not good?" Daine reached for it, and mimicked his own expression after taking a swig. "Could you warm it?"
"Only if you are looking to wear it instead of drink it."
She chuckled and handed the skin back to him, accepting a piece of bread in exchange. She was steady on her feet but how quickly she devoured the bread betrayed how much the healing had taken out of her. He handed her another piece, splitting his own share.
They walked in silence, munching on their simple dinner and crunching through the dried leaves and stones littering the path. Numair was mildly irked to see her share some of her dinner with a pair of raccoons who came to greet her but said nothing, knowing that she hadn't realized he'd given her some of his own.
One of the raccoons (Hides-in-Leaves, Daine informed him) scurried up Numair's breeches and tried to dig through his pockets before Daine asked him to get down. Amused, but not that amused, Numair walked ahead to put some space between himself and the furry miscreants Daine had befriended. He heard the sound of her footsteps soon enough, keeping his easy pace to allow her time to catch up.
It took a moment for him to realize that she had stopped again. He turned, letting out an easy breathe to see that she was still there. He closed the distance between then swiftly. Following her gaze, he saw a cabin tucked into the trees. The window was open and warm, flickering light spilled from within. A family had gathered around a table—a man had two children enraptured with his words while a woman fed a toddler and balanced a baby on her hip.
"Daine?" He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Everything alright?"
She jumped and turned to him. "Yes, everything's fine." She threw another wistful glance to the window, gesturing towards it. "It's just nice," she shrugged and moved forward one more.
"Being warm? That would be nice." He followed her, her laugh joining the rustle of the leaves beneath their feet.
"Well, yes." Even though he could only see the back of her head he was sure she rolled her eyes. "But I meant them together. That," she gestured behind her, in the direction of the house once more. "The home. Being loved." She said the last part so quietly that he nearly missed it.
A pained silence stretched out as her words sank in. For all they had been through he often forgot that she had lost her own home just a few years prior. His own experiences should have taught him how long that kind of pain takes to heal.
He reached out for her but thought better of it and retracted his hand. He followed behind her, watching her but unsure of what to say. He was glad when they reached camp and were able to busy themselves with their nightly routine. Daine tended to Cloud and Spots while he started a fire. She joined him shortly after and he passed what was left of the cheese to her, content on returning to his own endeavor of seeing just how close he could get his hands to the warmth of the fire without actually igniting himself.
"Careful," Daine chided. "Remember what happened the last time we went to The Swoop?"
Numair sighed and sat back. "It was still preferable to being cold."
"You and Alanna would light the whole country on fire if it meant you never had to feel a draft again."
"Hyperbole. It means to exaggerate something." He smiled at her.
"I suppose, but only a little." Daine shrugged. He could tell by her posture that she wouldn't be awake much longer. He didn't respond—thoughts laying heavily on her comments earlier that night.
He was startled from his contemplation when Daine stood, suddenly, and brushed crumbs from her breeches.
"If I don't turn in now I'll never make it to my bedroll." She yawned, stretching out her arms behind her. Daine smiled at him and turned to move away.
"You know I love you, right?" He wasn't sure who was more surprised. Daine turned back to him and blinked. The firelight reflecting in her eyes made them seem bigger somehow—more vulnerable.
"I mean, we all do," he cleared his throat, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. "Onua, Alanna, George…" He moved his hands in time with his voice, gesturing something he was trying to explain, before sighing and hunching his shoulders.
"What I'm trying to say, magelet, is that I consider you to be my family." He scuffed his boot against the dirt, clearing a patch of scattered leaves. There was a moment of silence before he looked at her. She was looking into the fire again; arms crossed over her chest, eyes over bright and an odd expression on her face. It was something sad and happy all at once. She turned to him and smiled. The kind of smile you offer when you don't want to let your emotions get the best of you.
"I love you too, Numair." She shrugged and he felt his throat constrict. He offered a nod as acknowledgement, unable to provide any additional words. She smiled at him again, wider this time, and turned away—retreating into the darkness. He listened as she readied herself for bed. He stayed up and watched the first burn out long after her breathing had steadied into a peaceful slumber. She had been right, earlier; it was nice.