A/N: I swear, the growing lengths between my updates is not intentional. Life has just been lifeing a lot these last few months. But if you're reading this, please know that we're over the halfway point - which is also kind of sad, as I've been working on this story for so long (i.e. a lot longer than intended because I hoped it would be as close to perfect before each chapter gets uploaded). If you've stuck with me this long, I can't thank you enough for your patience and I hope you read until the end!
Murtagh would never take Thorn for granted under the best of circumstances, but the warmth he could provide, the shelter from the wind, and the ability to hunt small prey for Murtagh and Albriech, was no small blessing. It was one thing to be this far north and constantly moving. Even the nights, they slept only a few hours to keep from being stationary too long. But here, waiting for any sign or update regarding Hal, Baldor, and Eldrin, there was nothing else to occupy them.
"Argetlam," Ysildea called out, coming to stand beside him. Every day, he stood in front of the mountain wall where Zola had disappeared — the door likely hidden by some kind of illusion — waiting for news. They had promised not to follow unless someone came to retrieve them. But with each passing day, the safety of his wife and friends grew more and more precarious. He did not want to escalade the already, obviously tense situation they found themselves in, but Zola and whoever else was inside would be sorely disappointed if they thought Murtagh would leave anytime soon without Hal.
"Argetlam," Ysildea repeated, waiting until he turned to look at her before continuing. "I know this is not ideal —"
"I'm not leaving," he said, already predicting what she would say. "I cannot force you all to remain here, nor will I. I understand if you must go. But I won't leave until I get Hal."
Ysildea shook her head. "No. We swore an oath to serve you and Miss Halen, and we will see that promise through. But the fact remains that, unfortunately, Irindriel and I's rations are running low, and the weather is intensifying with each passing day. Thorn is helping us remain afloat, but we cannot hope to survive out here for much longer. We do not have enough provisions to return and barging in could prove perilous. We need to figure out a secondary plan should they refuse to let us see our comrades."
Murtagh was hesitant to speak into existence the only viable solution: someone would have to try and get in. But it was risky. He did not think Hal was in danger if Zola was there, but it wasn't a guarantee. And Baldor and Eldrin were mere hostages, spared only for Hal's cooperation. If they made one wrong move, their friends could be killed in retaliation. Murtagh could not do that to Albriech, or to the elves.
"It's only been a few days," Murtagh responded, refusing to meet the woman's piercing, dark gaze. "Hal will also be fighting to figure something out."
"Miss Halen may not know we're here."
"She knows I would never leave her," he amended. "Therefore, she knows we're here."
"Oi! I see something!"
It was Albriech who had shouted, jogging towards them and pointing at the mountainside. They looked over and, sure enough, it was beginning to quake. The solid wall suddenly moved, sliding open until it was about the size of an average tunnel opening, no taller or wider than eight feet at the most. Zola stepped through, wearing her furs from before.
She approached them with a rather menacing gaze, her eyes saying the exact opposite as she told them, "You," she said sharply, glaring at Murtagh, "are to follow me at once."
Something in her tone told Murtagh that she was not pleased with this decision at all, which didn't make him feel great. Regardless, however, he released a sigh of relief, choosing only to nod rather than respond. Judging by her expression, he had a feeling that if he did or said the wrong thing, Zola would simply turn back around and leave them outside to fend for themselves.
After they put out their fire and gathered their meager belongings, they moved towards Zola only for her to raise her hand and stop them.
"Not all of you. Just the traitor's son."
The group grew still and Murtagh felt his indignation rise, but not because she was so obviously trying to goad him. That was the least of his cares. "Excuse me?"
She gestured with her chin to the narrow tunnel opening. "Where we are going, the dragon will not fit. Not to mention some of your…appearances, would be cause for concern."
"I'm not leaving them behind."
"You have no choice. If you wish to find shelter and see Halen, then the rest of your group must remain."
"I'm not going anywhere without Thorn!"
"You are in no position to tell me what can and can't be done. The dragon will stay here. If you are so hell bent on remaining by his side, then you can stay out here with him! I shall give Halen your regards."
Go, Thorn urged, glancing over and Murtagh with a gentle look. Murtagh did not move, his chest tight. If Hal's safety were not at stake, Murtagh would, in fact, choose to stay.
Murtagh turned slightly, his jaw clenched so tight a vein throbbed along his neck and forehead, as Thorn continued. I am not afraid for myself. But I am afraid for Hal. Something about this place does not sit well with me. I do not trust these people, but they appear to know something that we do not. Go with them. I will remain out here. My body can handle it.
"We will remain with him, Shur'tugal," Irindriel said, speaking up. He stepped forward with an encouraging smile while Ysildea remained by Thorn's side. "It's more important that you see Miss Halen."
Murtagh turned back to look at Zola. "At least let Albriech come. He is human, his appearance won't cause any alarm. He at least has a right to see his brother, whom you also took."
Albriech said nothing, but it was clear from his expression that he was grateful for Murtagh's request.
"Please," Murtagh added, softening his tone.
"Fine, just figure yourselves out. Waste anymore time and I'll leave you all out here to freeze to death."
Good thinking, said Thorn, nudging Murtagh gently with his nose. If it's just the three of us, I can fly them where they need to be to get proper food and water.
You promise to remain close? You know we haven't been able to sense Hal so I doubt you and I will have any better luck. But I want you all nearby when we can finally leave.
Aye, I promise.
Good. Be safe, Thorn.
You too, young one. Give Hal my best. I am eager to know she is well.
Then go. I will be waiting for you both.
As Thorn and the elves stepped back, Zola nodded, content with the arrangement. "Leave your weapons behind, then follow me. If you are caught with so much as a sewing needle, we will kill the two hostages and you."
The lack of sentiment in her tone was chilling, and it left no room to doubt. Begrudgingly, Albriech and Murtagh followed her orders, leaving their things behind.
When they were done, Zola turned and led them back the way she had come, he and Albriech following after her. He felt a chilling sensation just as he stepped inside the mountain, separate from the frigid temperatures that clung to every inch of him, before finding himself standing in a small cavern.
Not one to easily let his guard down, Murtagh braced himself for a possible ambush or attack, aware that he and Albriech were at an extreme disadvantage. His heart hammered in his chest, trying to think quickly in case they needed to defend themselves. But they were alone as the cave wall closed in behind them.
"This mountain is fortified with magic older than anyone in this room," she told them. "Not only have we have found refuge within these walls from numerous creatures, but you will find it near impossible to contact your friends left behind. So do not think you will be able to take advantage of our hospitality while you are here."
Murtagh gritted his teeth, unsure if their odds were really much better here than if they had just remained out in the elements. He didn't know how dangerous these people were, or how many of them there were. He did not want to do anything on the assumption that these were Hal's people. But if forced to choose between that and Hal's overall safety, or even just their own survival…well, he just had to hope it wouldn't come to that.
"We are grateful that you have provided us some shelter from the elements," said Albriech diplomatically. "We have no business with you otherwise and simply wish to rest and make sure our comrades are well."
Zola made a low, displeased sound but turned and continued on down the tunnel that was lit before them. Murtagh gave Albriech a grateful nod, glad someone was able to think clearly enough to know how best to keep the peace.
Slowly, he began to smell that familiar and intruding scent of rotten eggs, although it was not nearly as strong as it was above ground. At first, he thought he was losing his mind until he noticed Albriech scrunching up his nose as well. Sure enough, at the end of the tunnel, they were blocked by a heavy door, and Murtagh was stunned to realize that it was made of the brimstone from outside. He wondered if there was something protective about the element that it was used here. There were also two men, both in bear masks, guarding the entrance, spears in hand. They stood at attention as the party approached, straightening up with interest as they realized that outsiders were part of the group. However, they said nothing as they gave Murtagh and Albriech a wary but curious once-over.
They were led through another tunnel, but this one filtered out into a larger cavern that was teeming with people. Murtagh's eyes grew wide with surprise as he took it all in. It was, by no means, impressive. No skill or art had gone into the expansive space. It was obviously meant to be a place of shelter, nothing more.
However, he saw makeshift tents and cots where people could lounge and talk. There were a few animals, dogs, and chickens mostly, but he saw a few goats being pulled through the crowds. How on earth they had gotten any beasts up here, he would never know. But everyone stopped moving, stopped talking, at the sight of the group, slack-jawed and stunned. There were whispers, of course, and a few frightened glances. But nothing that was cause for concern.
Murtagh, however, could not help but stare back.
Whenever Zola had been outside, she had been covered in furs to protect herself, which was to be expected. However, these people wore regular clothes, slacks and dresses, and boots and the like. But more than that, Murtagh could see their faces. Their skin was dark, a deep ebony like the people of Illium and like Hal herself. Although their complexions were far more pallid by comparison, years of being stuck to live under a mountain.
"Keep moving," Zola's voice urged, almost nervous.
They were soon taken away from the gawking crowd, and Murtagh caught Albriech's eye, who seemed equally unnerved by their situation. The tunnels traveled deeper within the mountain than anyone had expected, and Murtagh began to wonder how much further they would go before they suddenly stopped before a set of doors that hardly looked durable. Zola quickly ushered them in, as if wary of what prolonged exposure to the others would do.
Hal slammed into him before he even had a moment to realize she was there waiting. He took a step back to brace himself before they both went down, Hal's arms tight around his neck. But the constriction on his lungs was worth the relief that he felt at the familiar weight and presence.
"Thank gods you're all right," he breathed, a painful anxiousness that had been gripping his chest slowly unfurling.
"I'm all right but what about you? Heavens, you're practically frozen over. I'm so sorry I kept you waiting, I tried to get them to let you all in sooner—"
He shook his head, knowing that the delay hadn't been her doing. "I'll be fine."
She peered hopefully over his shoulder. "And Thorn? Is he with you? What about the others?"
"He wouldn't have been able to fit, and the elves' appearance might have frightened the others." Which, having seen what he had so far, he couldn't exactly deny such a statement now. "Thorn is displeased, but he understands. And of course, the elves were nothing but diplomatic. However, the three of them will fare well enough for the time being. But they are all safe and unharmed."
Hal nodded, stepping back to look at Albriech before wrapping him in a similar hug, which the man gladly returned. Murtagh realized then that Baldor and Eldrin were in the room and embraced them both. The tension in his body from the stress of their wellbeing began to ebb. Taking them all in, everyone seemed tense, but no worse for wear.
Murtagh wanted to ask about Zola, and turned only to see that the woman had not come in after them. He didn't know if she simply wanted to give them privacy or if it was, perhaps, something else. However, he knew better than to ask with the others near.
"I should also warn you both," she said in a low voice, "that Thea is here. Or she was. I have not seen her for some time though."
Baldor and Eldrin did not react as Murtagh and Albriech did, so Hal clearly had already told them. "But why would Thea —"
Murtagh looked at Hal. To anyone who didn't know her, her expression would've been unreadable. The familiar mask she had worn when they first met was carefully composed over her features. Her eyes, though, confirmed what had been mere speculation: the Sani were alive. He didn't say anything. Just walked over and hugged her again, harder and tighter than before. He could only just make out the feeling of her fingers clinging to his coat. He took a slow breath, palming the back of her head, letting her know he'd hold her for however long she needed.
When she pulled away, her smile was sad and somewhat chagrined. "I'm okay," she told him in a low voice. "I admit, I was in a bit of shock at first. I won't pretend it's been completely joyous either. But it's true. After all this time thinking I was along…the Sani endure."
He wondered if she'd said the words out loud yet, as something seemed to catch when she did. He cupped her face in his hands, kissing her forehead. "I know this must all be confusing, iet dunei. But I am so happy. So very, very happy."
She nodded, but when she spoke she was speaking to Albriech as well. "I've already asked meals be brought to you. But first, let me show you to the bath springs so we can try to relieve your body from the nasty cold." He knew there was much she couldn't say in front of the others, but a quick, shared look between them let Murtagh know they would discuss everything later.
Murtagh had not realized just how deep into his bones the cold had sunk until he was naked and trying to dip his toes into the warm water. His nerves felt heightened to the temperature difference, the stinging painful yet relieving. His skin was frightfully pale from lack of circulation, especially around his toes and fingers. But he eased himself into the water, sighing as he leaned back to get comfortable. The spring was only a few feet deep, but he hated that he couldn't sit. He had to keep himself propped up on the cave floor. However, it was certainly better than nothing.
There was a soft knock on the door and a quiet, "It's me," before Hal opened the door with a stack of clothes in her hand, and a blanket. She shot him a small smile seeing that he'd already climbed in and asked, "How's the water?"
"Good." She set the items down near their bags before walking over to him, tucking her skirt under her legs as she sat down. They didn't speak much as Murtagh rid himself of the filth and cold that had seeped into his flesh, Hal helping him to wash and rinse his hair until he smelled of plain soap. The clothes the Sani provided were unremarkable garments, but Hal chuckled as he slipped into the trousers and tunic, gasping at the modest comfort and warmth they provided.
"I know," she told him. "Surprised me too."
She guided him to her room, seemingly oblivious to the wandering eyes that followed their every step. It was impossible to tell if the rest of the Sani knew his identity like Zola did, but he got the feeling they did not. Instead, they seemed more focused on the fact that he was an outsider. However, there were quite a few excited whispers when they saw Hal's hand in his.
Once they were alone again, she wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and putting him in front of the fire. "Stay here until I get back."
He had no desire to move, nodding to show he'd heard before she slipped away. He gazed at the flames, a creeping exhaustion coming over him as the heat enveloped him gently. Hal was gone just long enough that he'd begun to doze off when the door opened and she slipped back in, carrying a tray of soup, bread, and tea.
"I'm sorry, I was helping Albriech get situated with Baldor and Eldrin. I wanted to make sure everyone had their meals. I wasn't sure when you'd last eaten but pickings were slim to begin with, so I gathered you must be famished."
He laughed, groggy as she sat down beside him with the tray. "You're always taking care of me, iet dunei."
Her smile didn't quiet reach her eyes as she passed him the bowl. He hadn't eaten since yesterday, so the light meal was perfect on his stomach. "What about you?" he asked, realizing there was no food for her.
"I ate this morning. Besides, rations here are…low, so I try not to eat too much so that there's enough for the Sani."
The way she spoke indicated that this pertained to what was bothering her. What was causing her distant gazes and quiet tone. Rations were low? Did that mean what he thought it meant?
He briefly set his food down, suddenly remembering. "I have something for you." He fumbled in the pocket of his coat, pulling out her hair comb.
Hal let out a laugh of relief, her head dropping to his shoulder as she took the comb from him, wrapping her hands around it. "I thought I'd lost it for good in the ambush. Thank heavens you found it."
They were quiet while he ate, the comfort of their physical presence better than any conversation. Not that there was much to discuss that would be pleasant enough to have over a meal, even one as light as this. He polished off his bread and tea, before pushing the now empty tray aside and turned to face Hal.
"Talk to me. Something's bothering you. What's going on here?"
She didn't quite meet his gaze, as if nervous. He reached out and took her hand, holding it in his lap. Her smile was soft as he gave her a reassuring squeeze, but it quickly vanished as she began to speak.
"As you've already figured out, these people are survivors of my village," Hal began. "Thea's penultimate goal seems to have been to rid the world of magic. And I think she did it so that the Sani would not only be the sole users of magic she believes was stolen from them, but because…"
She took a deep breath. "This is only speculation, but I think Thea is dying. When I saw her, she looked different. I could see the spirits that possessed her, that's how translucent her skin has become. Even as a Shade, her appearance struck me as wrong."
"Can she still use magic?"
"I don't know. If she can, she hasn't used it around me. But I think she might have known that spell would weaken her. I almost suspect she thought it would kill her outright. If she'd been a normal magician, it probably would have. But she called me here for a reason. I think…I think she wants me to finish what she started. She wants me to save the Sani."
"What do you mean?"
"They are dying here. They lost so many over the years, to famine and exhaustion, and injuries that were left untreated because they did not have the proper supplies." She began to talk faster, and Murtagh forced himself to listen despite the ache in his chest caused by the pain in her voice. "They have children here who have never ventured beyond these mountain walls and yet they refuse to leave. Those creatures out there, like the one that attacked us, will hunt them down if they are not careful. And the only reason they have made it this long is because…because…"
She couldn't say it, and something in his mind clicked, the pieces falling together at last in a bitter reality that he had not braced himself for. "Thea."
Hal nodded. "I don't know how she did it, rider. Her magic, her ferociousness, is the only thing keeping them alive. Half the equipment here I reckon she stole from villages to bring here. But if I'm right and she's dying, then the Sani will likely follow behind her. I have no doubt this generation of children will be the last if nothing is done. I finally found my people and I may lose them all over again."
Hal was adamantly avoiding his gaze. He watched her, stunned by what she had already figured out in a short amount of time. Stunned, by the cruelty. Everything about this situation was cruel. There was nothing he could say — no words of comfort or some pretty speech — that could absolve Hal of the burden that had been laid out before her.
And then he realized…
He felt like someone had kicked him in the chest when it dawned on him their options. Hal had just discovered her people were alive, but they were still dying all the same. And Murtagh knew Hal better than anyone. Knew her heart, her mind, and the choice she had already made. As selfish as it felt to think it, he realized then she was not fighting her tears because of the Sani.
He reached for her, pulling her into his arms. His smile was pained but gentle, not wanting his true feelings to show even as her face was buried in his chest. "You wish to stay, my love."
Rather than answer, he felt her choke on her sobs, her grip on him tightening as if in apology. He could not help but chuckle. "Oh, Hal, I would think you an imposter if I suspected you would leave now."
Hal sat up, her eyes bloodshot and her nose running. "It's not that simple though. Zola said if I leave, I cannot return. But if I stay, I should not hope to leave. She says it would not be fair to move in and out of the lives of the Sani with recklessness. I know she's right, but I can't leave you and Thorn, or the Tenari. I won't, I refuse. But I can't leave them either and I don't know what to do."
He shook his head. "You do, don't you?"
"I don't know what to do that's possible."
"Well pretend it is and tell me anyway."
She struggled to wipe her face, clearing her throat to buy herself some time before responding. She glanced around nervously, loathed to answer him. "If the Sani stay, they will surely die."
"And if they leave…?"
"Murtagh, they hardly keep enough supplies here to sustain themselves. It took us nearly two weeks to travel the mountains and that was with only nine of us. We have elderly and children to think about. Plus, the predators waiting for them out there if we're not careful. For us to travel in such a large group is sure to catch unwanted attention. Then there's the issue of the fact that they don't know me or trust me like they do Thea, and yet they still refuse to listen even to her. They're scared, rider. They have had thirteen years to let that fear seep into the deepest parts of their bodies, making what happened to our people visceral in every decision they make."
"Well Thorn and I can help gather supplies and serve as protection…"
He dropped off as Hal shook her head. "I know it's not fair, but Zola has made it clear that she cannot trust you. What little she has done has been out of courtesy for me, and I still had to beg her for it. I fear you and Thorn would only further incite mistrust."
Murtagh tried not to let his hurt show, but Hal still said, "Rider, I'm so sorry —"
"Don't apologize. I don't like it, but I understand. Besides, Zola more or less made her opinions of me clear to my face, so I can't say I'm surprised. I'm just sorry that it is souring what should otherwise be a happy reunion with your kin."
"No," Hal insisted. She took his face in her hands, pulling him close. "You have nothing to do with this, they're just using you as a scapegoat. But I will never apologize for you. Not to anyone. You have nothing to be sorry for because you have nothing to do with what happened to them."
The knot in his chest lessened some and pressed his lips to her forehead. "Thank you, Hal."
"Besides, you have your own responsibilities to attend to. Nasuada gave us two months. Time is running out and I do not wish to inconvenience her any longer. You are needed back home. I am needed here."
Murtagh looked up at the ceiling, trying desperately to blink back his tears, but to no avail. This is not at all what he had expected, although perhaps he should've seen this coming. Keeping the shaking out of his voice, he asked, "What about Thea?"
Hal's gaze became distant again, uneasy. "I wish I knew," she admitted. "As it stands, if I make a move against her now, the Sani will never trust me, which is apparently the best case scenario."
"If word gets out that you're protecting her, even unwillingly…"
Hal nodded, considering this as well. "We will have to talk with the others, see if they will listen to reason. The elves especially."
"I accidentally let it slip to Baldor and Eldrin just before you arrived," Hal admitted. "That's why I went ahead and told you and Albriech — I didn't want it to seem like I was hiding it."
"But had you not told the others, you wouldn't have told us?"
Hal didn't immediately answer, and Murtagh sighed. "Don't," Hal began sharply. "Things are complicated enough without throwing back in the fact that I have to murder my sister."
"I'm not trying to complicate matters but, unfortunately Hal, they're complicated without my help. The fact remains that we were sent here under the request that if we found Thea, we would put an end to her. You knew this. The Sani being here does not change that."
"But it does, Murtagh. At least for a little while. I just told you that the Sani only trust and listen to Thea. She knows this, it's why she felt comfortable bringing me here at all. She knows I would prioritize the survival of the Sani over retribution."
"So, you intend to let Thea walk free?"
"That's not what I'm saying," Hal corrected quickly. "I just…I just need time, Murtagh. This is all happening so fast and I cannot afford to make any mistakes. I'm not saying that Thea deserves to get off easy after what she's done, nor do I intend to let her. But I do believe that it would be foolish of us to move against her right now. I…she knows the Sani better than I do. She spent the last thirteen years with them. If I'm right and she's serious about getting the Sani out of here, I…I need her help. I hate to even think it, but it's true. I don't see any other way around it."
Sadly, neither did he. But the last thing he wanted was to leave Hal here with Thea, so far away that he could not immediately reach her if she needed aid. He could not even scry her or touch her mind to know she was safe. He would be leaving Hal at the mercy of the figure who had been seemingly trying to kill her all this time. If he were a good husband, he would stay regardless of Hal's insistence. But if he were a good Dragon Rider, he would have to leave, and simply pray for the best possible outcome. His nails dug into his palms. How many more times would he have to choose between his love for Hal and his duty?
"How long?" he asked, softening his tone. He did not want to argue right now. He did not want to risk them parting in anger.
"I don't know. A few months, I'm sure. I'll have a lot to figure out, and that just assumes they come to trust me enough to listen to what I have to say when the time comes."
He swallowed past the lump in his throat, hating himself for what he was about to say next. "A year."
Her body stiffened as she pulled back from him to look at him properly. "What?"
"I'll give you one year. I don't want to rush you or deny you the opportunity to spend time with your people. This should give you a chance to figure something out and hopefully act on it. When that time is up, I will return with Thorn. And regardless of where things stand, I will take you home if it is what you want."
"A year apart?"
Her lower lip quivered, and he could not help but lean forward to kiss her, soft and sweetly. He wanted to say something witty to make her laugh, or something sweet to ease the hurt of the conversation. But truthfully, there was nothing to say. Nothing he could say, rather. A year would be long and grueling without Hal. Without knowing if she was okay. Without waking up to her by his side. He had not expected their reunion to end so quickly, but it was now clear that Hal had not wanted to see him only to know he was okay.
She had needed to see him in order to say goodbye.