The Torchbearer's Quest

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The sky was still dark and the birds were not yet singing. Willow was nervous to face Devon who was keeping post down by the stream. But her fears proved unnecessary. Devon addressed her with utmost civility in the morning.

“Good morning, Willow. Rohan,” he said walking over to the horses.

“M-m-morning,” Willow stuttered, taken off guard.

“Please accept my apology for my behavior last night. My reaction was uncalled for. I let my concern for the success of our quest outweigh my concern for you. That was wrong.”

Willow lowered her head for a second, and then looked him in the eye, “Don’t worry about it. I know I made a costly mistake. I’m sorry, too.”

“Water under the bridge. Ready to retrieve the journal? Thankfully we haven’t traveled far from the Deep Mire. But do you want to risk everything by going back into the swamp?”

Willow thought about her fears of being pulled down into the mud and smothering. Did Devon have the important details memorized? She was confident that he could led them to North Port without the map, but would they have to start from scratch to find the last two pieces or armor? Was going back worth risking their lives again?

If they didn't, would she ever recover from losing her parents’ voices forever? The journal magically preserved a piece of each of them -- their final and most precious gift to her. Willow could not bear the thought of losing it permanently. The pain would have been like losing her parents all over again.

“I’m ready if you're willing.”

Rohan remained quiet throughout their exchange with his arms crossed at his chest.

“What’s wrong, Rohan?” Willow whispered to him. “I thought you’d be happy that Devon has gotten over his anger.”

“How can you just forgive him after he treated you like that?” Rohan asked, completely appalled.

“Because he forgave me.”

“It’s not the same. What you did was unintentional. What he did was inexcusable. And now we're going back into that mud pit.”

“Like you said last night, we all make mistakes,” Willow said as Rohan helped her into the saddle. “If you want, you can stay here with Bellefire, and I'll ride back with Devon.”

“Not on your life,” Rohan said.

If nothing else, their journey had a positive effect on Rohan’s physic. Willow was not sure if it was the actual journey itself, or the healing waters at the Fountain of Life, but she was impressed with the changes in her clumsy best friend. He appeared much stronger than he was just a few days ago. Even his sore legs didn't hinder him as much this morning. Willow hardly had to help as he lifted her into the saddle.

Devon led them around the cluster of almond trees -- still dark with the coming dawn – intentionally skirting away from the Fountain of Life and the radiant light. Willow was too upset to protest, though she would have loved to see the magnificent light once more. A silence fell among them as they neared the mire, but as they passed through the far side of the trees, her mouth fell open in shock and relief. The journal rested in a flattened nest of reeds, muddied, but definitely intact.

“No way!” Rohan cried. “Talk about luck!”

“This is not dumb luck, it’s something much more,” Willow said, looking around for any signs of life. It was evident that the journal did not find its way to the bank on its own. Willow’s mind recalled hearing a rustle in the reeds just after the splash. “Someone placed it here. Look how perfectly protected it is in the reeds. Someone picked it up right after it fell.”

“Who?” Rohan asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine. I wonder if this person or creature knew we would come back. Why didn’t they hold on to it?”

Willow slid off of Bellefire and picked up the book, placing it in the saddle bag. She triple checked that it was securely fastened.

“I think it’s fastened,” Rohan said, eying her with amusement.

“Just making sure,” she said.

“Any chance it was that cloaked character we saw by the Pit of Despair?” Rohan asked still pondering the mystery.

“Not possible. First he sets a Griffin on us and then decides he’s sorry and rescues the journal? Doesn’t make sense. That guy is too shady,” Devon said.

Willow remembered the last entry she had read the morning before and had to agree with Devon’s assessment.

“Let’s get going. I don’t like the idea of anyone following us; good, bad or indifferent,” Devon continued.

“Are you alright, Devon? Regardless of who found it, shouldn’t we just be grateful that they did? And more than that -- they didn’t take it as their own.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to have the journal back. It is a curious business though.” Apprehension had replaced his usual confidence. “But are you ready to head towards North Port?”

“Definitely!” Willow said, her joy at recovering the journal spilling over her concern about the mystery.

Devon avoided the heart of the copse once more, offering the excuse of a more direct course towards their destination. Having broke camp so early that morning, very little light filtered through the canopy. Just beyond the stream where they made camp, they wandered into woodlands interspersed with open grassy glades. Delicious smells greeted them -- a bouquet of pine and rich grass mingled with the fresh scent of morning dew.

Travel was easy and carefree. Willow caught sight of a herd of grazing white-tails in the midst of a clearing just before their approach startled them away. The sky was blanketed in heavy clouds, casting the land beneath in shadow. Autumn had descended very early.

Rohan could not suppress his frustrations. He sighed deeply, occasionally emitting a “humph,” until it became impossible for Willow to remain oblivious towards his ill-temper.

“What’s wrong?” she finally asked, glancing over her shoulder, though she was fairly confident what his answer would be.

He grimaced angrily towards Devon. Willow sighed -- it was exactly what she had suspected. She pulled back lightly on Bellefire’s reins creating some distance between the two horses.

“Why are you so upset with him? He apologized, and it was me, not you, that he offended in the first place,” she said in hushed tones.

“I just don’t get it,” he said, clearly exasperated. “What can you possibly see in him? ”

Willow glanced at Devon. Her eyes took in his expert posting in the saddle, his muscles straining against the confines of his linen clothes, his ruddy brown hair ruffled once again in perfect disarray. He was gorgeous, she wanted to say, but she held her tongue. Even beyond his perfect physic, beyond the purely physical, he possessed this extremely attractive confidence. His easy manner exuded strength and poise, and his heart was set on the success of their quest above all else. Already her mind failed to recall his outburst the night before -- a distant and vague memory -- remembering only the sound of his melodic voice, the warmth and protection of his steady embrace, and the woodsy and masculine scent that clung to the air surrounding him.

Rohan must have recognized her distraction for his irritation grew. “You’ve got to me kidding me!” he growled, not even attempting to keep his voice down.

Devon pivoted in his saddle, “What? What is it?”

Willow quickly covered. “Oh, just another Fire Snake sighting.”

“Really, they are nothing to trifle over, I promise. I will never let anything hurt you.”

Willow was not sure whether it was because of the direction her mind was already wandering or not, but she noted that his tone seemed to be thick with implications. Her personal protector. She liked the sound of that.

Rohan mumbled irritably under his breath, “Are we forgetting last night already?”

Willow decided that it was best not to comment.

“Is Bellefire having trouble keeping up? I can take it easy for a while,” Devon said, obviously noticing the growing expanse between the two horses.

“Oh, no. That’s okay. I just got distracted by the snake and stopped pushing her so hard.”

“Okay. Let me know though.”

“Will do,” she said giving Bellefire a firm kick to close the gap.

Rohan emitted one last heavy sigh and then brooded in silence. Willow knew that she needed to talk to him -- clearly something deeper must have been bothering him to act so out of character -- but now was not the time.

The ceiling of dense clouds never lifted. Willow lost track of time. Eventually the gloomy day turned even drearier. Willow was wondering if a storm was brewing when Devon suggested they make camp in a meadow under a canopy of pine trees. They passed a small winding brook before they broke through the trees and into the glade.

After starting a fire, Willow led the horses back towards the brook to enjoy a long drink and a quick splash in the icy water. Devon armed with his bow, headed deeper into the woods in hopes of hunting some dinner. Rohan finished gathering wood before making his way to the brook. As soon as Willow saw him coming towards her, she was aware that this was the time for the conversation. She felt very apprehensive. How odd. It was Rohan, after all -- what was there to be worried about?

“Hey,” he said casually.

“Hey,” she echoed.

“So look, I’m sorry about this morning. Alright?”

Willow could not help but compare Rohan’s disjointed apology to Devon’s eloquent one.

“It’s alright. I just don’t understand what your issue is with him. At Credo, you get along with everyone. What is it about him?”

“Can I be honest with you?” he asked hesitantly.

“Of course. When have you not?”

“Good point. Well, here goes nothing,” he said, taking a deep breath, and wringing his hands.

“You’re kind of scaring me,” she admitted.

“Please bear with me. I’m new at this.”

“At what? Talking to me?” Willow asked confused.

“At what I’m about to confess.”

“Confess?” Willow said, her voice slightly higher than usual, truly worried now.

“Well, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but its close enough.”

“Okay. Tell me,” Willow said, poorly attempting to hide her nerves.

“You remember the day we met, right?”

“How could I not? We have been best friends ever since.”

“I remember every detail about that day as vividly as if it were yesterday. I remember you, tucked between your parents, your curls cascading down your back. I remember the beautiful white dress you wore that fluttered in the breeze. The excitement in your eyes as you took in your new home. I swear you looked like an Angel -- like you fell straight from heaven's firmament,” Rohan said, his eyes glassy as he looked upon the scene in his mind’s eye. “And then I find out you really are descended from Angels.”

Willow blushed at his description -- obviously his memories were doing her a wonderful kindness, a greater justice than she deserved. The reality, as she remembered it, was not so breathtaking. And for being part Angel, she just hadn't accepted that.

“I remember when I got pushed over, and you danced over and gave me your hand. It was in that moment that I knew – when our hands touched and we locked eyes. For ten years I have kept that secret, since the very first day.”

“What secret?” Willow asked, still confused. What was he trying to say?

“Willow, I...”

“Dinner is served!” Devon said grandiosely, walking between them, a small deer slung over his shoulders.

“Your timing is impeccable,” Rohan snarled.

“Oh, did I interrupt something?” Devon asked, a little too innocently.

“I just meant, I’m starved,” Rohan said defeated.

“Well, I’m happy to assist on that front,” Devon said cheerfully.

“I’ll talk to you later,” Rohan said, hanging his head and dragging his feet as he walked back towards the fire.

It was a quiet night; Devon bantered brightly about the quest, recalling some of their more desperate escapes. But Rohan was clearly out of sorts and only picked at his dinner.

What could Rohan’s secret possibly be? In that moment I knew, he had said. What did he know? Did he some how know all along that she was a Torchbearer? Why keep that from her? Why keep anything from her? His surprise in Professor Edgar’s office seemed too genuine to have been faked. But if he had been keeping something from her for ten years without her any the wiser, maybe she did not know her best friend as well as she believed. But if that was the secret, why would that create such animosity towards Devon?

Willow took first watch again, thankful for some quiet time to reflect. She sorted through her memories for any clues to Rohan's secret but came up blank. As far as she had known, they had only ever been one hundred percent honest and open with one another. By the time Devon came to relieve her late in the night, she had made little progress and her mind as well as body were in dire need of rest. It took her no time at all to fall asleep beside Rohan. His familiar snores and unconscious embrace were the last things that her weary mind registered.

The next morning, fighting against consciousness, Willow’s mind attempted to cling to a fading dream. For once her dream was not fraught with terrors but held a collage of random and seemingly meaningless memories -- a young Willow and Rohan walking hand in hand up the steps to Credo; several years older they dance under the glow of a thousand fireflies; an almost kiss at the end of a spontaneous game of tag -- flashed through her mind. The last image remained frozen. Rohan pleading with her to grasp some truth, some secret, he had kept hidden for ten years.

But then her eyes flashed open and a sheen of sweat dampened her forehead brought on by the importance of the truth she fell short of understanding. She racked her brain trying desperately to uncover the secret to no avail. The dream had felt so real, if she did not know without a doubt that it was indeed a dream, she would have taken it for reality. So much so, that the conversation with Rohan from the night before was hazy and undefined compared to it. Rohan had kept a secret from her. This hurt her to her depths, and the question that haunted her was why?

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