The Grower’s Season was nearing its end, the harvest creeping toward them with each passing day. Vander wondered whether he would be here to see it. Would he help with the cutting and baling of the alfalfa? Would he help Orden with the challenging work of breaking the two year olds? How much time did they have? How much longer before he and Mia left this place, Orden, Hanna and Breahn—his home?
Mia’s training was progressing.
Vander watched her grow stronger as the days went by. Her body beginning to reflect the hours they spent training, her lean frame becoming wiry with muscle. He watched her become faster, her movements smooth and feline as she wound her way around him during their sparring sessions. Vander watched her and began silently, warily, to hope.
True to his word, he did not go easy on her again. Mia’s skin, so pristine that day in the clearing, had not stayed that way for long. By the end of that first session, she’d had countless nicks and bruises, and had been favouring a leg. The next day, the marks were still there, but the fear in her eyes had gone. And her incessant chattering had returned with a vengeance.
Mia snarled and cursed at Vander. She argued and complained, and pestered him every minute they spent together—in the clearing and out of it—and yet, it did not feel as it had before. It was as if some of her anger and frustration, always near overflowing, had been skimmed off. Her words had lost some of their bite, the hateful fire in her eyes had banked. As Mia battled against his every instruction, Vander found himself wondering if it wasn’t all a show. A ruse to keep him from thinking that she was giving over to him in any way. It would be amusing, if it wasn’t so infuriating.
He had no rest from her. Not once he’d made the decision to be more present around the homestead. Vander remembered how he’d shocked them all one evening, nearly a quarter of a cycle ago, when he’d joined them at the table for the first time.
Hanna had of course, said nothing, only smiled kindly and produced another place setting at the table. Breahn hadn’t taken her eyes off Vander, or Mia, sitting quiet and stiff to his right, for the duration of the meal. She had sat across from him, a thoughtful look Vander hadn’t much cared for on her face, and chewed her food as Orden had spoken of all the things that needed doing around the homestead in preparation for the harvest. It hadn’t taken long for the atmosphere around the crowded kitchen table to relax some. Hanna and Breahn had added their voices to the conversation, claiming their respective tasks and responsibilities. Mia, Vander had noticed, had remained tense and silent throughout the entire meal.
It was as if she hadn’t known what to make of his presence outside of the clearing. He was to blame for the questioning looks Mia had sent his way when she’d thought he wouldn’t notice. He was responsible for the silence—heavy and awkward—that descended the moment they found themselves in the same vicinity. It had grated on his nerves more than any amount of bickering or name calling ever had. A few days passed in this manner before Vander had had enough.
It had been a good day, fair, not as outrageously hot as the day before. Vander’s session with Mia had gone well, or at least what passed for well between them, and his flight to the northern boundary of the ward had yielded no concerns. No holes or weaknesses, thank Eldhor. It had been early afternoon when Vander had returned to the homestead, hungry but content.
Breahn had grumbled as she’d found him something to eat. A small meal of bread and leftover stew from the previous night’s dinner was hastily produced and then Vander was ushered out of the kitchen to eat his lunch in the yard.
His meal finished, and finding himself for a rare moment without some pressing chore to attend to, Vander had ventured around the barn to the pen where they kept Mia’s buckskin—and found Mia already there. A few days prior, Vander would have turned on his heel at the sight of her and left without a word. Old habits were hard to break, but Vander had resisted the urge. Things would not improve between them if something didn’t change—if someone didn’t change. Steeling himself, Vander had approached the fence.
Mia’s foal, the buckskin colt who had once refused to eat, had grown at an alarming rate in the time Vander had been away—and since his return.The unprecedented effects of Mia’s raw Power. The horse was nearing a baffling fifteen hands, almost the same size as some of the smaller, mature mares in the pasture. He was thicker in the chest and body than either of the two breeding stallions. Mia had looked like a child, standing in front of the animal with her head bent over a mess of leather loops in her hands.
She hadn’t so much as looked up as Vander had stacked his arms upon the railing and leaned against the pen. The only indication that Mia had been aware of him at all was the sudden stiffness in her shoulders, and the muscle ticking in her jaw. The horse had swung its heavy head to the side, pinning Vander with an amber eye, dislike obvious in that look. Ignoring the animal, Vander had watched with growing exasperation as Mia picked the knotted leather apart and attempted to adjust the halter.
Vander held his tongue as Mia had first retied the knot and then proceeded to attempt to fit the horse’s head through the wrong loop. Brown eyes had flashed Vander’s way with growing frustration as Mia failed again and again to get it right; even the horse had begun stomping its giant hooves in annoyance. It was then that Mia had finally acknowledged Vander.
“Are you lost or something?” Mia had demanded, her voice shrill as she’d faced him, hands planted on her hips.
The question had genuinely confused Vander, “Why would you ask me that?”
“Because I can’t think of a single reason why you’re hanging around here.”
Vander had deserved the barb in her voice—the accusation—but knowing did nothing to cool his temper. “Isn’t the pleasure of watching you butcher a simple task like haltering a horse enough reason?”
Mia had tilted her head, pulling her lip up in a sneer, and said, “Piss off,” before turning her back on him.
“Aren’t you going to ask for my help?” Vander had called after her as she’d stalked around the horse to its other side.
Her reply had been muffled by the bulk of the animal standing between them, “That would require actually needing it.”
“Which you clearly do.”
Not one to be dismissed, Vander had ducked between the rails of the fence and into the pen. Something had to be done before Mia damaged the halter—or the horse. In hindsight, Vander should have been more concerned about the horse.
Vander had managed only a few steps when Seinfeld—Eldhor, what a damnable name—had laid his ears back against his massive head and stomped a foot in warning. When Vander had not immediately taken heed, the horse had snorted and tossed its head, the whites of its eyes visible around molten amber. Realizing that the horse was not inclined to let him near, Vander had been forced to stop a good distance away.
The horses’s restlessness had made Mia’s task nearly impossible. She’d cursed under her breath and tried to soothe the animal, “Stop. Shhh. What’s going on with you?”
A foul taste had filled Vander’s mouth as he’d stood there, unable to approach. It had rankled his pride, knowing that Mia’s outrageous spoiling had poisoned the animal against him. She had bought the horse’s loyalty with sweet oats and apples. Favouritism. Vander had known then and there that if someone did not intervene soon, she would completely ruin the animal.
“Can’t you control that animal?” Vander had asked her, keeping his tone cool and unconcerned.
“Can’t you take a hint?”
Eldhor but she infuriated him. “You are going to ruin him with your coddling. He should have been halter trained weeks ago.”
Silence had greeted him from the other side of the horse. A silence heavy with contempt and unsaid things as Mia had no doubt fought to keep from rising to Vander’s taunt. He had been about to say something—what, he still didn’t know—when a low grumbling had reached him from behind the horse. Mia had then stepped out from behind the massive animal, her brows lowered in a fierce, indignant look.
“I know, okay?” She’d said in a low voice, the halter hanging from her hand. The ends had trailed in the dirt as she’d stopped between Vander and the horse. “Orden told me. I just—” She had clenched her jaw and turned her head to the side, giving Vander a good look at her profile. Straight nose, sharp cheekbones. Her eyes, when she’d looked at him again, had been impossibly dark in her face, made even more noticeable by the bruised colour of the skin beneath them. The next words from her mouth had been rather rushed, “I can’t figure this stupid thing out.”
“I noticed,” Vander had said with a pointed look at the halter held loosely in her hand.
Mia had rolled her eyes and sucked her lips back against her teeth. Something like amusement had flashed in her dark eyes and disappeared, so fast that Vander thought he might have imagined it—the first hint of the sense of humour she so rarely showed in his presence. She’d looked down at the halter and then slowly back at him. Her inner turmoil at the thought of asking him for help had been written so plainly on her face, it was almost comical. Vander’s sudden urge to take pity on her had warred with his pride—he’d wanted her to ask for his help.
“You’re really going to make me say it aren’t you?” The words had been well chewed over by the time Mia ground them out.
The inside of Vander’s cheek still hurt where he’d bitten it to keep from grinning at her tone. Keeping a straight face, he’d inclined his head—and had received a foul look in return.
“Fine,” Mia had spat the word from her mouth as if it had left a bad taste in her mouth. Leather had creaked as Mia tightened her fists, “Will you please help me get this thing on him?”
In a rare moment of charity, Vander had decided not to prolong Mia’s suffering, and agreed to what had quickly turned into one of the most frustrating experiences of his life thus far.
The horse truly hated him, and Mia—well, Mia had spent every second it took to get the halter on Seinfeld’s head, arguing with him, and insisting that he was upsetting the damned horse on purpose.
From that moment on, neither Mia, nor Vander, missed the opportunity to quarrel with one another. They filled the clearing and the homestead with raised voices, the barn and the out buildings with their bickering and shouting. Without a care for who might hear them. Vander said many things to her in anger and frustration—called her weak and clumsy, stupid and slow—and Mia called him things Vander had never heard before. Judging by the look on her face when she said them, spat them at him, Vander had no doubt that they were foul.
In all that time, Vander never once heard Mia laugh—not truly—nor had he seen more than the sardonic twist of her lips that passed for a smile. He was not a fool. Nor was he blind. Vander saw what Mia masked with harsh words and name calling. In the quiet moments, when they were not yet at one another’s throats, Vander did not miss the far-off look that sometimes came into her eyes. The way her hands stilled as she polished tack, or hung a piece of clothing over the line. The gleam of tears, or the frozen pallor of fear on her face. He thought he might know what kept her from sleep and darkened the skin beneath her eyes. He wondered if their dreams and thoughts were plagued by the same things.
Did Mia think of her family? Was it their faces—their voices, that spoke to her as Vander’s did? Did visions from Orden’s memories haunt her as they haunted him? Visions of Perilea—that beautiful, sparkling city—sundered. Of Ithrielle, scales of gold, reflecting in the moonlight as she flew to her death. Vander wondered how often—if at all—Mia dreamed of Kairos and woke, ice cold and drenched in her own sweat, the smell of fear sharp in her nose. Or was it something else? Something unknown to Vander, that kept Mia from sleep and stole her mind away in the quiet. What else had she left behind in that strange other world? Who?
He would not ask her—could not. Not yet, though Vander found—to his surprise and irritation—that it pained him to keep his curiosity in check. He wanted to know more about this other place, this other world Mia came from. He wanted to know what manner of people and creatures dwelt there—in that strange place where Power did and did not exist. The little Vander knew about Mia’s world he’d learned from Orden and sometimes, grudgingly, Breahn. Bits and pieces—unsatisfying fragments. He wanted to know more, but the time for those questions was not now. Neither of them was ready.