Vander sat upon the sun scorched grass, his arms resting atop his knees, and watched in contented silence as the horses ate grain from the three halved mead barrels he’d filled for them. A treat this late in the season when most of the grass had been eaten down to the quick and the rest made dry and brittle by the hot sun.
A commotion at one of the barrels drew Vander’s attention. A plucky bay filly had come too close to one barrel for the liking of a particularly nasty mare. The blue roan tossed her head, laying her ears flat and made to nip the foal, but it darted out of the way of her yellowing teeth, knocking over the barrel in the process. Vander clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in amusement and kept a close eye on the filly. A handsome creature, with a shining coat of rich chestnut and deep black. Long, sturdy legs for jumping—it was a pity that Vander would not be here to break her himself.
Vander was watching the filly, rolling a bit of mint leaf around his mouth with his tongue, when something made his skin tighten and had him sitting a little straighter. A sound? A smell? He didn’t know what made him turn his head toward a section of trees at the edge of the pasture. Vander relaxed the moment Orden materialized from between the trees—and tensed when he saw the old man’s face. Even at this distance, Vander could clearly see that something was wrong. He was on his feet and moving in an instant.
Orden leaned heavily on his staff, as if every step he took toward Vander caused him pain. He kept coming, spearing a path toward Vander as if Vander was a lake of cool, fresh water and Orden a survivor of a ravaging desert. Vander sped across the pasture, driven by the greyish colour of Orden’s skin. His feet ate up the space between them in long, hurried strides. They reached each other in seconds.
“What is it?”
“Did she come this way?”
Vander blinked, disorientated as their words wove between one another to produce a jumbled mess. “What?” Vander said. This close, Orden’s eyes were sunk deep within his skull. A wild, feverish light burned in them, turning them the colour of quicksilver above his beard which stood out in strange tufts as if Orden had been pulling on the wiry hair.
“Mia,” said Orden, “did she pass this way?”
Vander’s eyes narrowed in confusion, “No,” his answer was slow as he tried to puzzle out what the girl had to do with the desperate look on Orden’s face. “I’ve not seen her since this morning.”
“Damn.” Orden swept his head one way, and then the other, as if he hoped he might catch sight of Mia among the horses or sprawled somewhere on the grass.
The Olu’s behaviour was disconcerting, “Orden, what’s happened?”
Orden was slow to meet Vander’s eye. When he did, guilt and panic were so clear, fighting for the upper hand, that Vander found himself for a moment, completely off balance. “Tell me.” The commanding tone of his own voice shocked him.
The Keeper blinked, “I—” He stammered to a stop, “She—she’s run off.”
Vander cocked his head to the side. That was not what he had expected to hear. He allowed himself a brief second of relief that it wasn’t something more serious. Then he asked, “What do you mean she’s run off? Where?” Why?
“She had every reason to—I—I pushed her too far. I—”
Vander’s patience chose that moment to wear thin. He took a step toward the old man, bent against his staff, his mouth slack at the corner, and placed his hands on Orden’s shoulders. They felt incredibly bony beneath Vander’s fingers as he squeezed, “What. Happened?”
He listened with growing comprehension as Orden recounted the events that unfolded in the clearing after Vander had left Mia with him. Vander listened as Orden told him how he had pushed Mia these past few days, and felt a chill go through him. Vander was visited by an uncomfortable memory of a conversation Mia had tried to have with him just days ago.
They had been sparring with blades. Vander had just disarmed her and instead of resuming, had called for a reprieve. As they had passed a water skin between them, Mia had said, “I think there might be something wrong with Orden.” She had spoken quietly, her words hesitant enough to catch Vander’s attention.
“What makes you say that?” Vander had asked her, intrigued and only slightly annoyed.
Mia had rolled her eyes as if it should have been obvious what she meant, “Have you seen him lately? He looks exhausted.”
Vander had levelled a look at her, “Don’t we all?”
She had looked at him then, taking in the ever present bags beneath his eyes, and had seemed to consider the possibility. “It’s different.” Mia had said with that stubborn tilt of her chin, but she’d dropped it.
Now Vander wondered if he should have taken her more seriously. He recalled the way Mia had visibly paled this morning when he had left her with Orden and suddenly it made sense. She was afraid, and she had been right to be. That became painfully clear to Vander as Orden told him how blind he had been. How hell-bent on developing Mia’s Power, that he had dismissed her pleas, her requests for reprieve, and had made such terrible demands on her. Demands she had no hope of meeting. Not yet. Vander’s stomach turned with rage, both familiar and unfamiliar—unfamiliar because this time, it was directed at Orden, who should have known better.
Vander resisted the urge to curl his hands into fists, not wanting to give evidence to the feelings roiling within him. Orden went quiet, his head hanging low. He would not meet Vander’s eye. Hiding something, Vander thought, but not sure what or why. What was behind this arduous turn in Mia’s training? What had changed Orden so—weakened and driven him? The man standing before Vander was a husk of the Olu Vander knew. A worried and desperate creature, ashamed of what he might have done. Vander’s anger ebbed.
“She didn’t mean it,” Vander said, though he wasn’t sure who he was attempting to reassure, Orden, or himself. “She just needs—”
“You were not there,” Orden cut him off roughly, “you did not see—” Orden clenched his jaw and looked Vander in the eye. Silver lined the bottom edges of his eyes, shimmering wetly in the sunlight, “What if I broke her?” Orden asked, his voice quiet. “What if she never forgives me? What if I’ve ruined any chance we might have had at—?”
“You haven’t.” Vander said, sounding more sure than he felt. There was a good chance that Orden was right. Vander pushed the thought aside—it didn’t matter. What did matter, was finding the girl before she did anything stupid. Vander remembered how he had watched Mia’s dogged march toward the trees that first night—so long ago now, that it felt like a lifetime had passed since then. She hadn’t been able to leave then, would she dare try it now? Vander didn’t think it wise to wait and find out. “Orden,” Vander laid a hand on the old man’s shoulder, “she is stronger than you think. Stronger than even she knows.” And because Orden was looking at him with so much hope in his eyes—and because Vander wanted to believe it for himself—he added, “It will take more than this to break her.”
A long moment passed before Orden nodded his head. He looked, for all the world, like he might keel over with the next gentle breeze. “We must finder her. I need to make things right.”
“I will find her,” it came out more sharply than Vander had intended. Orden frowned. Vander pressed on, “You can have your time with her once you have rested,” and once Mia has had some time to recover. Vander did not say it, but he thought Orden was likely the last person Mia would want to see at the moment. Vander wasn’t sure he would be received any better.