Mia lay on her back, the thin mattress of Vander’s bedroll beneath her, and squinted up at the rafters. Dust motes danced through the air, turning languid spirals around one another in the early morning light. It was a pretty sight, ruined only by the unfortunate need Mia felt to hurl every few seconds. She hadn’t yet, thank God, but it was only a matter of time. She only hoped to make it to the edge of the loft without embarrassing herself further by puking in Vander’s bed.
She deserved it. Every brutal stab of the headache residing behind her eyes, every wave of nausea, the dry bitterness coating her mouth, it was all fair payment for her idiocy of the night before. Mia wanted to be able to accept her punishment with some small degree of grace—she couldn’t. Not when each heavy breath seemed to soothe the pain in her head. Not when the keening moans that accompanied every exhale seemed to calm the tide of her nausea. Mia was aware of how ridiculous she must sound, how utterly pathetic—that’s why she cut off mid-moan at the distant sound of a door opening and closing.
As footsteps approached the barn, quick and purposeful, all Mia could think was, not yet. Please. Not yet. She heard him below, the scuff of his boots on the hard-packed earth, and prayed that he wasn’t there for her. Then the ladder creaked. Mia squeezed her eyes shut. Crap. She wasn’t ready. She couldn’t face him, not after she’d embarrassed herself so completely the night before. Mia wasn’t sure she could even look him in the eye. She had no idea what to say…should she thank him? She should probably thank him. Mia’s heart beat a little faster at the thought of thanking Vander for anything. Maybe if she pretended to be asleep he would leave her and she wouldn’t have to. Yet.
Mia resisted the urge to look as something heavy was set down on the landing. She schooled her face into what she hoped was a mask of peaceful oblivion as Vander climbed his way into the loft. There was a scrape and the slosh of water, then careful steps approached. Mia remained utterly still, her breath slow and even.
“Ye can stop pretendin’, it’s only me.”
Mia was practically light-headed with relief to find Breahn, not Vander, standing at her feet, a ceramic jug held between her hands.
Breahn cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes, “Did you think you’d fool anyone with that sorry act? I could see yer eyelashes fluttering the whole time.”
Mia didn’t see any point in answering. A growly moan gurgled its way up Mia’s throat as she hauled herself into a sitting position, her hands on her knees. Something in Mia’s head constricted with enough force to elicit a small noise. She hung her head between her knees and scrunched her eyes shut and rode out the pain.
Breahn clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and sank to her knees in a rustle of fabric. Over the sound of her own heavy breathing, Mia heard the unmistakable sound of liquid being poured. Some indistinct rustling followed, and then the smell of mint filled the air.
Mia lifted her head with deliberate slowness.
“Wintergreen for the ache in yer head. Mint and honey to soothe the one in yer belly.” Breahn held the aforementioned cup toward Mia as she listed off the various ingredients. For a moment, Mia watched steam curl from the surface, following a thin tendril as it twisted through the air. She took the cup, fingers brushing against Breahn’s, and brought it close enough to sniff its contents. Bitter mint caught in the back of Mia’s throat and sparked a fit of coughing that made her eyes sting and water.
“Well, what are ye smelling it for? Drink it.”
“Have to—make sure—it’s not—poison.” Mia wheezed between coughs.
That made Breahn whistle between her teeth, “What sense would there be in that? Ye’ve already proven yourself immune to far worse.” She added with a pointed look in the direction of the two empty mead bottles standing against a hay bale.
Rolling her eyes hurt like hell but it was worth the amused twist that tugged at the corner of Breahn’s mouth. At least she doesn’t hate me. “Don’t you dare judge me.”
“I would never, “ said Breahn sitting back on her heels, “actually, I’m quite impressed.”
“That yer awake at all.”
Mia snorted, “Yeah well—” She looked down at the cup in her hand. There were little bits of crushed mint and whatever else Breahn had put in it, floating on the surface. Mia grimaced, “drowning my sorrows I guess.”
“I can see that.”
Mia made a half-hearted attempt to defend her actions, to explain, but Breahn just waved her off. The lines around the other girl’s eyes softened as she said, “You’re not the first to turn to drink out of hopelessness, and ye definitely won’t be the last.” There was such kindness in the look Breahn gave her. Mia’s eyes stung in response. “Go on,” Breahn said, ignoring the single tear that rolled down Mia’s cheek, “drink yer tea. It really isn’t poison, I swear.”
A breathy laugh escaped Mia. She brought the cup to her lips, taking a careful sip, only to find that it had lost some of its heat. It didn’t taste as bad as she’d expected either. Sweet—the honey cutting through the mint and bitter herbs. Mia made a face, purely for Breahn’s benefit.
The other girl gave a small smile in response but her bearing had changed. Breahn shifted her weight so that she leaned on one hand, her legs now curled to her side. Mia could feel those cornflower eyes on her. It didn’t come as a surprise when Breahn finally spoke. Mia had been waiting for it.
“If you want to talk—”
Mia swallowed the tea in her mouth, “I don’t.”
Their eyes met over the rim of the cup. If Breahn was offended by Mia’s abrupt dismissal, she showed no sign of it, just stared back.
“I’m sorry.” The apology came easily, had been on the tip of her tongue for a while now. It was a relief to say it out loud.
“For being rude?” Breahn smiled, “I imagine it’s second nature to you.”
“Very funny,” Mia said with a roll of her eyes that she regretted immediately. She looked down at the cup in her hand, “But that’s not what I meant.” Dark specs of crushed wintergreen and mint clung to sides of the cup making for an unappealing image. Mia set the cup down beside her.
“What else could you possibly need to apologize for?”
Mia looked up sharply. Did Breahn think she could play dumb with her? She wasn’t that stupid. In fact, Mia had trouble thinking of anyone more astute than the girl sitting in front of her with her dark brows drawn together in what appeared to be genuine confusion.
“What do you think?” Mia demanded, “For quitting.” For costing Breahn and others like her their hope for a better world. A safe and peaceful world. A world without Kairos in it. “Don’t pretend you don’t know. It’s why you’re here. They sent you up here to change my mind but I won’t. I can’t be a Guardian. I’m just a kid. I’m not strong enough to beat Kairos. I’m going to let everyone down anyway so what’s the point pretending I’m something I’m not?” A roaring beast raged within Mia’s skull, the pain almost blinding. She closed her eyes, breathing heavily as sour bile rose in her throat.
“Are ye finished?”
Mia didn’t move, “Yes.”
“Good, because ye’re wrong.”
She felt like crying. Mia wanted to tell Breahn not to waste her breath. That there was no point trying to convince her otherwise. Mia simply didn’t have the energy to listen to another speech about how she just had to keep trying, keep going. How she wasn’t alone. She was exhausted. Done.
“No one sent me up here. I came because Ma’s out of her head with worry over ye, and she’s furious with Da for what happened. I thought I’d spare ye the ordeal.” Breahn paused, waiting for some kind of response. She didn’t seem overly put off when she didn’t get more than a reluctant grunt. “I’m not here to convince you of anything. I think ye are more than capable of making yer own decisions.”
“Then why are you here?” Mia wanted to know.
Breahn met Mia’s sharp gaze with kind sincerity, “Because I thought you might need a friend.”
Mia’s eyes stung and watered, she ducked her chin so that Breahn wouldn’t see. She was relieved, grateful, and yet Mia could not deny the disappointment gnawing at her stomach. A shiver of realization ran through Mia, raising little bumps all over her skin. She had been hoping that someone would make the decision for her. Take the choice and all of its consequences out of her hands.
“I’m so scared,” Mia said, her voice small and tight. Scared of being a Guardian. Terrified of quitting.
“I’d consider you a fool if you weren’t.”
Mia’s eyes darted to Breahn’s and away, focusing instead on her hands lying palm up in her lap. They were almost unrecognizable now, the skin along the base of her fingers thick and rough with calluses from handling swords and axes. Mia wondered if she would even remember how to hold a pencil. If she decided to quit, to really quit, then maybe she could teach herself how to draw again… And while Mia sketched pictures of the barn and the house and the tree line, the world outside of their safe little bubble would burn.
“What do you think I should do?” Mia asked Breahn because she was terrified of where her thoughts were taking her.
Breahn shook her head, “it’s not my place to—”
“Okay,” Mia interrupted, impatient now, “but what if it was you? What would you do if you were me?” She got a long, even look, as Breahn considered her question.
The other girl saw the desperation written on Mia’s face and decided to take pity on her. Breahn gave a reluctant sigh, “I’ve been running my entire life.”
Mia sucked in a breath and held it.
“I know the fear of waiting for death to come for me and I can tell you that there’s no worse feeling. To be so powerless. Forever at the mercy of others,” Breahn’s eyes burned hot as blue flame in her face, “If I were you—if I had been gifted as you—I would fight. And if I died…Well, then I would have died fighting and not running or waiting.”
The air drained out of Mia like a slow leak. Breahn was right, as much as Mia wished she wasn’t, Breahn had said exactly what Mia already knew. “You should be the Guardian, not me.”
A breathy laugh, “And yet you were Chosen, not I.”
“Yeah,” Mia said, looking down at her hands again, “I just wish I knew why.”
A heartbeat passed in silence, even the swallows in the rafters stopped their rustling. Then Breahn reached for Mia’s hand. “It’s not for us to know why certain paths are laid at our feet. We can only trust in Eldhor, and in ourselves.”
Mia stared at their hands, similar in size and shape, Breahn’s slightly darker from years of hard work in the sun. Her voice wavered slightly, “And in each other.”
The two girls stared at one another, their grip strong. Breahn smiled, “Yes, in each other.”
For a moment Mia was comforted. Then that moment passed, fear creeping back in until she was icy with it. “I want to be brave, but I’m not. I’m scared. All. The. Time.” Mia withdrew her hand, wrapping her arms around herself, “If I fight I’ll probably die—but if don’t, then what? I sit around here doing chores until Kairos finds me?” How long would that be anyway? Whatever Power was keeping the ward up was bound to fail at some point. Then what? “And Vander—”
“You don’t have to make this decision right now.”
“Don’t I?” Mia demanded, knowing only too well that every soul in Nethea was counting on her to make this decision. To fight for them, and Mia wasn’t sure she could.
“You don’t. Not yet.”
Mia was on her feet instantly, “Then what am I supposed to do? Tell me what I’m supposed to do!” Her head felt like it was about to split open, Mia pressed both hands to her skull, fingers fisting in her hair. She was unsteady on her feet, swaying like a flagpole in a stiff wind.
Breahn’s hands were light on Mia’s shoulders as she turned Mia gently to face her. “Orden wants to show you something.”
“You asked me what you should do. I think you should go with him. See what he wants you to see and then make your decision.”
What could Orden possibly have to show her that would make any of this easier? Mia almost asked. Instead she said, “So he did send you up here.”
Breahn nodded soundlessly.
Mia knew she should feel betrayed, that Breahn had lied to her—but she didn’t feel anything but a bone-deep chill. Mia said neither yes or no, only leaned her head on Breahn’s shoulder and tried to draw whatever warmth she could from her friend’s embrace.