His knuckle itched where their skin had touched. Vander made a fist at his side and stared after the girl as she led his horse homeward. She hadn’t so much as flinched. The sharp stinging energy that had flared at that small contact had had no effect on her whatsoever. He was still puzzling over this when Orden spoke.
“Things in Keswick went well I gather?” Vander blinked and focused on Orden. “You sold all the yearlings.” The Olu remarked.
“Took your time doing it.”
Vander slanted his eyes and cocked his head to the side, “Much has happened while I’ve been away.”
Orden’s beard twitched, “How observant of you.”
A knuckle in his left hand popped loudly in protest as Vander clenched his fists. He glanced down at his hand and unfurled his fingers, splaying them wide. Temper in check, he tried again, “I admit, I was not expecting—”
“Her to knock you on your arse?” There was something positively gleeful in the old man’s eyes, “And you did not sense a thing!”
“I wasn’t— expecting it.” Vander said, his tone stiff and unamused. But that was pride he saw in Orden’s gaze, pride and—could it be—hope? Had so much changed in his absence? “What happened while I was in Keswick?”
The sun chose that moment to sink all the way beneath the horizon. The change of light came swiftly between the trees, but not as suddenly as the change in Orden. The Olu straightened, arms falling to his sides, shoulders drawing back. The lines around his eyes and on either side of his nose deepened, his face becoming somber.
In a quiet voice, low and rough he said, “There was an incident.”
Orden told him of Mia and the wolf.
He told Vander how, in the dead of night, the girl had sensed something amiss and gone out to investigate. Orden told him how, upon seeing the wolf with her foal in its jaws, Mia had stupidly—bravely—gone to its defence. Unarmed. Against a wolf. Vander could picture it with disturbing clarity; Mia, in a white shift, hair plaited back from her face, standing off against the beast much the same way she’d stood against him earlier.
She hadn’t had Power to wield then. Or a weapon of any kind, and yet she’d risked her life. For a horse. Vander heard the same anger that burned low in his gut reflected in Orden’s voice. Dampened by time but smouldering still. How could she do that? Without thought, without hesitation—put herself in danger knowing that the fate of Nethea rested partly on her shoulders?
“She could have died.” Vander said, spitting the words into the dark forest, she should have.
“She came close.” A cold silence stretched between the trees. The familiar hoo-hoo-hoooo of an Otus owl sounded somewhere high in the trees. “Very close,” said Orden.
Vander struggled with disbelief as Orden told him how he’d found the girl, cocooned in flame, burning from the inside out in the foal’s pen. Her Power had completely taken her over, creating a violent inferno so bright that it had turned night to day.
Orden’s voice was no more than a whisper in the dark, “Her Power had such a hold on her—It took all my strength to reach her. To help her.”
“How can that be?” Vander asked, running a hand through his mussed hair, dislodging a few stray spruce needles. He paced in an open stretch of grass. “How is any of this possible? She shouldn’t have been able to—not without guidance—” Vander looked to Orden who was sitting with his back propped against the thin trunk of a poplar, its bark white as bone in the dark. “Power doesn’t just—come.”
Orden glanced down at his gnarled hands with a rueful twitch of his mouth, “I know.”
“I cannot tell ye what I myself do not yet understand.”
Vander saw it in the flash of silver in Orden’s eyes, as they snapped up to his; he’d pushed too far. Vander closed his mouth before another question without an answer could slip past his lips. He didn’t understand it.
This was something unheard of. It took months of concentrated effort to delve deep enough within oneself to find the Power hidden in one’s blood. Months of preparation—untold hours of meditation and agonizing frustration—before the first flicker of that beautiful and terrifying light could be seen in the darkness. And she just did it? Simply stumbled upon it—How? How?
Vander ran both hands through his hair, pulling slightly on the too long strands, and heaved an explosive sigh. He slid down the tree at his back and sat, hands resting on his raised knees.
“It came to her.” Orden said. Grass rustled as the old man found a more comfortable position. “We’ve spoken of it often, she and I. Though I do not pretend to understand it, I believe that, sensing her distress and perhaps, how close she was to death, Mia’s Power acted of its own will, to save her. And after— well— Do ye know the first thing she said to me when she came to?” Orden shook his head and did not wait for Vander to answer, “She told me to save the horse. Can ye believe that?”
“I’m beginning to.”
A short, breathy laugh escaped Orden and was swallowed up by the silence. Vander looked up. The old man’s face was hidden in shadows too deep for even Vander with his heightened sight to see what was written there.
The quiet stretched, heavy with the things Orden left unsaid. There was a tightness in Vander’s chest as he filled in for himself, the details Orden could not put into words.
“The foal is dead then.”
“Dead?” Vander flinched at the loudness of Orden’s voice. “No, he is not dead. Why would you think such a thing?”
“You could not have healed him,” Vander was on his feet with no memory of standing, “not after breaking into her mind.” That single act would have taken an unimaginable toll on the Olu and Vander refused to even consider the possibility that the girl—
Vander closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Damp soil and crushed grass mingled with the scent of spruce and sap that remained, even though it had been some time since the girl had left them. He could not look as Orden used the tree he’d been sitting against as support to help him to his feet.
“You cannot expect me to believe—” Vander couldn’t bring himself to say it. Vander shook his head slowly.
Healing was one of the most complex and difficult of gifts. It simply was not possible for a girl with no understanding of Power— of any kind— to heal the sort of wounds the foal was sure to have suffered. Vander had seen first hand the damage a wolf’s teeth and claws could inflict.
“Vander,” Orden’s hand closed around his shoulder. The Olu regarded him from beneath thick brows. “Why do you argue? I would have thought you would be relieved.”
“Relieved?” Vander repeated.
Orden nodded, “She has her Power now, and her training is progressing— Is this not a blessing?”
A blessing? “I—” Vander did not know how to answer. A blessing, Orden called it—or perhaps a joke on Eldhor’s part, punishment for doubting his choice. “How can so much have changed?” Vander asked finally. “When I left she could barely wield a wooden blade, and now—” Power. She had Power, and she could wield it.
“It would be a lie to say that her swordsmanship has improved much.” Orden grimaced, “She’s shit with a blade— though she’d make a halfway decent archer.”
Vander snorted and was rewarded with a squeeze on the shoulder.
“Come on,” Orden said, turning for home, “I’m famished. We can walk and talk.”
The thinning trees made it possible for the two men to walk side by side. Vander watched Orden out of the corner of his eye, taking notice of the straightness of his bearing—the slight spring in his step.
“She seems to have—control—of her Power.” Vander said, choosing both words and tone carefully.
Orden did not look at him, “Oh aye, and uncanny ability.” Vander was tempted to ask what the old man meant when Orden continued, “She’s clever—quick to grasp things. She has an outstanding imagination.”
Orden glanced briefly in his direction. “But,” He acknowledged, “she lacks tolerance.”
Of course she does. Vander felt the heavy weight of disappointment—which had briefly showed signs of lifting—settle more firmly in the pit of his stomach.
“I’ve taught her how to manipulate air, and she can summon flame,” Orden continued, oblivious to downward turn of Vander’s thoughts. “She has potential. Once she learns to control herself—once she builds tolerance for the pain—” Orden grunted. Vander took several steps before realizing that he was alone.
Vander shot Orden a questioning glance over one shoulder and stopped. “What?” Vander asked, for Orden was looking at him but it was as though Vander was not there at all.
“Why did I not think of it before?”
“It makes perfect sense—”
“And ye’ve already broken the commandment—”
“Orden!” The Keeper actually flinched. Orden’s eyes were almost silver in the faint moonlight playing in the wide spaces between the trees. They focused on Vander, and blinked. “What are you going on about?” Vander asked, exasperation plain in his tone.
Orden frowned, his brows forming a dark shelf that cast the rest of his face in shadow. Vander knew that look and knew that it did not bode well for him; the Olu was preparing for a fight.