Danny found her in a small glade by the river not far from the farmhouse. She heard his footsteps but refused to meet his gaze as he approached slowly from the side. From the corner of her eye, she could see him fold his arms, eyes squinting against the sun as he looked out over the water.
“It could have been worse, you know.”
She didn’t look up, focusing instead on massaging the bruises that were forming on her arms.
“Sure,” Keira snorted. “She could have actually stabbed me. That would definitely have been worse.”
Danny smiled, flopping himself down on the ground beside her, legs outstretched. He leaned back, face arched toward the sun. “She’s not as bad as she seems.”
Keira snorted again. “You mean she’s not a terrifying monster? She’s actually human?”
Danny chuckled. “Well, she scared me shitless when I first arrived, and I’d faced down a charging division of Huns.”
Keira cocked her head at him, eyeing him curiously. Danny rarely talked about his past, his life back in their own world.
“Huns? As in the Germans?”
Danny nodded, a shadow quickly crossing his face but fading as quickly as it had come. “Yes. I’d say I gave ’em a run for their money. But I suppose they had the last laugh.” Danny paused, glancing at her before shaking his head. “1944. Nazor tells me if I’d made it another year, I might have seen the end of the whole damn thing.”
Keira kicked at the ground, avoiding his eyes. 1944? So he was, what, seventy years older than her? The thought hurt her head, so she pushed it aside.
Instead, she focused on a different tack. “You’re from Boston, right?”
“Born and raised.”
They sat in silence for a while as Keira tried to comb through all the information she knew about Boston. Unfortunately, most of it was strictly relegated to the last fifty years. Danny didn’t seem to notice.
“I was overseas for three years, even made sergeant. Though, they were so desperate, I’m sure the only real requirement was a beatin’ heart and time in uniform. Eventually, even that last one became unnecessary. I watched as boys I’d brought in, trained myself, all died. Same thing for their replacements. I was on my third or fourth cycle for some of ’em. Well, that’s not somethin’ that leaves you.”
Keira nodded. She could see that, could see the effect it had on Danny. Even an entire world away, she could see he still carried those scars.
“How long have you been here?”
“Almost a year. I was a mess at first . . . just like you.”
He grinned at her, and she scowled back at him. But she couldn’t stay mad at Danny. With that toothy grin and those olive-green eyes, it was damn near impossible. She didn’t mind though. Danny had a way about him. He could make her feel like he understood, like he accepted her, warts and all. He’d pass no judgment, which in Keira’s experience was definitely not a given.
Keira rarely trusted men. Her life growing up with Tammy had taught her they were shifty and unreliable. They were only after one thing, and once they got it, well, they didn’t stick around long. But Danny, well, he seemed different.
“You’ll get there, you know,” Danny said, surprising her out of her reverie. “I’d never touched a sword in my life, barely even seen a horse, city boy that I was. And now, a year on, well, I make do.” He shrugged, tousling the back of his hair.
“I don’t know, Danny. I tried. I worked so hard, every day, and with nothing to show for it. Anyway, Nazor clearly hates me. That much is obvious. I’m just not cut out for this.”
Danny’s voice softened, glancing at her cautiously. “Of course you are. The Legion chose you for a reason, Keira. I don’t pretend to understand who they are or exactly what they have planned for us, but I do understand people. And Elliott and Nazor are good people. The Legion chose you because you have a part in this; we both do. This world may seem bucolic, but Abalás is somewhat removed from the goings-on in the rest of the country.” Danny took out his knife and began whittling away at a small wood block, a work in progress by the look of its scarred surface. He paused every once in a while to look up at her, gesticulating pointedly with the blade.
“Even here, we hear rumors, though. Bandits along the main throughways . . . The Regio down in Crîd Eálas, he’s old, Keira. He’s old, and they say he’s going senile. Meanwhile, his son has been away for years and has yet to be recalled from his studies in Mount Ánghen. The sages hold sway there, and they aren’t about to give up the last remnant of some ancient tradition that has little place in today’s world. But the people aren’t happy. Their taxes are too high, raids along the coast too frequent, and sickness too rampant. The people are ready for a change.”
“What’s stopping them?” Keira asked. She’d folded her legs underneath her and was leaning toward him, her interest piqued despite herself.
Danny snorted. “Empires aren’t exactly known for their flexibility.”
“Empires?” Keira asked. This was the first she was hearing of any empire.
“The Marian Empire, the most powerful force in this world a few hundred years ago. No one could stop their armies. They were perfectly disciplined and absolutely lethal. But then, just like that, in only a few generations, they disappeared, their empire crumbling into dust and the leaderless factions left to fight over the remnant. Loren is one of the few countries left that still holds onto the heritage of its Marian conquerors, its Regios descended from the Marians themselves. As you can imagine, many compromises have had to be made over the years to preserve order in Loren. They were meant to keep the people happy and the nobility placated, but all they’ve really done is fray at the fragile ties which hold this land together. It won’t be long until those strands start to unravel, Keira. Anyone can see that. And the Legion, well, the Legion is here to stop it.”
He paused, seeming to retreat somewhere inside of himself, before continuing on, “I’ve seen what war can do, Keira, the chaos it brings. I may not fully understand them, but if the Legion is trying to prevent that violence, well, that’s something I can get behind.”
Keira nodded. “You have a point.”
“Absolutely,” he said.
Keira bit her lip. Was she really ready to commit to this shadowy, faceless organization? She knew basically nothing about it. It was a lot to ask and possibly more than she was willing to give.
Keira’s contemplative expression suddenly turned sour. Did it even matter? It’s not like she had any other options. She looked at Danny and sighed. “I mean, I guess I have little choice, Danny. I’m here. And as far as I can tell, no one’s about to help me get back to where I came from.”
Danny nodded and gave her a considering look. “You’re right, Keira. I don’t know how to get back. I don’t even know if that’s possible. But the thing is, you do have a choice.” His eyes tightened, but he continued on, unabated. “You could find another life here. The Legion’s not the only option. You have choices, and I want you to know that. I want you to feel like this path is one of your choosing. Otherwise, what’s really the point? Sure, we can have order instead of chaos. But if it’s forced upon us, it loses a lot of its appeal, don’t you think?” He shrugged. “I may be just a dumb city kid from Boston, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the freedom to choose our own destiny is the most important thing, and it’s something worth fighting for. You have a choice, Keira. Whatever you choose, I’ll do my best to help you get there.”
Keira stared at him. “Why?” He looked confused and was about to answer when she continued, “You barely even know me, Danny, why would you help me if I leave the Legion?”
Danny gave her a long, hard look. She stared back at him and could clearly see thoughts churning behind his pale green eyes. He was clearly deciding what to say next, and she had the distinct impression that he was taking her measure, deciding how much to tell her.
“Keira,” he began, “you and me, we’re, well . . .” He scratched the back of his head, clearly seeking inspiration from among the surrounding trees.
“Has Elliott talked to you about binding yet, about pneuma? About how we’re . . . connected?”
He must have seen the shock on her face, for he quickly continued, “It’s odd to say, I know, but . . .” He paused, glancing up at her, and came to some sort of conclusion in his head. “Next week is the midwinter festival, Keira.”
She blinked. That was some left turn, she thought.
“Okaaay,” she said. No idea where he was going with this.
“I’ll talk to Elliott and Nazor, but, well, everything will be a lot easier to explain after the festival. So just don’t decide yet, ok?” His eyes searched hers. “Just wait—wait until then.”
Keira stared at him, feeling her own curiosity prickling under her skin.
“Ok,” she murmured. “I’ll wait until then.”
He grinned at her, a look of relief crossing his face as he stood, brushing the dirt from his pants, and turned to go. As he neared the edge of the glade, he cast a parting word back at her. “And I’d grab some salve for those bruises. Elliott’s got some in the cellar. Otherwise you’ll be in for a rude awakening tomorrow morning.”
Keira groaned and flopped backward against the rocky bank. She stared up at the sky and wondered seriously whether she could actually make it through another week of this torture.