The sticky heat was still oppressive, even in the shade thrown by the bandstand roof. Peeling a strand of sweat-soaked hair from her face, Kate leaned back against the column, absently wishing that another storm would move in as she attempted to position herself comfortably, only to find herself more uncomfortable the more she moved. Her aching back was enough to make reclining of any kind unpleasant.
Frustrated as to how nothing seemed to be working, she pulled herself up, wrapping her arms around her legs, her chin resting on her knees. A storm would perfectly break the humidity that the summer sun was subjecting them to right at this moment. Faint voices and the strands of laughter reached her through the thick air.
Scowling, Kate turned, glancing quickly at the small knot of people gathered across the small central square of Sweetgrass. It was too hot to even think about others working, much less do any actual work, no matter that she wished she was with them. But even Donna, tough taskmaster that she was in her little fletching shop, had decided it was too hot and told Kate to leave the goose feathers she was trimming until tomorrow. Almost immediately, she had joined in the painting party—some of the town’s teens had been enlisted to repaint the Council Hall— and not long after that Alderman Traver had suggested they take a break as the sun seemed to stand still overhead. As the heat had been affecting her more than the others, Kate was one of the few who had listened.
There was no one else wandering through in the main section of the small town. It was always virtually abandoned by this time of day when it was this hot. Still, even as she settled down under the overhang of the bandstand, the some of the other teens her age continued with their painting while Kate gladly took the opportunity to sit down for a short while, absently picking at the paint spots on her arms that didn’t quite want to dry.
The thing that got to her most was that, really, she didn’t want to be sitting down, but with her back getting worse…she couldn’t afford an attack around her friends. Not advertising what was going on with her back was one thing her mom had gently suggested beyond her (hopeful) appraisal that the ache was temporary. It was something that a weird feeling in the back of Kate’s mind agreed with. None of her friends knew, though Kate was beginning to wonder if Logan suspected.
Paintcans clanked and one of her friends—Jacqueline maybe—let out a playful, but quickly hushed, shriek as one of the boys splattered her as he set about with broad, flinging strokes. Kate barely noticed. As she had for nearly the whole week that had passed since Kate saw her, the Shadow-wing had emerged in her thoughts, everything else melting away as Kate allowed herself to disappear into absent musing of one sort or another. She was trying not to allow herself to think on the Aeye warrior, only to regularly find herself failing miserably. She wasn’t to have long to think on it today though, as her concentration, or lack thereof, really—was shattered.
“You’re not anxious that they’re going to finish the Hall without you, are you?” Jumping a little as the thread of her absent thoughts snapped, Kate turned to glace at the boy all but collapsing beside her under the shade of the bandstand, panting a little as he sprawled out on the rough planks that made up the floor. Her nose wrinkling a little, she picked at a shard of wood splintering off from the plank by her right foot.
“Nah,” she answered flippantly, ignoring the twinge in her back as she shifted again to cross her legs beneath her. She wouldn’t have classified the flare of pain as particularly bad this time, but it was evidently enough to draw Logan’s attention. His eyebrows creasing slightly in concern over his dark eyes, he hoisted himself up to lean back on his elbows.
“You ever going to tell me what’s going on with you?” he asked quietly after a moment. Kate avoided looking at him. Of course he noticed. She had known him her whole life. They had played together as babies, given that Donna and his mom Susan had been best friends themselves. They hadn’t been remarkably close through the rest of their childhoods, but she had still counted him as a friend. Then, as they reached their teen years, their relationship had shifted away from one of pleasant friendship into something more. They had been unofficially ‘together’ since shortly after Kate’s fourteenth birthday, though they’d only really officially labeled themselves a couple for the last year; the L-word had only just tentatively come into play in the last month or so. He knew her better than just about anyone.
“It’s nothing,” she murmured just as quietly, suddenly feeling very tired. It was wearing on her, keeping it to herself. His frown deepened.
“Your back’s been getting worse, hasn’t it,” he finally said after a moment, startling Kate. She hazarded a quick glance at him, her grey eyes meeting his midnight blue ones. His brow was furrowed, a single, solemn crease forming between his eyebrows as he watched her with obvious concern. For the umpteenth time, Kate wrestled with telling him just how bad the pains were getting, but again, her overabundant—and somewhat inexplicable, since it was Logan—sense of caution made her hesitate. The pain in general had started not all that long after they started hanging out together, and it had come out to him one day. But Kate had brushed it off and since then she always managed to steer the conversation away. This time, as she often did, she shrugged lightly, and as he always did, he knew that he was right. He also knew she hated talking about it, and reluctantly left it alone.
Reaching over, Logan grasped her hand, lacing his fingers with hers; they were rough, calloused from the work he’d been doing as Emil, the blacksmith’s, apprentice. Not that she minded, her hands were rough too from helping Donna in the fields and in her little fletching shop. He liked holding her hand like that, and today it was enough; it was too hot for anything else. Normally, Kate liked leaning back against him, feeling his solid torso warm against her back, his arms wrapping around her waist as she rested her head on his shoulder. He was one of the few boys who was actually taller than she was, admittedly not by much, though when they’d started hanging out, they’d been just barely the same height.
More than that, he was a tempering influence on her, his gentle reserve a perfect balance to her impulsiveness. That’s often what he was for her; reassuring and steady in his quiet calm. But he sometimes also saw too much, his quietness lending to his observant eyes and quick mind. He never missed when she was upset, or uncomfortable or in pain. He certainly didn’t miss when she was hiding something from him, a trait that had ruined a couple of, she thought, well planned surprises over the years. And she was most definitely hiding the extent of her pain from him, or trying to, at least.
Suddenly anxious to be mobile, despite the heat, Kate was on her feet, all but dragging Logan behind her as he still had his fingers entwined with hers. She didn’t have any destination in mind, though. She just needed a distraction, for Logan as much as herself.
So they wandered through their little settlement, sticking to the shade of the village’s range of different buildings as much as possible; old bricks that had been around forever, a few with old warped glass fronts, interspersed with some newer wood builds and even the odd stone. They wandered out past the handful of stores and businesses, past the homes in all degrees of repair, and finally out toward the little wood and brick house that Kate and her Mom shared, with its run for the geese Donna and their neighbours kept. Out beyond the little house and its nearby neighbour were a few of the village’s larger fields—some corn, some vegetables, some grains—and the rough fenced area where many of the hamlet’s farmhorses pastured.
Most of the horses were clustered down by the little creek on the north side of the paddock, but one old chestnut was relaxing nearer to the town-edge of the paddock, in the shade of the simple stable and the willow tree that leaned on the east wall. With a quiet whicker, Milo, one of Kate’s favourites, meandered over to where Kate held out her hand, gladly submitting for a good scratch before returning to his spot in the shade.
Similarly eager for even the marginally cooler shade of the willow, Kate and Logan were close behind, settling themselves on the fence, watching Milo languidly lip at the wilting grass. Kate managed to keep the small sound of her discomfort at scrambling onto the fence trapped in her throat, but again, Logan didn’t miss it, his concerned frown returning. Reaching over, his straightened the thin strap of her shirt, his fingers lingering near the nape of her neck, tracing the mottled birthmark that coloured the skin of her back.
“Why don’t you want to tell me,” he murmured after a while. Kate withheld a sigh. She had hoped he would leave it alone. She really wasn’t in the mood to talk about it. It was too hot and she was already too uncomfortable. She avoided his probing gaze, looking back toward Sweetgrass and on beyond it to the crumbling monoliths that hid the horizon.
Theirs was a small settlement, a few hundred people at most. Nothing like the populations that used to live where they did. And they were reminded of that daily, for their village was built in the shadow of, or arguably was part of the outermost ruins of, one of the Old Cities. It was unfathomable how many people there must have been to have filled so large a settlement. Now it was a decaying ruin only; huge, tall and slowly deteriorating metal, glass and stone edifices that lingered to remind those who remained of a distant and lost past. No one even really remembered its name anymore, and any signs that had survived the ravages of rust, weather and time had little consensus.
Beside her, Logan huffed a little, a noise she knew betrayed his frustration that she didn’t want to talk about what was troubling her. And she was troubled, not just by her back problems either; the Shadow-Wing was again wending her way through Kate’s thoughts. If she was reluctant to tell Logan about how bad her back was getting, she wasn’t about to tell him about that. Doing so would be dangerous; the fewer people who knew about the Aeye woman, the better. With a sigh, she leaned her head on his shoulder.
“It’s not something I can really talk about,” she finally muttered, her tone apologetic. Logan sighed himself, gently tugging on her ponytail in gentle admonishment.
“You can tell me,” he urged. She ducked her chin, flicking her hair out of his fingers and shooting him a pleading look.
“I can’t,” she said, earning a faintly startled look at the thread of bitterness in her tone, “not just now,” she amended after a moment. His nose crinkling a little in reluctant acceptance that that was all he was likely to get, his eyes dropped back to where his fingers still traced the markings over her spine. After a moment he frowned again, his hand dipping to pull the back of her top down a little.
“Is it just me, or is this getting darker,” he asked when Kate shot him a confused look. Twisting, she peered over her shoulder to the familiar, almost dapple-like birthmark. A few shades darker than the rest of her skin, it mostly covered her back, stretching from the base of her spine, spanning her shoulder blades up nearly to the nape of her neck, where Logan’s absent touch had been only a moment ago. She shrugged, turning back to look over at Milo, who looked like he had dozed off leaning against the willow.
“I suppose it might be. Probably from the sun.” She was somewhat more tanned this year than she often was; it had been a warm, sunny spring, so work had moved out doors that much earlier this year. Perhaps it had darkened under the sun’s rays the same way the rest of her skin had. Shrugging himself in agreement, he let her shirt go, moving to wrap his arm lightly around her waist instead.
“We should probably head back soon,” Kate pointed out as he pulled her a little closer to him, his lips brushing softly against her hair. He murmured in indistinct agreement, earning a giggle from her as his fingers brushed against the spot on her ribs where he knew she was ticklish. With a mischievous smile he leaned in close for a quick kiss, but even as Kate tilted her chin up to accept it, Milo’s sudden movement caught her attention. Suddenly alert, his head rose, his ears perked forward. Then Kate heard it too, ducking her face away from Logan’s as her head swiveled around, barely hearing her boyfriend’s good-natured protest.
In the distance, the faint sound of shouts and yelled warning began wafting through the thick air. Logan didn’t hear it at first, but as soon as he did his impish grin melted away, his expression suddenly grave as his eyes instinctively scanned the sky. They both knew what it meant. Shifting uneasily, Milo whickered his anxiety, his large head swinging around as his hooves stamped up puffs of dust.
In a leap, Logan, with his long legs, was down off the fence, reaching out to beckon Kate on with him and she was close behind. Leaping down herself, his arms were there to steady her. It was a good thing too, as that was the moment when her back began to spasm, the searing pain returning in full force. It was so unexpected that Kate was unable to keep from crying out, crumpling against Logan.
It was a case of bad luck getting worse.
As Logan was trying to tug Kate toward the cover of trees there was a hand out of nowhere, grabbing Logan by the collar of his shirt.
Kate’s eyes widened in fear and shock as the hot summer sun made a sharp silhouette of the Alaian’s spread wings.