Auvri was a light sleeper, and the sound of the white curtain hanging from the roof of her bed being snatched back woke her even before the hiss of their whispers did. Frantic voices sizzled around her as the gauzy skin of the curtain was torn away, leaving her surrounded instead by masked faces, black moons rising. At first the sight of her made them pause, her small body royally decorated with the weight of jewels, the many folds of winter robes cushioning her in white curls of luxury. Taking her suddenly seemed like plucking the only flower growing in a garden of weeds.
"Well, go on!" hissed one of them as he turned, conveniently relieving himself of the task of taking her by rushing outside to ready the horse and wagon.
The others gravitated uncertainly to her, hands reaching in spidery encroachment. Auvri shrank away from them, and this seemed to give them sudden justification. Fingers clamped about her and for a moment it seemed they meant to shred her neatly into two pieces before they decided from which direction to transmit her from the bed. She found herself in a horrible cradle of them, their huddled bodies swarming close like bees to form a black carriage that shepherded her.
"I don't want to go with you!" she shouted, just as they left the white dome of the temple that would have echoed her cry, bouncing it to someone who would hear and come to pry her from their hands. Instead, her voice was smothered under a groan of wind.
They loaded her onto the wagon waiting outside, and when the last of them boarded he gave the signal to the driver that sent them propelling into the forest. As they settled around her in crouches, they pulled off their masks to drop expectant expressions on her. Auvri met them with a look of expectation of her own, frantic searching for an answer to their cruel riddle.
"We've saved you," one of them dumbly said, a somberness in his voice like the disappointment of someone forced to explain a joke to someone who didn't understand it.
"You don't have to heal soldiers anymore," another one, a woman, helpfully added. "You're no longer and instrument of the Great War. You're free!" The jubilant look on her face might have been uplifting were her hair not whipped into a tangled bush around her face, her cheeks and nose burning maliciously red– to Auvri, she was terrifying.
"Don't you understand?" demanded the first man impatiently.
Auvri shrank into the folds of her robe, ducking from the cold wind and their voices howling over it.
The trip took a day and half of the next night, and by the time it was over they had given up trying to kindle some kind of gratitude in her. Their sour faces pinched up into the sting of the wind until they reapplied their masks to shield their skin from the cold– all but the woman, who gave hers to Auvri.
From the wagon they ushered her into a green tent deep in the forest. Auvri crawled unquestioningly inside, content to simply be away from them. From inside she could hear them congregating in front of the tent's opening, a fire sparked in the center of their huddle.
"We didn't do this for glory," the woman said. "We can't be discouraged– we should have expected her to be afraid. She's been kidnapped from the only home she's ever known."
"Yes, but if she wants to go back there, she could run off to the temple herself. What we did would be for nothing."
"There's no use keeping her," the impatient man agreed. "What will we do with her anyway?"
"If we leave her here," suggested one of them, "the priests will eventually find her. We certainly can't take her back ourselves. We'll be punished."
"We can't leave her here!" the woman protested. Auvri could see her face through the slim margin of orange light where the tent was opened, a round red bulb of insistence. There were seven of them forming a circle, and the woman was farthest from Auvri.
Auvri's own opinion about what should be done with her bounced back and forth with their discourse. She didn't want to be left alone in the cold, but she wanted the priests from the temple to come find her.
"Then you stay here with her and get caught. We shouldn't have taken her. We were being idealistic. They've been nursing her on their religious propaganda for too long– there's nothing we can do to wean her off of it," said the man who had driven the wagon. He seemed to be their leader, because the woman did not immediately argue with him as she had the others. His voice was low and calm, pronounced as the tip of a needle weaving the thread of the conversation. The woman's response was slowed with a softened tone of respect.
"But we'll be doing her more harm than good, leaving her alone in the forest. We'll be worse than the priests who were at least feeding and clothing her."
They continued to talk long into the night. Auvri knew this even as she drifted into sleep in the tent, as their voices entered her dreams through her ears, getting twisted in the erratic subconscious patterns of thought. She dreamed of stepping from the sacred chambers of the temple into a room on fire, with a wooden bridge stretched to a door on the other side. A man in black blocked her way, standing with his arms crossed, a silver crown pinning his mask to his face by the forehead.
"She is worthless," the man in Auvri's dream said, his lips moving in time with the ones of revolutionaries' leader outside. "She has been groomed into nothing but a gear of war, oiled only to keep it alive. Perhaps it would be a more fatal strike against the war if she were left here to die instead of allowing her to live."
When Auvri woke, a thin sheet of sunlight was spilling in through the opening of the tent, and when she drew back its flaps, she found the people dressed in black had gone. A single silver ribbon of smoke steamed upward from the pile of wood where the fire had been.