This is an updated version of my previously posted story. I hope you'll read and review, regardless of the length :). I promise my characters and plot are all my own.

And remember that if you review my story, I'll review one of yours no matter what!

ch.1 wordcount: 5600


Erina Corr figured that most of her problems could be traced back to the time Felix came home with a concussion, a broken leg, and a bloody nose.

The day was a winter one that had started off the same as all other days.

"Erina!" came a curt voice. "Get back in here. You have work to do!"

A million curses ran through Erina's mind as she abandoned her swords in the back and followed her grandmother's voice inside, wiping her sweaty hands on the skirts of her working dress. She didn't have much of a mind to melt wax and shape it into candles, or make dinner, or fetch groceries. She was interested in tearing her straw dummy to shreds; something that was, in contrast to everything else she did, enjoyable.

With a heavy breath, Erina called, "What is it, Grandmother?"

"We need water. Go to the stream. Get plenty. Then we have dinner to prepare. Your brothers will be home soon. They need a good meal!"

"Of course, Grandmother," Erina said tonelessly, taking three buckets out back to the stream and muttering under her breath. "Your brothers will be home soon. They need a good meal!" she mocked quietly, making a face. It didn't seem fair that all three of them were allowed to be off having adventures and making friends and learning to fight. Not while she sat at home, making pottery and candles and doing chores. It wasn't as though any of them were grateful, anyway, for the fact that her and Grandmother actually maintained the house; made the money and the food, while they were out playing warrior. Why, their only missions were to find some fine wife (something at which none of them had been able to succeed) and to 'bring honour to the family'.

What a load of goat's crap all of that was. Money was real. And what was honour, exactly? Somehow, the word was very tantalizing and held promises of riches and happiness and pride. It was an appealing concept, if a completely unpractical one.

At the stream, Erina crouched, cracked the thin sheet of ice with her fists, and let her buckets overflow with water. She stared into the rosy sunset sky—blue but streaked with pink and orange—until her hands began to numb and the buckets wouldn't fill anymore. It was only early winter but Cellia's winds were cold this year and a thin layer of dry, powder snow coated the ground. There was something strangely enchanting about snow that had always made her love winters as a child. It was like walking on crystals. But it made it cold and hard to see and there wasn't much meat to be found in the winter. Not to mention the thick ice that formed over the stream. It made the simplest tasks impossible. Even trying to sleep in the dead of a blizzard was impossible. When she was little, she snuggled to keep warm with her brothers. Now they were too old and proud for that.

Walking back to the house, several fairies landed on Erina's arms, flitting around and making indistinct chirping noises. "Oh, no," she snapped, flicking them off her. "Shoo!"

The fairies were almost too little to make out—just an indistinguishable glowing ball—but they seemed to be moving away from her. Fairies were harmless mostly—even the sharpest of teeth couldn't hurt when they were that tiny—just annoying. They were good lights though, and pretty at night. There was a myriad of legends about their once-great power but they were like mice to Erina. Kill them if they were in the house; leave them alone if they were outside.

Water was boiling over the fire when she got inside and Grandmother was feverishly chopping carrots. The knife moved in a blur. "Want dinner ready before your brothers get home," Grandmother smiled fondly. "They'll like that, eh?"

"You love them," Erina remarked, setting down the water and letting it slosh onto the counter. "Care about them a lot for a bunch of ungrateful slobs."

"Don't take your anger at Cadman out on Chale and Felix," reprimanded Grandmother. "And I care about other people, too," she added, beady eyes narrowing. "People who don't notice it."

A little embarrassed, Erina shrugged. "I got the extra water you needed. Do I have to do anything else?"

With her knife, Grandmother gestured towards an unappealing hunk of meat that lay on the table. "Cook that," she said, "And make it look more attractive."

"What even is this?" she demanded with her nose crinkled.

Grandmother shrugged. "Boar, maybe? I got it for a good price." She gave a toothless smile. "It's not that bad. Leave the inedible bits out for the dogs."

"Something is dripping off it," Erina insisted, still holding the boar at arms' length and setting it to roast over the fireplace. "I think it's blood." she shook her head.

She could hear, albeit faintly a bell ringing from the shop. A customer. "Someone's here."

"You get it," said Grandmother distractedly. "I thought you knew how to sell candles?"

"I didn't say I didn't know how!" she protested indignantly.

"Well, then, don't keep our customer waiting!" exclaimed Grandmother, waving her chopping knife. Erina hastily made her way through the door to the shop. Not much to her surprise, Charlie was tapping his fingers on the counter expectantly and shifting his weight from foot to foot—a sure sign of nervousness. When he saw his friend, he grinned easily.

"Someone needs to work on his service skills," he chastised. "I was waiting forever."

"You were not," retorted Erina. "I got here in under a second. Besides, it's you; you don't care."

Charlie laughed a little, glancing around the shop. "How many candles you got? My father needs some. Not the smelly ones, just the standard."

"Well I suppose, since this is a candle shop, we've got a few." Erina rolled her eyes and ducked below the counter, popping up a few seconds later with a heavy box of the large, sturdy candles that Charlie's father required at his inn. Though candlestick making was a process Erina detested, it had been the reason she met Charlie. The innkeeper never didn't need candles, and was always sending his son back and forth to get them. The unlikely friendship had blossomed quickly and from a young age; Erina was grateful for his companionship. She wasn't a natural at making friends, but Charlie was easy to get on with, and he didn't seem to mind listening to her about whatever was on her mind. And sometimes he and his kindly father gave her and Grandmother free meals.

"Har, har," said Charlie, taking the box from Erina and slapping a two copper coins on the counter. "You should bring your family round for supper. Papa would like that. I mean your brothers and everything."

"Yeah, I s'pose that'd be a good time," Erina said thoughtfully, "even though it'd mean Cad would have to come. I'll tell Grandmother."

Charlie smiled, eyes crinkling at the edges. "I think Papa likes having the sense of community. With all the fighting and that."

Erina nodded quickly—that she could understand. She knew her own brothers would be called to the king's army soon; in fact, they would probably volunteer to go fight against Vihallen the second another issue requesting help came out. People were growing worried for their men—marrying them off frantically so that they would be more inclined to stay home, even sending them to live in other kingdoms. Some—like Father had done when he was still around—pushed their boys to train long and hard hours so they could bring pride to their kingdom.

"It's not a peaceful time," she said at last. "S'good to spend the time we can with each other."

Mock saluting, he hoisted the candles under his arm and trudged out of the shop, leaving little snowy footprints on the worn wood. Erina sighed heavily and leaned her elbows on the countertop. She knew what the cause of his uneasy mood was (nothing about Charlie slipped by her). He was eighteen, too. He was old enough to be recruited to the army now.

Erina stared aimlessly into space, taking in every corner of her grandmother's old shop and waiting for customers to come. Their village in Antrem was small; there was only one candlestick maker. So the Corr's business ran smoothly. But no one showed up, and just as she was growing bored, Felix, Chale and Cadman trooped in.

The youngest Corr child straightened, ready to welcome them, when she realized that Chale and Cadman were supporting a bleeding Felix. His head lolled, blood trickled down his nose, and he held no weight on his left leg. Erina's twin looked, kindly put, worse for the wear. She all but sprinted around the counter to her brothers.

"What happened to him?" she demanded, putting her thumb and forefinger at his chin so as to better see his face. "Chale, how was he hurt?"

The boy's face was lined with worry. "He-"

Cadman interrupted. "Idiot got 'imself into a fight during training. It was over something stupid, and is opponent had a knife on 'im. Well, we all know our dear Felix here can't fight to save 'is life. I reckon it didn't last five minutes."

"I didn't ask you," Erina snapped, hostile, to her eldest brother. Chale stepped in quickly.

"Uh, sword cut on his arm an' stomach. Broken leg, he says – he's not walking, anyway – an' a black eye. To be fair though," Chale added quickly, "He roughed up the other guy pretty bad too."

Cadman snorted with obvious scepticism.

"Alright," said Erina, "Come on, Felix." She replaced Cadman, slinging Felix's arm around her shoulders, firmly ordering her brother to stay at the shop until her return. Then, with Chale's help, they made their way to the back.

"Grandmother!" called Chale, "We're back, come in here!"

"What is it?" she snapped irritably, footsteps growing louder as she came down the hall. "I'm preparing your supper, boy."

She shuffled into view and stopped dead when she saw Felix's state. Though clearly shocked, Grandmother quickly recovered, pointed her knife at Felix and asked, "What happened to him?"

Chale winced. "Got in a fight; lost."

"Cadman's working the shop," Erina said quickly. "You need to help us with him."

"Of course," Grandmother rolled her eyes. "What else am I going to do? Poor fool."

As she led them into the back bedroom, Felix turned his head to Erina and said weakly, "'Rina? Why are there two of you?"

"I think he's got a concussion," assessed Erina, though she wasn't much of an expert. "He's not really the type to get into fights, is he, Chale?"

Chale shrugged and shook his head. "'E never would. 'E's the easiest one there to get along with. I'm not sure even—what the other one said to make 'im angry. I turned around and they were going at each other."

The siblings set their brother down on his cot. Grandmother hurried to fetch water and bandages, while Erina spoke reassuring words. "You're a little banged up, Felix," she said, "But we'll have you better in no time."

"I think I'm going to vomit," he groaned. "I'm dizzy."

Erina turned to Chale. "How bad was this fight? Did the Vihamies invade or something?"

"Cadman told you himself," Chale shook his head. "The other guy 'ad a weapon and Felix here isn't the best fighter."

Grandmother bustled back into the room, carrying a bucket of cold water, bandages, and strange herbs whose properties Erina never understood. "You two go," she said to Chale and Erina. "Make use of yourselves. I'll call if I need you."

"Yes, Grandmother," Chale said, pulling Erina out by the arm. "We have to talk."

"Uh oh," his sister replied interestedly, wondering what he could have to say. "Is it bad?"

"I s'pose," muttered Chale, dragging her outside. Once they were in the backyard and safely out of earshot from Grandmother, he whirled around, staring his sister in the eyes, and began to talk, low tone rushed and urgent. "They say the war is going badly. We do have soldiers…I mean…they haven't taken the Royal City or anything, but the point is, Vihallen is making alliances. Not just with other kingdoms, but with, you know—" he struggled for a word— "Creatures. Goblins and the like. Which is an enormous asset for them."

"This is a fascinating lesson," said Erina impatiently, shifting her weight, "but care to explain why it matters to me?"

"Not to you directly," Chale replied. "Rumour has it the king's sent an order to draft all the young men from various villages in Antrem. Their army isn't in great shape. They need soldiers. I overheard the training overseers talking with each other; they're coming soon."

"Soon…" Erina said, "Soon, as in, before Felix gets better."

"Yeah. Mos' likely," Chale replied. He kicked a rock. "If Dad could see us now. Wonder if he'd be proud."

"When are they coming back?" asked Erina, idly picking up her dual swords.

Chale laughed humourlessly. "They probably died in a storm. I hear it's crazy at sea."

Erina, staring at the ground and shook her head. "But that doesn't matter, does it. What matters is Felix."

She swung her swords around, striking a fighting stance. "Hey, maybe if I cut off all my hair, I can take Felix's place in the army. I look like a boy, right?"

"I don't see why you play with those," Chale said, gesturing to the swords. "Girls and fighting don't mix."

Erina pouted. "They remind me of dad."

"I did hear a poem once though, brought over from some faraway kingdom. It was about a girl who went to war in her father's place. Maybe you could be like her," he joked.

She shrugged and said, "Maybe. I'll have to decide what to do. Perhaps we can hide him so he won't be drafted."

"I'm serious, Erina, don't even think about posing as a boy. You'd be caught b'fore you knew it."

"Well, seeing as we'd all get drafted together, I couldn't exactly fake being Felix around you. You'd recognize me," she said with a scowl.

"That's another thing," Chale started. "Cad an' I talked about it. We're signing ourselves up. T'morrow."

"Tomorrow?" Erina stepped back, shocked. She didn't care what Cadman did, but she was actually sort of fond of Chale. "How will you tell Grandmother? An why on earth would you—if you think you'll get drafted anyway?"

"I want to go on my own terms," said Chale levelly, "an' so does Cad. Grandmother will understand. She's got to."

"No, she won't." she shook her head. "I don't believe it."

"You don't 'ave to, but it's 'appening anyway," he replied, and before Erina had a chance to respond, he walked inside. She was left alone, shivering and wondering why on earth there was even a war in the first place. Why there had been one for as long as she could remember, why no one bothered to put a stop to it, or why no one had managed to win. She clenched her fists, angry at Felix for getting hurt, angry and Cad and Chale for letting him, angry at Chale for dismissing her idea so quickly.

There was little point in standing around in the freezing weather of Cellia's month if you didn't have to. Erina, her head swirling with unsettling thoughts, trudged back inside to finish preparing dinner.

"How's the idiot?" Cadman asked, striding into the back room for supper. "Alive?"

Erina gave a glare as withering as she could, but left the talking to Grandmother. "He'll live," shrugged the old woman. "Injuries aren't that bad; broken bones heal, and cuts are a small issue if we keep them from festering."

Chale's face was blank and unreadable. "But he won't be able to fight for quite a time."

"What're you suggesting, boy?" demanded Grandmother. "He was going to sign himself up for the army, was he?"

Chale only shrugged. "He might get drafted. They're putting all their efforts into the war."

"A fool would draft Felix Corr for the Antrem army," chuckled Grandmother, unconcerned. "He'll be up and about soon. I have a crutch for his leg. Head's not so good though…" she swallowed a piece of the mystery meat thoughtfully. "I'm not letting him go back to that training camp of yours for at least a few weeks. He vomited all over."

Erina's nose crinkled. "Grandmother, that's gross."

After that, the meal passed without any talk of the war. Erina was surprised that Chale didn't have the nerve to announce his and Cadman's plan, or even to tell Grandmother what he'd heard about the rumours of drafting all the young men in their village.

The evening went as all evenings went in their home. She did the dishes. Grandmother kindled the fire. Chale and Cadman drank and played cards. Erina slipped out back and whirled around in the dark with her dual swords, twirling, slicing and stabbing at the makeshift dummy she had constructed with straw and string. She would have liked to say she was graceful and skilled, but in reality, she probably looked clumsy to anyone with training. Where could a girl go in Antrem to get weaponry lessons, though? Where could she go anywhere, in the northern world?

Erina took out her anger on the dummy: her anger at the army for daring to draft young, inexperienced boys. Her anger at Cadman for being arrogant and condescending and rude. Her anger at Chale for wanting to join the fighting but not being able to tell Grandmother about it. Her anger at boys for being allowed to contribute to the war while she sat at home making candles. She tore at it long into the night.

The sound of unfamiliar, plummy voices pierced Erina's ears in the morning. She opened her eyes, frowning, and with a start, realized that her brothers weren't in their beds—save for a sleeping Felix. Hastily, she pulled on the shabby dress nearest her, that lay in a crumpled heap from yesterday, and hurried into the front room.

Two men, dressed to look like they were important, stood before Grandmother, Chale, and Cadman. "I don't understand," Grandmother was saying, words rushed, "you cannot take children."

A sense of dread seeped through Erina as the stranger – dressed in what she now recognized as an army uniform – said calmly, "These are not children, your kinship; they are all of age, and it is the king's wish that all men in this village fight for their kingdom." As if to prove his point, the soldier pulled and unfurled a long scroll from his pocket.

"The king is a fool if he chooses to force untrained men to the front," spat Grandmother, a fire in her eyes that was unfamiliar to Erina. Though such words could normally get anyone into great trouble, the soldiers chose to say nothing of it.

"Cadman and Chale Corr may come now," the soldier on the left said. "They will not need any personal belongings, unless they own a weapon they wish to use. Felix Corr, however, is also obligated to join them."

"Felix Corr is injured and will be unable to fight!" Grandmother hissed, looking almost desperate. "I cannot send him with you!"

Erina sensed pity in the eyes of the second soldier. He hesitated for an eternity then said stiffly, "Felix Corr will be given a day to attend to his injuries." he handed Grandmother a rolled-up scroll. "A horse will be tied out front. He will use the horse and the map I have just given you to report to the training camp a few kilometres away. If we do not find him signed in tomorrow—by midnight, that is—we will have issues with the Corr family."

Grandmother looked like she wanted to punch the soldiers out. Instead, she threw her arms around Chale and Cadman before glaring with contempt at the men. Erina found herself unable to move, as if everything that was happening was a nightmare she couldn't wake up from. Chale kept glancing at his sister and grandmother as they retreated; Cadman didn't look back once.

"What just happened, Grandmother?" Erina asked in a small voice like a child's, wringing her hands together. "Are they gone?"

"Son of a bitch soldiers don't know what they're asking," the old woman snarled. Erina's eyebrows rose, just a little. Grandmother never swore.

"You know Felix has to go," warned Erina. "He does. Otherwise we'll be in trouble."

"No," said Grandmother, "That won't do. He's come down with a fever and his leg's broken."

"He must go."

"I said no, Erina!"

Erina's eyes narrowed. She thought of her conversation with Chale last night—the poem about the girl who became a warrior. Felix had a concussion and a broken leg and a fever. Even if he had enough time to start to heal before he was thrust into battle, training would injure him even further.

"I'll take his place," said Erina boldly, knowing what the answer would be.

Grandmother snorted. "Nice joke."

"I'm serious!" she protested. "Think about it!"

"I know that you like to play with your father's old swords out in the yard," said Grandmother. "Do you think that makes you capable of fighting like a boy?" Her tone dripped with condescending doubt.

Erina targeted the old woman's weakness. "He's sick, Grandmother. He needs me. I could go! I'm just as good as him!"

Her tone was dangerously sharp. "No, Erina! You are a girl! Don't get ahead of yourself! Your only worth is to marry. Do not think for a second that you could hold your own against men like Cadman and Chale." She was practically spitting.

The words stung, but more than hurting, Erina was angered. Had Grandmother not seen her in the streets? Had she not heard her granddaughter's sharp tongue? Men were not rude to her. They did not disrespect her.

"Well, what alternative do we have, then?" Erina asked, switching gears.

"I'll figure something out." Grandmother left the room, signalling the end of the conversation. Erina resisted the urge to spit as the old woman had earlier.

'Your only worth is to marry.' The words were sharp in her mind. She hated Grandmother for uttering those words. She resented everything. Even the women. Far more than the men, she resented the other pathetic Antremian women who didn't do anything to change their standing. It was nothing like the deep south, where women ran nations and everyone prayed to the female goddesses.

'You're ridiculous,' Grandmother would say. 'No women ever want to be warriors.'

Maybe Erina didn't want to be a warrior. Maybe she just wanted to protect her brother. Maybe she just wanted to prove Grandmother and Chale and Cadman wrong.

Overcome with the urge to crush every single candle—every candle she'd made with her bare, hardworking, unappreciated hands—Erina laced her boots and pulled a cloak over her shoulders before slamming the shop door behind her.

Thick flakes of snow fell on her pale hair as she trudged down the crowded main street. The village was a grim sight to behold; weeping mothers allowed their sons to be escorted away and young men bid farewell to their families. People walked with their heads bowed to the wind, moving quickly in and out of the shops so as to buy what they needed and hurriedly return home. It wasn't even particularly cold, but the wind blew snow into Erina's eyes and made her squint. She walked purposefully to the inn and the warm, promising glow of its lights. Ranting to Charlie about the injustices of the world always made her feel better. Plus, his father the innkeeper seemed to have an irrational fondness for her, and always gave her free bread and tea.

Not many were moving in and out of the large inn at the end of the street; the heavy oak doors stayed firmly shut. Erina strode in, surveying the mostly empty tables and blank faces of the visitors. She wove in and out of round tables past them, making her way to the bar and saying hello to the innkeeper.

"Is Charlie in the back?" she asked.

A simple question. But when Charlie's father didn't answer immediately, she knew something was very wrong.

"…Where is he?" A pit formed in Erina's stomach. She had a sinking feeling she knew the answer to her question.

The innkeeper sighed and stopped wiping the bar down. "You would know, I think. Didn't the army arrive at your doorstep, too?"

"When did they come?" she asked, voice weak. All the colour drained from her face. She couldn't even recall the words she'd spoken to Charlie.

"Not so long ago," he said, looking defeated. "What does it matter?"

"Thank you," said Erina quietly, head pounding. Everything was going wrong all at once; she could barely even breathe. She turned on her heel and used all of her strength to walk slowly out of the inn, slammed the door behind her and leaned against it, trying to compose herself.

She walked home with her head hanging. Charlie was gone and Felix was ill-fated. He wasn't going to be able to train properly with a broken leg! And when he was sent onto the battlefield, he would have little idea what to do. It wouldn't matter if he had gone to intensives and lessons occasionally. Those were child's play. You didn't do rehearsed, carefully practiced sword-dancing forms when you were fighting for your life.

She patted the mane of the army-provided horse, tethered on a short rope at the fence, before entering the shop. Grandmother was serving a customer, though as soon as the aged man left, she turned to Erina.

"Where were you?" she asked, sour temper clearly still present.

"I went for a walk," snapped Erina. "Literally—I went down the street to the inn and back. Charlie's gone."

Though there was something in Grandmother's eyes—was that really sorrow? Her brows lowered and she said, "It does well to tell me where you're going before you storm off. Check on Felix. Then I want a set of candles. Small table ones."

Erina didn't bother arguing. She stomped into the back bedroom and checked on Felix, who was snoring. She dipped the lukewarm, damp towel on his burning head in freezing water and replaced it, watching his heavy breathing for a moment. He looked so carefree.

"We're not going to let anything happen to you," she mumbled, pushing his sticky hair back from his face.

He gripped her wrist, eyes fluttering open. "Thanks," he croaked. "Is it true that Chale and Cad are gone?"

"Yeah. But we're not letting you go, alright?"

He made a face. "You can't stop me. It's the law."

She made a face back. "You'll die if you do go. And I think Grandmother and I could take you in a fight, in your current state."

Felix smiled ruefully. "But I might be killed anyway if I don't."

"That's ridiculous," she replied doubtfully. The Antrem Army wouldn't do that.

He raised an eyebrow. "If you say so. Could I have some water?"

Eager to help, Erina dipped the wooden cup in the basin and lifted it to his lips; Felix drank greedily and smiled.

"I think I'll go back to sleep now. Thanks."

"You said thanks already."

Mood softened a little, she climbed upstairs to make candles. It was easy, boring even after several years of the same work. Melt the paraffin, prepare the mold, and fetch the wick, on and on. It was almost a relief when Grandmother called her down to work at the till so she could attend Felix.

Felix. He was going to go tomorrow. Anger boiled inside of Erina.

She stood behind the shop counter, counting change and heaving boxes of candles into the arms of weary customers. A little girl came in pushing the door with all her weight, someone she knew to be named Bellie.

"They took Tim," she informed Erina, pushing coins to her and holding the box of candles with both chubby arms. "Mum's really upset. What should I say?"

"I dunno, Bellie," sighed Erina exasperatedly. Nothing would console that girl's mother if Tim were gone.

Garith, a handsome brunet not very highly regarded by anyone with a brain, strode in sometime later, slapping a copper coin on the counter. "They'll take me away to fight soon," he said with a sorrowful smile. "How about a kiss before I go?"

"Get out of here, Garith," Erina muttered, shoving him a heavy box of the candles he always bought.

"Now that Chale, Cadman, Felix and dear Charlie are gone…" sighed Garith, not sounding very regretful, "you know who you can talk to."

"I said, out!" exclaimed Erina, voice rising. He chuckled as he walked into the snow.

"Yeah, you'll be laughing when you have some Vihamie soldier's arrow in your throat!" Erina yelled at his retreating figure with malice.

Afternoon melted into evening and, with the days short, it was dark early. Erina paced the floor, watching dust settle on the floorboards. How nice it would be, to be a speck of dust and not worry about all that went on in the world!

Felix didn't eat with them that night. Erina pushed her stew around her plate. "How is my brother?" she asked Grandmother, staring in the direction of the back room. She took a tentative bite of stew.

"He's become more ill." Grandmother sighed, and when Erina looked for the fire that had been in her eyes, she realized she couldn't find it. "All has taken a turn for the worse."

Indeed. Everything was falling apart. Erina found it difficult to believe she was so angry with Grandmother earlier. Now, the woman looked frail, old and sad. Helpless.

A fit of coughing coming from the bedroom distracted them both. She wanted to scream, but she had to make do by stamping her foot hard enough to make dust rise from the floorboards. She pushed the bench back, scraping it against the floor, but Grandmother put a hand out to stop her.

"You are no healer," she murmured. "Let me go. Finish your supper. You'll need it."

Erina sat down, staring into the crackling fireplace and letting her thoughts wander. She wondered where Charlie was. What he was doing. If he was alright. She didn't imagine he was taking everything well. That boy was no fighter.

Eventually, she had to face what was in the bedroom. Erina set her almost untouched dinner aside, pulling on a nightgown and rubbing mint paste over her teeth. In the room for her and her brothers, Felix coughed violently. She arrived just in time to see him vomit into a bucket. Erina would have liked to say she wasn't fazed by gore, but even she had to wince when she saw her brother throwing his insides up.

"Grandmother, you must go to bed," said Erina. It was late now. She could see the lines of tiredness etched onto the woman's face.

"Yes," Felix said weakly, voice cracking. "I am fine. Go to sleep, Grandmother."

Grandmother huffed before nodding and pushing herself up. "You tell me, girl, if your brother's condition worsens in the night. Replace his cloth every so often, to soften his fever."

Erina didn't tell her grandmother that her evening plans wouldn't include playing the healer. But she nodded. "Remember," she muttered, "you have to do something soon."

Grandmother only narrowed her eyes before she left the room. Erina sat before her brother, letting her thoughts go everywhere, and running her hands through her hair and thinking, scheming. She felt an immeasurable amount of fear and excitement for the plan that was forming in her head.

It was several hours before Erina dared move. She made sure Grandmother was breathing heavily in her room, and Felix was snoring and coughing. Then she cautiously opened the dresser, wincing at every creak. She pulled on Felix's tunic, soft boots and pants. They felt terribly foreign on her legs; so tight and binding.

Down the hall was where her swords awaited, just a few easy steps away. She winced at the obnoxious creak of the back door, but no one's footsteps sounded in the hallway. She snatched the dual swords that leaned against the house and, breathing with relief, moved to her next stop. The kitchen, where the knives lay out. She crept upstairs, blades in hand, scared to death of waking Grandmother.

The map was what she hoped to find, at it was there on the table by the wax moulds, waiting for her like a present. Foolish, Grandmother, foolish. Erina struck a match to light the candles they had so many of, and tied her hair back tightly. Taking a deep breath, eyes closed, she began sawing through it with the serrated kitchen knife. It proved surprisingly difficult, hair snagging on the blade over and over. In the dim candlelight cast on the cracked mirror, she could just see the cutting job she had done. Blonde hair hung around her ears and in her eyes. Erina had to resist the urge to giggle as she ran a hand through the short, choppy stuff that left her neck completely exposed; how practical!

Almost there. Good thing this procedure didn't take too long; she would begin to have second thoughts soon. Erina took the spare bandage that lay on the countertop and bound it around her chest as tightly as possible—it was difficult to breathe when all was said and done, but with Felix's shirt back on, her chest gave nothing away.

I make a fine man, Erina thought with her travelling cloak buttoned around her neck, swords resting in the sheath at her hip. Perhaps her figure was a little slight, her jaw a little round. But would anyone expect to see a girl at a training camp? Surely, if she claimed to be a boy, they would accept it without question.

The parchment, ink and brushes lay on the table just behind her, so inviting. I've got to give Grandmother and Felix some explanation, she thought, haven't I?

But what would she say? Grandmother hardly spared a minute in the busy days teaching her to write or read. Erina could only make out the most basic words; she had never even tried to spell her own name. The woman of the household only needs to write if the man wishes it, Grandmother always maintained, and then added, and if your husband wants you literate, that's his business. They didn't have time to learn characters amidst all the shop-keeping, anyway.

She dipped the brush in the inkpot, held it to the parchment and clumsily wrote the one word she could think of in large characters—S-O-R-R-Y. As an afterthought, she knelt to the floor and gathered her hair in her palms, then left it in a clump beside the note. Only women wore their hair long in the west—if everything else didn't give her actions away, this would.

There was one last step, of course. Most households in Antrem had some sort of shrine to the gods—but Grandmother was a superstitious woman, and they made offerings at every morning meal. Their shrine burned a single, thin-wicked candle made specially by Grandmother day and night.

Said shrine sat at the top of the staircase, below the window that sent drafts blowing through, even on the most peaceful nights. Erina knelt in front of the candle, praying to Cellia the snow goddess that her winter winds would be gentle, praying to Ren—the great King—that he would smile at Antrem's Army.

And last, let us live, Gella, keeper of life, she thought, despite hardly believing in the gods herself. What did she have to lose?

It took several steadying breaths for Erina to creep out to the horse waiting in the front. She stared at the map in the moonlight. It was simple enough. The camp was south, over a hill and situated near a river. She drew in a deep breath. I will have to pretend I'm Felix. To everyone.

"I am Felix Corr," she whispered to the dead street, and gave a tiny, breathy laugh.

Without allowing herself to think through what she was doing, Erina untied the horse, stepped onto the stirrup with one foot, and threw her leg over its back.

She rode.