The girl with the fox eyes had wandered away from home again. It would be a lie to say she was lost. She always knew where she was within Avanshe Forest. She knew how long it would take to return, the best path to get there, and all the wildflower brambles and mossy tree trunks along the way. So it wasn't that she couldn't turn back; it was just that, for all her knowledge, her feet kept carrying her further, her eyes exploring ahead.
Cinquain often remarked that she should have named herself Wander. When she responded that she didn't name herself, he simply shrugged and said, "Whose fault is that?"
In Melimis Grove, not choosing her own name was almost the oddest thing about her. In fact, of everyone she knew, Zire was the only other person who kept the name he was born with. He was one of the reasons she decided to keep hers. The other was that she had grown up in the Grove, rather than stumbling upon it while escaping some sordid past, desperate for reinvention.
Truthfully, though, she liked the name she had — Promise. She liked the idea that someone looked at her as a baby and thought well of her...even if it was right before they abandoned her.
She had started the morning hunting a buck, maybe even an elk from the size of the tracks. An elk would last for months, although it would be impossible to carry back on her own. But it didn't matter, because when she finally caught up to it, it had already fallen prey to another hunter. The buck's legs and side were marred with scorch marks. It's neck was bitten so deeply that there was little of it left.
But the tracks the killer left were far more interesting. They looked almost feline, with double-lobed foot pads, but the sharp lines that jutted out from them look like talons — like a giant falcon. And then there was the faint trace of five lines running through the center of the tracks, matching the odd scorch marks on the buck.
It was the first time Promise has seen tracks like this, but not the first time she'd heard of a creature like this.
Three months before, the scouts came back to the Grove with a carcass that seemed to start out as a panther, but with uneven wings on its back and a too-long, five-pronged tail. The carcass was sticky with a viscous pale ooze and a heady stench that clung to Dart's clothes as she heaved it in front of Cinquain, but she wore her braggingest grin.
"Alright," she had called. "who wants to carve this up?"
Promise had noticed green scales through the ooze.
Cinquain decided to call it a mountain drake, though there were no mountains for hundreds of miles. Zire frowned and went back to the hut. He was quiet for the rest of the day, and the next time the scouts left, he stayed home. But like many things in their relationship, he never explained and Promise never asked, though not for lack of curiosity.
There had been reports of attacks in nearby cities. City dwellers thought they came from the forest, but the Grove knew better. They were encroaching on the forest, not moving out from it. The scouts had only ever seen them on the fringes, near town.
Which is why it stood out now to see one this far in. The Grove would want to know. The often muffled, sensible part of her thoughts suggested she go back and tell the others. Then Dart and the scouts would take care of it. Maybe she could even convince them to let them go with her.
Or maybe she could impress them all by doing it herself. She might not have been the hunter that Dart was, but everyone agreed Promise was hard to beat as a tracker. She had hoped by now they would have asked her to join them. It was clear enough that she wanted to be a scout, and nineteen was plenty old enough.
But sometimes it seemed she would never shake the shadow of the little girl, the only child of the Grove, the baby left in the woods by a mother who didn't want the headache.
She bent her knees slightly to quiet her movements as she stepped into the tracks. The musty smell from the morning's rain still clings to the air, and the damp made it easier to walk over dead leaves that would otherwise have crunched. It told her, too, that the tracks were recent. They hadn't been filled with water or washed away. She kept her eyes ahead, looking for a shift of movement through the trees, her right hand clutching the belly of her bow.
In this part of the forest, the trees were too dense to see the sun overhead. That was what she loved about it; deep enough to be buried in, she once said to Zire. Then she saw his concerned expression and took it back, realizing how dark it must have sounded. She hadn't meant it in the sense of dying, though. There was just something comforting in being completely enveloped in something so much more immense than herself.
With Avanshe Forest thinning, she was running out of places that held that feeling.
She lost track of time as she tracked, but finally, a bulk of deep green moved in her peripheral vision and she heard heavy huffing. She crouched as she turned. The mountain drake covered in bright green scales and almost beautiful in her strangeness — a little larger than a panther, but with pointed ears like a lynx. She was mostly covered in scales, but the ears were fuzzier, and Promise spotted tan fur along the underbelly.
But there was a wrongness, too. Tufts of fur that broke up the scales in odd places, wings jagged, almost broken. Even the bright green scales seemed almost surreal. Her tail was so long it dragged along the ground, leaving scorch marks behind.
Promise was so fascinated for a moment that the mountain drake almost wandered back out of sight. She shook herself out of it. Creatures like this had been attacking people in cities, could attack the Grove. She drew from her quiver, nocked her arrow, and waited. As the mountain drake moved into an opening between trees ahead, Promise's arrow flew out and sank into the shoulder of the mountain drake with a thump.
The mountain drake reared up and let out an unnatural, discordant yowl, as if the sound and the sight of it don't match. It flapped its wings, but didn't quite lift off the ground. Promise drew another arrow and prepared to shoot again, when the mountain drake's bright yellow lopsided eyes met hers.
She let the arrow go in surprise, and it only scraped the side of the beast. She backed up towards a nearby beech tree, but it was too sparse to climb and the mountain drake was faster than she looked. No sooner did Promise reach back for the tree trunk than she was knocked on the ground, pinned down by its sharp taloned paws.
Sharp stinging shot through her forearm where the talon had torn through the skin. The mountain drake's tail wrapped around her ankle, and she yelped from the heat. Her bow snapped somewhere below her. Promise tried to twist and kick, but the mountain drake pinned her too tightly.
There was nowhere to look but the mountain drake, and now it was impossible to escape how pained she looked. Her face was set unevenly. The tufts of fur pushed through the scapes, rather than filling space where scales were not. The ooze and the smell were less obvious at a distance — she was less covered than the carcass Dart brought back. But it was there, like a thick sweat. It dripped onto Promise's face as the mountain drake made another broken noise that was probably meant to be a growl. Even up close, it sounded distant and strained. This close, the beast was pitiful. Then the mountain drake lowered her head and bared her fangs to strike, as if reminding Promise who was truly pitiful in this situation.
Promise squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the kill. The mountain drake's hot, rank breath was encompassing. Then she heard a shrill squeal followed by another cry from the mountain drake as her weight shifted off.
When Promise opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was the boar to her left, pawing the ground, green blood on his tusks. On the other side, the mountain drake was bowed and ready to spring, no longer focused on Promise.
It gave Promise a chance, but she had to be fast. She reached for the hunting sword at her side and struck at the mountain drake as it lunged. It was a clumsy jab, the fault of her hurt arm. The boar charged at the mountain drake again in the same moment, perfectly in tandem.
It wasn't enough. The mountain drake leapt back, hurt but alive. Then instead of lunging again, she keeps running. By the time Promise pulled herself to her feet, the beast was out of range.
She panted to catch her breath and then groaned, long and furious through gritted teeth, dropping the broken pieces of her bow in resignation. It was a pale birch bow, not the strongest wood, but her favorite. It had been her favorite one that she'd made, not that it mattered now. Some way to show the scouts that she could be taken seriously. Now there was a mountain drake running through the forest, and Promise had only served to make her scratched up and angry.
The boar who saved her life grunted at her side and flopped down. Now when she looked at him, she could see the blackened scorch marks from the tail running along his side. It wasn't deep, but probably hurt like hell. Her ankle still smarted, and she had leather boots to protect it.
She reached into the leather bag at her hip for some aloe and knelt down next to the boar. He squealed as she broke it off and rubbed the goo along the burns. "Hey, I'm trying to help you," she snapped.
He looked at her doubtfully and then huffed, an attitude that seemed fitting for the sort of animals that had a habit of following her around. For the past ten years, it had been a surly goose. Before that, a badger with a habit of biting anyone who got too close. Before that, a fox who had — according to Zire and the elders at the grove — curled up at her feet when she slept as a baby and bared his teeth at anyone who passed by.
All assholes and all oddly loyal in their way. She named them the same thing — the word for friend in the secret language she and Zire used with each other.
She nudged at the boar. "Come on, Tavi. Let's go home and get you fixed up."
She spun around, surprised and embarrassed to be discovered in this moment. Even worse when she realized who it was.
Catching his breath a few trees behind her was Oak — the only person close to her age at the Grove, and the most beautiful person she'd ever met. Promise wasn't known for her social graces, but around Oak, she was utterly useless.
That was why it took her a moment to recognize how frazzled he looked, doubled over, bracing his hands against his knees as he panted. Flyaways slipped out of his long, black ponytail. His warm brown eyes were wide. He had run...a long way. Maybe all the way from the Grove.
The usual social anxiety flew out of her head. "What happened?"
Tavi pulled himself to his feet and followed him. Oak took in the sight of her torn tunic and bloody arm. She pressed a hand to her injured arm and held it behind her back. "Don't worry about it. What's wrong?"
He took another deep breath. "The scouts...scouts were attacked."
She froze, and the forest seemed to freeze with her. "Mountain drake?"
It couldn't be the same one. It didn't make sense when this had happened just minutes ago, and the scouts moved out of the woods towards the cities. But still.
Oak shook his head. "People. I don't know. I left to find you as soon as they got back. Promise," he hesitated, and this time it wasn't to catch his breath. "It's Zire."
Part of her knew what he had been about to say, but hearing it still felt like a punch to the gut. "What?" Her voice sounded small, out of her grasp. "Is he...?" She couldn't finish the sentence. He couldn't be dead. Zire couldn't die.
"No," Oak said quickly. "But...it's bad. He wants to see you."
The words rattled in her ears, foreboding.
She was already moving, and now Oak had to make an effort to keep pace with her. Her ears were ringing, her head pounding, and soon she was running, heedless of the thorns and the mud and her own injuries. Tavi ran next to her as if he knew the way. She didn't care to read into it. All she cared about was getting home.
He'll be fine, she thought with the pounding of each boot against the muddy ground. It's Zire. We live in a colony of druids. He'll be fine, he'll be fine, he'll be fine.
When she reached the willow tree that marked Melimis Grove and the circle of huts beyond it, her lungs burned. She stopped, hacking for stinging breath as Oak halted behind her, stopping at a tree for support. It was quiet. Usually, Woad was out crafting or Rhine was singing to her plants to make them grow. And at least a few of the scouts milling about and talking. Now it seemed almost empty.
And then, from Cinquain's hut, "You stupid fuck." Dart's voice, deep caring under all the layers of anger, fear, and spite. "I'll never forgive you if you die, you know that?"
There was a muffled, quieter response and then Dart pushed through the leaves at the entrance with a huff. Her eyes landed on Promise for a moment before she grumbled, "Apparently, I've been kicked out."
"What happened?" Promise asked, running to her. "Oak said you were attacked, but…"
Dart's long braid had mostly come loose, her forehead was covered in a mixture of sweat and dirt, and there was a bandage on her arm. She was tense and furious. "We ran into some batshit cultists near the boundary. They were waving torches, saying they were going to burn the forest down for the glory of Wyros or something, and he —" she would have sounded annoyed if not for the choked noise in her throat and the vision of barely held back tears "—just fucking threw himself at them. At cultists with lit torches. Stupid."
That didn't sound right. Zire was brave, sure, and protective, but he wasn't reckless. Usually, he was giving Promise a hard time about her own impulsive tendencies.
"How is he?"
Dart clenched her jaw and nodded at the entrance. "You better go see."
Promise looked back to see Oak still a step behind her, the same helpless, worried expression. He opened his mouth as if to say or offer something and then closed it again and stepped back. She wasn't sure if she was grateful for that or wanted the company. She went inside alone anyway.
She saw Cinquain beside his own bed (he hardly ever used it), his hands were smudged with poultices, head bent low in work. Rhine hurried past her with herbs to a table on the other side of the hut where there was a mortar and pestle. Once ground, she brought them to Cinquain and ducked out again.
When she saw Zire, her heart clenched. For as long as she could remember, he had always seemed strong. It was almost unbearable to see him now. He was pale, his face pinched, eyes closed as Cinquain worked. One of his horns dangled from the side of his face at a horrible, unnatural angle, a bandage wrapping around his head where it should have been rooted. His chest rose and fell heavily.
Worst of all was the stench, one that she soon realized was burnt flesh. His shirt was open and his torso was largely bandaged, but some of the raw, red welts still peeked through. Cinquain pressed his hands against them, eyes closed, murmuring.
Zire opened his eyes as she approached and attempted a weak smile. "Took you long enough."
She swallowed hard. "Well, I heard you were making a big fuss, letting everyone think you were dying."
He moved as though he meant to laugh, but it escaped as more of a pained whimper. "Yeah, that's me."
She sat down next to him and took his hand in her own. Along the knuckles of his palm was a feather thin scar from too many fletchings without gloves. Promise had the same scar, though hers was surrounded by skin just a slight shade browner.
"Need to talk to you," he said softly, looking at her steadily through heavily lidded eyes.
She knew instantly what it was. And he wouldn't want to talk about that unless he really did think he was dying.
No, no, no, no.
"You need to calm down and let Cinquain heal you," she said. "Talk after."
He either didn't hear her or didn't care. "I know you think I'm your father." Her hand tightened on his. He sighed. "I'm not. Wish I was…"
"Stop." Her head was reeling. He was right. She always assumed everyone knew he was her father and just didn't tell her. They looked alike in that way that was hard to pinpoint exactly — less a matter of hair and eye color and more a matter of facial expressions and bone structure. More than that, he was the only other person who was...odd, like her. His horns, her eyes.
But maybe she hadn't known so much as hoped. She didn't want to realize that now.
"It's okay," she said, pushing down a stronger reaction. "Just rest so you can heal."
"Promise." Cinquain's tone, usually lilting with amusement, was clear and authoritative in comparison to Zire's strained voice. "You need to listen to him. I'm doing what I can to keep him here, but it's best not to waste time."
Promise looked at Cinquain sharply. "What do you mean keep him here? You're supposed to be healing him."
"He can't," Zire murmured. "No one can."
She froze. "Come on, don't be stupid." Cinquain only nodded to confirm it.
"Lost my jukaa." Zire slipped into their language. My spirit.
"What does that mean?" She shook her head in confusion. "Who were those cultists?"
"It's not who they were," Cinquain said. "It's who he is. And who you are."
"We're…" She stopped. She'd almost said human, but she knew that wasn't quite right. Promise didn't have much experience with the outside world, but she knew enough humans to know that they didn't often have horns or eyes like a fox.
"You're wilders," Cinquain said. "Descended from elementals, bonded to nature spirits. And Zire lost his connection to his sprite a long time ago."
Cinquain had told her all about elementals when she was a child. A fairytale of time's past when the magic of nature was full and abundant, and elementals could be found making mischief almost anywhere. "This isn't the time for a story."
"It's not." Zire looked at Cinquain. "Give us a minute?"
The elf lingered, uncertainly, but then he nodded and stepped back. "Of course. I'll be just outside."
As soon as Cinquain's hands left Zire, Zire gasped in pain. Promise gripped his hand. "Squeeze when it hurts." He closed his eyes and squeezed, but from the pained look on his face, she guessed he was holding back.
"I'm your uncle," he said softly. "My brother and I…our mother was an elemental. When I was born, there was…" He paused to suck in a breath and squeezed her hand again. "…a yew tree. Anywhere I went, the tree was there. But we severed." His lip twitched. "Sorry."
With her free hand, Promise out to run her fingers along the horn that was still attached, covered in a barklike surface rather than bone. She remembered when she declared, "That's a yew bark!" So proud of the knowledge she'd learned about trees. He had smiled in a way that was sadder than it was proud, and then he told her that yew was the best wood for making bows and showed her his own.
He huffed out a laugh with difficulty. "Long story. Don't think I have time."
Bound to nature spirits, Cinquain had said. Even living among druids — two of whom were elven — it seemed hard to believe, but the idea of being severed from one felt even harder to believe. It must have hurt.
Her question choked its way out. "And you can't heal without it? Even with…I mean, the druids are using magic."
He didn't answer. Instead, he looked to the side of her. "You found Tavi again."
Promise looked down and saw Tavi leaning against her legs. She was so focused on Zire that she hadn't even noticed him. She also hadn't noticed the moment the cut on her arm or the burns at his side healed. Strange.
"Hold on to him this time," Zire said. "He's yours."
She looked at Tavi doubtfully. "This boar is my nature spirit?"
He smiled a little. "The boar, the goose, the badger...the fucking fox. All the same. Thought you knew. You gave them all the same name."
"I'm just not good at coming up with names," she mumbled, reddening.
Tavi snorted. He might be able to understand me, she realized. But if Zire was right, Tavi wasn't a boar at all.
Yesterday, this might have been exciting. Now it hardly mattered if neither of them could help Zire.
"There has to be something," she pleaded.
"Maybe there is." He smiled, tired and unconvincing. Then squeezed his eyes shut in a grimace. "If you find it, let me know."
She knew he didn't expect much, but his words triggered something. "Cinquain!"
Cinquain returned immediately, mouth set and his normally smooth face tight with worry. He must have expected the worst.
"How long can you keep him stable?" she asked.
He furrowed his brow. "A few weeks. Maybe more, maybe less. Much of it would depend on him. But there wouldn't be any point without hope of healing."
"What if there was hope?"
"Promise." Zire's hoarse voice drew her attention back to him. "What are you doing?"
"You said you lost it. Severed from it? You never said your sprite was dead, so it must be out there somewhere. If I can bring it back, if I can somehow find a way to reattach it, then maybe you can heal." She looked at Cinquain. "Is something like that even possible?"
He frowned. "I'm not sure. This is the first I've ever known a wilder to separate from his sprite."
"But it could work," she pressed. "You don't know that it couldn't."
Cinquain gave her a look that reminded her he had at least a thousand years on her, before turning to Zire. "You would be in terrible pain, my friend," he warned. "I won't make that decision for you."
Zire said nothing at first, exhausted from pain and conversation. His fingers curled around Promise's thumb. "I always tried to think of you as mine," he said, his voice thick.
"I am," she whispered, tears pricking at her eyes. It didn't matter if Zire was really her uncle, or if she was a wilding or whatever it was. Zire was the one who had been there, the one who had made her.
"I won't let you down," she begged. "Please just trust me."
His eyes closed and opened again as he let out a long sigh. "Find Edana." His voice was slowed and soft, drifting off to sleep. "She'll help you get to Trialar."
"Trialar?" Promise remembered the term from stories — the home of the elementals, a place outside the world of Loshea.
Zire's sprite wasn't just lost; it was in another world. "Wait, but who's Edana? How do I find her?"
"She's your mother," Zire mumbled, so quietly Promise almost didn't catch it.
She looked at Cinquain, who confirmed it with a solemn nod.
Before today, what Promise knew of her mother was this: she wandered into the woods heavily pregnant, and was taken in by Melimis Grove. She had her baby and she rested up. Then, as soon as she had recovered, she left and didn't bother to take the baby with her.
Never a name. Never a tie to…any of this.
Zire was asleep now, breathing easier. Promise brought his hand to her and pressed her lips to his knuckles before she let him go. "Thank you," she whispered to Cinquain. "Take care of him."
Cinquain simply took his place again, tending to Zire as Promise left the hut.
Dart was gone, probably into the woods to cool her head. Oak sat outside his hut, chipping away at a block of wood just for something to do with his hands. He looked up as soon as Promise reappeared, eyes full of questions, but he didn't ask, so she didn't say. She walked to the tree hut she shared with Zire and scrambled up the ladder.
The space was sparse: two mats, packs of belongings tossed off to the side, ivy vines creeping in through the window. Promise didn't need much. Food she could forage, and clothes could be washed. Then she thought of the broken bow. She could make a new one, but that would take time, and with only a few weeks to find her absentee mother and travel to another world, she wasn't keen to waste it.
She spied Zire's longbow resting against the wall. Hemlock must have returned it, since Dart would have been in no state to do so. The wood was a deep, sunny color and the belly had been lovingly carved over the years. Promise couldn't remember a time when he'd had another. He even allowed her to scrape the image of a bear into it once when she was thirteen, the image lumpy and clumsy compared to the skilled etchings of leaves and feathers that surrounded it.
She was too short for it, but she took it anyway. With that, she slung a pack over her shoulders and climbed back down to meet the disgruntled boar waiting below. "Let's go, Tavi."