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       Last Night, p.1

           Jennifer Powell
 
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Last Night


  Last Night

  A Short Story

  Jennifer Powell

  Copyright 2011 Jennifer Powell

  A Clary Books Presentation

  Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Dedicated to my husband, Fabrice Echelard. I couldn’t do it without you.

  * * * * * * *

  The wildwood loomed before them solid as stone, an ancient presence, dark and heavy against the night. Even the bitter wind was rebuffed by that tangle of limbs and thick-leaved vines. Overhead the sky was scattered with stars, while the black mud of the road beneath their feet told of the storm that had swept through earlier.

  The two women stood at the edge of the woods, surrounded by the damp scent of trees, cloaks pulled tight and hoods forward. The wind whispered to them, tugged at their clothes, but the two said nothing.

  Deyant considered the best way to enter. Tall and stringy with hair cut short beneath her hood, she leaned into the wind and toward the trees. Her eyes were closed and her face eager, but tension showed in the lines of her mouth. Nothing had gone quite right this evening. Something was wrong between them and this night was so important. It was the last they would ever really have.

  “Over there,” she said, hand held out to the left. “That’s where the hidden path lies.” She turned to her companion, eyes open now and gleaming. “With both of us working, we’ll follow the path easily.”

  Mrinda leaned away from the wind, away from the trees, her face drawn and her eyes relentless in avoiding Deyant’s own. “I’m sure you could handle this easily by yourself.” She hesitated. “If you had to…”

  Mrinda was as tall as her sister, but no one noticed much. Her softer figure and softer manner helped ease her way in the world. A strand of dark curls trickled from beneath her hood.

  We are so little alike, Deyant though, no one would believe us sisters. Mrinda met her eyes at last, and Deyant felt her spirits rise with remembered joy. Once this work had been the primary bond between them, but that was years past. Tonight was their last chance to share that again.

  “Deyant, Dey… I have to tell you something.” Mrinda’s voice shook and she spoke slowly. “I don’t like being here, but I want so much to help you.”

  “Don’t worry. All will go well.” Deyant’s smile was dazzling, and she wound her arm through her sister’s. “You’ve been listening to tales in the market again, haven’t you?”

  Mrinda turned her face to the night sky, her voice now a whisper. “Johnah says we are touched by the forest. He says that we should be content with holy prayer, that we are wrong to take this on ourselves.”

  Deyant’s chest burned, bile crept over her tongue as it always did when she thought of her sister’s betrothed. “We have always done this, always been protectors.”

  “And you still are, I know.” Mrinda took Deyant’s hand between her own and pressed it tight.

  “This is the work I have chosen. Our people need me.”

  “I know, Dey, I know, but you must understand…”

  “I understand enough.” Deyant laid her finger across Mrinda’s lips, then began to move away. “We must move on now. Look! Ki’rin is already up!”

  She pointed to where the creamy light from the small moon slipped past the dark bulk of the forest. Where moonlight stroked the trees, blue sparks leapt up. Soon the whole wood shone with luminous blue light.

  Mrinda nodded. The aura of blue confirmed the rumor that had brought them here. She sighed reluctantly and said, “Let’s go then.”

  Deyant warmed to the touch of Mrinda’s mind, as they twined their thoughts together, absorbed in the work they had come here to do. Even with the necessary powers, a focused mind was needed to enter the wildwood. Without magic, no one could come here at all.

  The forest had been enemy to their folk as far back as memory ran. Once the whole world had been carpeted with trees and thickets, or so the tales told. Back then humankind clung to the shoreline for survival, where salt water kept away the woods and their spawn.

  For the wildwood was not simply a place of plants and silence. Everyone knew that the wood was a whole thing, alive and hostile to their kind. Even now when half the world was covered in human fields and homes, the ancient woods held the forest spirit, strong and wily and utterly intent on its own purposes.

  Deep in the heart of the forest are meadows, great wide spaces with waist-high grass and wildflowers. Year-round flowers grow and bloom in those enchanted places. Some hear a deep murmuring there, though for Deyant they had always been silent. They are spawning grounds for the forest spirit, birthing places where the will of the woods takes form.

  In those meadows from time to time shrouds of mist will appear, deep silver-gray and shimmering. The cocoons are somewhat round with soft edges, and they incubate the forest spirits. Those spirits are born in forms both deadly and playful—at best heedless, at worst maniacal foes of all beyond the forest boundary. For many years humans could not oppose the wildwood creatures. They had no powers but iron and fire, not strong enough to combat the fiercest children of the woods.

  Then, some generations ago, children with magical gifts began to be born, who could at times enter the forest and emerge unharmed. They could walk down paths others could not see, and they could find the living meadows. If they were strong, and careful, and lucky, they could kill what they found there.

  In time their failures grew few, their successes many, and the forest retreated. Less often now did the spirit-children emerge from the woods. Only in the oldest places would a patch of forest shine blue in the moonlight, announcing the presence of the new life within.

  Mrinda and Deyant had that gift. From earliest childhood they had walked the forest paths, felt them like a living map within their minds. They knew the forest ways, all but unseen until they walked upon them. With untaught agility they learned to reach out, to somehow bring the paths into view by the force of their combined will.

  With an ease born of familiarity, the women settled into a careful pace, breaking stride only to avoid the rocks that always seemed to thrust up to trip the unwary. Now and again they would pause, eyes closed, and bring a bit more of the path into view.

  "Do you remember, Dey, the fluttery ones we found that first spring?” Mrinda asked during one such stop. “I think of them sometimes when the seasons change.”

  With their minds so closely woven, Deyant could sense Mrinda’s inner shudder. Her sister’s aura was clouded with distress, but at that moment Deyant did not care. She could see now the hidden place in her sister’s heart, secrets deep inside. Once there had been no secrets between them, and Deyant could not hide her anger at this new betrayal. Everything had changed since Johnah had come. Now Mrinda loved him, had agreed to marry him.

  Catching a glimpse of the forest spawn in Mrinda’s memory, Deyant scowled. “I remember them well,” she said. They drifted through time for a moment, back to the first year of their gifts. The two of them had been always together; Deyant ached to recall how young they had been, and how bold in their innocent power. The rainbow-colored creatures had been an early kill: fragile, beautiful, and painful to destroy. “Who knows what they would have become?”

  “Johnah says that if we trust in the Great God, He will send the forest away.” Something in Mrinda’s face was especially beautiful when she said his name, but Deyant felt only the secrets and her anger.

  Light fell around them, cream from Ki’rin above filtered through the eerie blue sheen of the forest night. “I remember, too, the teeth on the baraata,” Deyant said with a harsh tone. “All sharp and as long as my fingers. That one was easy to kill.” Back then the work had brought them closer.

  Mrinda sighed, closed her eyes to focus on calling the path, calling
while the forest pressed close around them, the cold air flecked with sparks. They walked on a few steps before Deyant shouted, “I can’t believe we will never do this work together again. I should never have left you here, never have gone off to Harrilli…”

  Mrinda interrupted. “Don’t fuss, Dey. You could never have stayed. You needed the training for your work, and I had no wish to go. We’ve always been different that way.” Deyant trembled, hot with awareness of the distance between them. “The powers leave all of us eventually,” Mrinda continued. “You know that. Even yours will grow weaker with time.”

  Deyant bowed her head before that hurtful truth and could only nod, throat clenched with pain.

  “What matter then if I, if I lose some of mine a little early, especially when I gain love and a new life?”

  “Johnah.” Deyant spat the name.

  “Yes.”

  Deyant filled with restless anger. She did not want to think about
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