Petrona was getting away. After all this time, after all she had done, she was going to get away.
I refused to allow that to happen. But what could I do to stop her? I had no chance of getting close enough to her to use my Moonweaver’s Needle, and she was too far away for a knife. The only hope I had was the longbow carried on my back.
You’re thinking too much…
I took the longbow and drew an arrow. As I drew back the string, my mind went back to a few days before, as we were on our way to Svardborg to face the frost giants.
Seven days earlier…
“Hey, Talon, are you busy?”
I turned from my identity documents to the room’s door. Briar was standing there. As I looked at her, I felt a tug in my heart.
She looked weaker than ever. Her face looked gaunt and pale and I could clearly make out her cheekbones. It was as though her skin was being stretched over her body. We didn’t know how much time she had left but it wasn’t a lot. Her eyes were empty, all hope gone. It hurt to look at her, knowing there was nothing I could do help her.
I tried to put a spring into my voice. “I’ve always got time for you little sister. What’s up?”
She came into the room and stood there, wringing her hands. “Well… you taught me how to talk in Thieves’ Cant and I was wondering if there was anything I could do for you?” The words tumbled from her in a rush. “I mean… I don’t have anything to give you, but I could teach you something? So you’d have something to… to…”
To remember me by was what she didn’t say, but I could see in her eyes that was what she intended. I opened my mouth, about to say that there was no need to do anything for me, that all I wanted was for her to live, but a sudden thought stopped me. “Actually,” I said, “There is something you can teach me…”
“You’re holding it too tight!”
We had stopped at Bryn Shandar to resupply the airship. Fenthwick and Jaghol were shopping for food while Caelynn was handling the water. Lunar was sitting on the deck as usual, letting everyone else do the work.
“Turn your elbow. You want it to point sideways.”
Briar and I had gone some way into a nearby forest, where she was trying to teach me how to use a longbow. I had already had some lessons, but not many, and they had been a while ago.
“No, no, your legs need to be shoulder width apart and they need to be in line with your target.”
I was doing my best to copy Briar’s stance but it was proving difficult. Every time I fired an arrow it went in any direction but the one I wanted. The red rag that had been set up as a target on a tree a few dozen yards away flapped gently in the breeze. I raised the bow and sighted carefully along the length of the arrow. When I was sure I had it precisely aimed I let it go.
The arrow shot past the tree without touching it.
I dropped my arms to my side in frustration. Briar took hold of them.
“Look, you’re thinking too much. You need to act on instinct. Here…” She took the bow from my hand and drew an arrow. “It needs to flow more. Like this, see? One, nock the arrow,” She set the arrow on the string, “Two, raise the bow,” She lifted the bow and at the same time drew back the string, “Three, release the string.” The arrow landed dead centre of the target.
Briar looked at me in triumph. “You see? One, two three. Just like that!” She handed me the bow back and counted the arrows that were left. There weren’t many. She sighed. “You wait here. I’ll go and see if I can find some of them.” With that, she ran further into the trees, eventually disappearing from sight.
I stood where I was, trying to practise what she had said when I suddenly heard a scream. I immediately started running. The screaming continued.
“Talon! Help me!”
I willed myself to run faster. After a few moments, I reached the edge of a clearing and stopped dead. I looked in horror at the scene before me.
Briar was lying on the ground, one arm raised to defend herself, sheer terror in her eyes.
Towering over her was a black bear, rearing up on its legs, its mouth open in a bestial roar.
My mind raced. By the time I could run over there the bear would have attacked and mauled Briar to death. I thought about the daggers in my belt but the distance was too far for a thrown blade to reach. I didn’t see anything I could do in time. My fists clenched and unclenched.
Around the bow, I was still holding.
You’re thinking too much…
I heard her voice clearly in my mind.
You need to act on instinct…
Act on instinct…
My body started moving, almost without any conscious thought.
One, nock the arrow…
Two, raise the bow…
Three, release the string…
The bear lunged at Briar, who threw her hands up over her face and screamed. The next moment, an arrow impacted in the bear’s skull, skewering it easily. The bear seemed to stop dead with a bewildered look on its face. Then it collapsed sideways, instantly dead.
I lowered the bow, but I didn’t waste any time congratulating myself. I ran over to Briar, who seemed to have frozen.
I crouched down in front of her. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked. She didn’t respond. I waved my hand and snapped my fingers in front of her face. She blinked and shook her head slightly. Her eyes turned to me. They still looked somewhat glazed and unfocused.
“Hmm?” she said, “Yes… yes I’m fine.”
I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder. I opened my mouth to say something, but I didn’t get the chance. She lunged forward and wrapped her arms tightly around my torso, burying her face into my tunic. “I thought I was going to die.” Her voice was so soft I almost didn’t hear it. “I don’t want to die Talon.”
I couldn’t speak for a moment. All I could do was hold her and gently rock her back and forth. After a few moments, I moved my face down to her ear. “Briar, please don’t give up,” I said, in what I hoped was a comforting voice, “I promise you, I will find a way to help you. Whatever it takes, I will find a way to save you from this.” I don’t know if she heard me but I felt her arms tighten around me. After a few moments, I shook her gently. “Hey, we should be getting back to the airship,” I whispered to her.
“No,” Briar held on even tighter and snuggled even more into my cloak. “Can we just stay here a bit longer?” she asked, her voice muffled. I didn’t respond, I just held her.
We stayed like that for a short while. Eventually, I decided that it was time for us to go. I looked down at her, lifting her face up.
Her eyes were closed.
I felt a twinge of panic and was about to pick her up and run back to the airship when I saw her chest rise and fall. She was breathing. She was alive, just asleep. I sighed with relief and picked her up gently, carrying her back to the airship. When we got there the others were also returning. They didn’t ask any questions – we all knew Briar was getting weaker.
I laid Briar on her bed. She was still asleep. I watched her for a few moments. She looked so peaceful and innocent. I quietly left her room and closed the door.
Back in my room, I looked at the pile of papers waiting for forged stamps and signatures. I couldn’t bring myself to work on them. Instead, I knelt down onto the floor and pulled out a wide, flat box. I opened it and took out the item within.
A longbow, that had once belonged to another fallen companion – the elven ranger Eralith, who had sacrificed himself to the cursed ring of petrification. I closed my eyes in sorrow at the memory. Re-opening them, I hefted his bow, testing it for weight. I pulled back the string experimentally. It was a fine weapon. I would do my best to put it to good use.
I will help you, Briar. I promise.
Whatever it takes…
The memories faded as quickly as they had come. Petrona was still ahead of me. I had the shot perfectly lined up.
“Petrona!” I called.
She stopped and turned, the familiar sneer on her face. “My dear husband,” she said, her voice mocking even now, “We both know you won’t fire that arrow. You don’t have it in you. You’ve never had…”
Her words were cut off as I loosed the arrow. It flew straight and true, striking her in the chest. She staggered but didn’t fall. I started to walk forward, drawing another arrow, when three bolts of magical energy flew from the window above me. They hit Petrona cleanly in the face and sent her flying back to the ground.
I turned and looked up. Lunar was leaning out of the window, her face showed nothing but anger for the woman she had just brought down. Turning back to Petrona, I ran to her and crouched down beside her. I felt no compassion, no pity, nothing but raw hatred. I drew a dagger.
“I told you, the next time I saw you, I would kill you,” I said in a low voice. I had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes widen in fear before I slashed my knife across her throat. She tried to breathe but her mouth was quickly filling with blood. I watched as the life left her eyes, her soul heading to wherever the thrice-damned death curse was taking it. She grew still.
It was finally over.