Several marks out, long after the sun had set and the lights of Wahstruhl had vanished behind the low hills, Trin fell off Ember’s back. One moment Ember felt the woman gripping the heavy scales on the back of her neck, and the next she was sliding down Ember’s left side and tumbling on the ground.
Ember slid to a halt and ran back to her.
Trin was curled up, barely moving.
Ember became human and helped her up to a sitting position.
“Are you alright? What happened?”
Trin tried to speak, but began coughing instead. Her coughs were quick and shallow, and her face was gray under her olive tones and dark tan.
Blood flecked her lips when her coughing was done.
Ember looked at that, then looked around for something Trin could lean against. She spotted a tree and helped her friend up and over to it, lowering her so she could sit with her back against the trunk.
Ember sat down facing her and tried to figure out what was wrong.
Trin took several shallow breaths, with great effort, and smiled at her.
“Internal bleeding. Must have broken something inside when that Garagran hit me. Not much to do about it here.”
Not much to do about it here. In a hostile country, pursued by soldiers, far from any surgeons or doctors that they knew of.
The words sank in and Ember felt cold spreading through her.
Trin smiled again.
“No! You can’t die!”
Trin snorted, then coughed.
Ember stared at Trin, who suddenly appeared blurry. Ember blinked her eyes and saw that Trin’s lips now had more blood on them, as well as the grim smile of someone who didn’t expect to be around much longer.
“I’m sorry,” Trin said.
Ember felt her insides twisting in agony that emerged as a wail. She threw herself at Trin and hugged her, weeping.
“Don’t go. Don’t die. Please.”
She stayed like that for a time, weeping and begging. She felt Trin’s hand on her hair, stroking it, and heard Trin telling her it would be alright, that everything would be alright.
Antan was dead. Her brother was dead. Tenkreille was burned. Salshira was soon to join Tenkreille. Trin was about to join all the rest.
How could anything ever be alright ever again?
“You have to stay.”
“I can’t,” Trin whispered.
“Aihay can heal you,” Ember said.
“I already asked. I’ve been asking for the last mark, as soon as I felt my breath going. Sometimes the answer is ‘no’.”
Ember shook her head with her face buried against Trin’s neck, ignoring the bite of Trin’s armored collar against her cheek. Her weeping continued, even when she felt Trin’s arms wrap around her and squeeze in a weak hug, even as she heard Trin’s whispered prayers over her head. She whispered her own, asking Aihay to heal Trin. She heard nothing in reply.
“You need to get going, Ember. It’s not safe here.”
She ignored Trin.
Armored fingers pinched her side and twisted hard.
Ember shrieked at the explosion of pain and scrambled back.
Trin smiled at her again and chuckled weakly. More coughing followed. When Trin fell back against the tree it was obvious she could barely breathe.
“I’m going home,” Trin whispered. “To the home we can never lose. To Yahsaw. Someday you’ll follow, and I am grateful for that.” She paused, gathering breath. “But right now, you have to go. Salshira might not be safe, I don’t know. I haven’t had any reports for weeks. But you can’t stay here. The Empire will find you if you stay here.”
Trin shook her head. When she spoke again her words were so soft Ember had to get close again to hear them.
“Put the boots on.”
Ember looked at Trin, then at the boots she was always wearing.
“I won’t be able to change. I’ll rip them if I do.”
Trin managed one more grin, and Ember saw her ears twitch with amusement.
“You can change. They won’t rip. Trust me.”
“They’re your boots.”
“No, they aren’t. Put them on. Before I die.”
Ember bit her lip at those last words.
Ember moved so she could remove the boots. Up close they looked like Salshiran military boots, zippered on the inner side, laced in the front, with soles made for long marches with occasional running and climbing. But she couldn’t see any stitches, as if they were all one piece except for the laces and zippers, or so finely made that the stitching had been hidden somehow.
Even though the boots were made of several different materials.
She unzipped them and pulled them off, Trin helping by tilting her feet and pushing with her toes.
Ember hesitated, holding them in her hands, but knew that if she looked at Trin, Trin would just tell her again to put them on.
She pulled the right one on and drew the zipper.
It fit perfectly, even without socks.
She looked at the boot, then at her bare left foot, then at Trin’s bare feet.
Trin had bigger feet than her.
She looked at Trin.
Ember put the other boot on and stood up.
Even without socks.
These were boots made for striding across the whole world.
She looked down at Trin.
Trin’s eyes were closed.
Trin opened them one more time and looked at her.
“Go. Now. Cry later.”
She closed her eyes again.
Ember tried to get another response, but Trin said nothing more, her breathing so shallow it almost wasn’t there. Until it wasn’t.
Ember felt for a pulse.
And then gone.
Ember felt the agony twisting inside her. Her vision was blurry again, she wanted to scream and cry and pour tears on the sand.
Trin was right. If she cried now, she might never leave.
She might get caught.
She changed again, growing, shifting, sprouting wings, sprouting claws, replacing skin with scales.
When she looked down at her feet, the boots were gone, with no sign of them. She hadn’t heard any tearing.
She looked around, but they were nowhere.
Trin was right. She had to have been right.
The tears threatened again.
Ember found North-West and ran. Ran until her feet hurt. Until every muscle screamed. Until Trin was unknown ten-felds behind her on the bare ground without even a grave and Ember knew that running close behind her was a mountain of sorrow waiting to destroy her the moment she stopped.
She ran until she fell, and when she fell the pain emerged in a scream.
A scream that went on and on, tearing the sky, and held everything from her mother to her brother to Antan to Trin, to her nights with the Duke and Woldmont and what might have been with Ean if she hadn’t been stolen, or hadn’t given in, and Salshira hadn’t been attacked.
It was a scream of anguish born of a world that seemed to be only broken, and it went on until Ember had nothing left to give it.
When she was empty at last, she slept where she lay, her last thought to long that she would never have to wake to the world again.