Why has it become so hard just to keep my mind on a simple book? Focus, Eloryn ordered herself. Her eyes skimmed over words without absorbing any meaning. She pinched her forehead and flicked back a page, trying to find the last information she’d actually retained from The Principles and History of Infantry Warfare. Alward no doubt had his reasons for making this dull book part of her syllabus but she couldn’t see how it would ever be much use to her, either for her teaching or in practice. If she was learning things she couldn’t share with her own students, she’d prefer to be studying magic.
Learning used to be easy. As a child, Eloryn already knew everything Alward taught the farmers’ children. She went to classes with them anyway, enjoying being with the other students. They stopped coming at age ten, schooled enough for their lives tending fields. She became a teacher herself after that while her own education continued. Now at sixteen, teaching felt repetitive, and she rarely saw anyone her own age. Apart from her small clutch of young students she rarely saw anyone at all. They lived alone, just herself and Alward, here in the fortified old monastery high in the wooded hills, set apart even from the tiny rural hamlet; a place where no one might recognize Alward, or herself, for who they really were. A place they could be safe.
Eloryn brushed against the pink flowers that spilt over the garden wall where she sat. They released a syrupy fragrance and she breathed it deeply, hoping to quell the unnamed ache in her chest.
Grateful for a distraction, Eloryn smiled to the speckled frog who hopped up onto her knee. “Kiss you? Why do you want me to kiss you?”
Eloryn giggled. “Oh, a handsome prince under a curse, and just one kiss from a beautiful princess will set you free? I’ve known you since you were a tadpole, little fool.” Eloryn poked him and imagined he smirked bashfully in return. But really, he always looked like that. “I shouldn’t have read you that story.” Eloryn sighed. Night approached, stealing away the friendly light. The high stone courtyard walls loomed over her. “I shouldn’t have read me that story.”
“I don’t know. There might be romance like that out there, and adventure and charming princes, but not here. Those things happen in places far, far away.”
“Shush! Really.” Eloryn dropped her voice to a scandalized whisper. “Owain only comes by to deliver produce for us. I’m sure he’s taken little notice of me.”
But she couldn’t say she hadn’t noticed him, with his feathery brown hair and strong wide shoulders. Eloryn closed her eyes and turned her face into the sun, enjoying the last few warm rays. Rather than focusing on infantry warfare, Eloryn found herself developing tactics to be the one to greet Owain on his next visit. She wondered what it would be like to hold his work-worn hands, and the heat from the sun’s touch spread through her whole body.
Eloryn jumped and a deep blush bloomed on her face.
Alward bellowed from his chamber window overlooking the courtyard. “In here. Quickly!”
The urgency in his tone made her bolt to her feet, dropping book and frog from her lap. She whispered a sorry to her friend and puffed her way up the stairwell to Alward’s quarters.
Inside, Alward had shoved all the furniture aside to clear the space, knocking precious books off shelves in the process. Shards of a broken porcelain cup lay ignored in a puddle of still steaming tea, and the floor mat had been lifted and thrown over an armchair. Alward wore his normal grey suit, the top buttons now undone and sleeves rolled up. He hunched over the floor, scrawling magical symbols and words in charcoal. Eloryn recognized with excited fear what he was doing. The workings of a Veil door.
“Ellie.” Alward stood up to inspect his work. Pushing his glasses back up his nose he left a line of black soot behind. His graying blond hair, tied back in its usual ponytail, frayed and escaped from its bonds. “We have to go; we’ve been found. I don’t know how. Someone in the village perhaps recognized me. I’m sorry child. Hurry, fetch the pack.”
Eloryn’s mouth turned dry. She always knew they could be found, but one thought stormed through her head, leaving her dazed. Why now? Why have they found us now? Her chest tightened. Please don’t let this be my fault.
Forcing her body to move, she went to a large wooden chest and unlocked it with a spoken behest, pulling out a packed bag that had been prepared for just this day. Alward still focused on the complex spell words, so to keep busy and calm her nerves, Eloryn took a fresh loaf from Alward’s desk and tucked it into the top of the leather satchel.
Alward called her to his side and she skittered to him, stepping carefully within the wide ring of soot-black words and trying to hide her shaking. She tilted her head back to look up into his face, which had begun showing the deeper lines of age. A crash of noise rattled up from the monastery entrance, making Eloryn gasp. Alward’s eyes darkened and he put a hand on her shoulder.
“It will all be well, my girl. The spell is set. Stay close to me. Be brave, the experience is not pleasant.” His expression held sad secrets she often saw when their eyes met. It sometimes made her wonder if he was disappointed in her, in his responsibility to care for her. Her heart leaped about and she clung to the leather pack as though it were a stuffed doll.
The charcoal words hummed and glowed when Alward began incanting in his gravelly voice. The Veil door was a long and complicated spell that most would have to read from a page, but Alward knew the ancient words well from years of study. The spell markings on the floor exploded into magical fire, and tendrils of smoke twisted around them, moving in unnatural ways. The vapor enveloped them. Eloryn watched as her own body began to take on the likeness of the smoke, shimmering into the Veil. It was wondrous, terrifying and painful.
She turned to Alward for reassurance and saw a stranger standing in the doorway.
Eloryn cried out a warning. Lost in his focus on the spell, Alward continued to chant.
The man at the doorway also called out and more men joined him, pouring into the room. One man, with a scarred face and lion’s mane hair, drew a fine crossbow. He shot a splinter-sized dart that lodged itself into Alward’s chest.
Alward’s form became solid. Light exploded in the room, knocking back the other men. Magical fire and living smoke, no longer under control, sparked and hissed, shifting like violent shadows. Whipping mists ripped into Eloryn, still caught within the Veil, barely there.
Alward strained toward Eloryn with charcoal blackened hands. She reached back but her hand passed through his, and she was gone.
In the black of the cave, Eloryn took a moment to ease the burning in her throat and stifle the sob building in her chest. She choked. Asking the rocks to fall had seemed clever at first but now she wasn’t so sure. Dust hung in the air, thick and invisible in the darkness, clogging her throat with each breath.
At least I’m safe now. Safe until Alward can find me again. Eloryn pressed her bottom lip between her teeth. Safe, maybe, but she’d already made grave mistakes. The strange girl had even seen her using unauthorized magic. Girl? She had taken her to be a boy at first, wearing what she did. Maybe it was a disguise? The girl even refused to share her name. She could be hiding something too.
Now Eloryn only needed to cast a simple behest, one of the few authorized spells every person in Avall knew. The behest for light. “Àlaich las.”
Her request granted, the wisp appeared, creating a soft glow around Eloryn’s hand and illuminating the girl across the tunnel. Her strangely trimmed hair, short, ragged and roughed up at the back and long at the front, was rich black and... pink? Could hair be pink? She cast her gaze over the girl’s face and its odd metal pins and gems, pierced through nose, lips, eyebrows, sparkling against obvious bruising. The injuries weren’t from their recent chase. The yellow swelling of the girl’s jaw and purple around her eye had matured a good few hours. The hand the girl pressed to her forehead had fought some battle, with grated knuckles and blood around her fingernails. She moved with stiffness and hesitation that told of other pain throughout her body.
Worry nagged at Eloryn. Just moments out of his care and she already longed for Alward’s guidance. She remembered tumbling through the Veil, turning to wait for Alward to follow, and instead seeing this girl. Screaming. Shimmering in and out of existence.
How, how could she possibly have appeared there, caught in the Veil like that? None of this makes sense. How could I begin to guess her motives? Eloryn pulled her shoulders up to her ears to fight off a chilling shiver. No, she’s no older than me, just a girl, scared and lost. And it’s my fault she’s here. At least I won’t be alone.
Eloryn smiled at the girl and tried to keep her voice level. “We should keep moving, if you are well enough to.”
The girl didn’t respond. She leant against the rough stones, half bent over, chanting under her breath. Eloryn listened closer, but the girl wasn’t using the language of a behest. Shaking violently, she willed herself over and over to wake up, to wake up from this horrible dream.
“Let me help you.” Eloryn reached out but the girl shied away and edged farther along the rock wall.
Her head flicked up. She glared at Eloryn with oddly familiar eyes rimmed in thick black that ran down her face in dried tears. “What have you done to me? Why can’t I remember anything? Not anything! Have you used some kind of… magic on me?”
Eloryn backed away. Did you do this, did you bring me here? Was it magic of yours? She’d made similar accusations just moments ago. Now on the receiving end, they hurt.
“It wasn’t me, I, I didn’t...” Eloryn said. “You don’t remember anything at all?”
“No!” the girl snapped back. The sharp word echoed against the rocks around them.
A deep growl answered from the darkness, reverberating like distant thunder. With a turn of her hand Eloryn shifted the light. They stood in a twisted crack of tunnel that opened into a large cavern. The rough ceiling hung with dry and broken stalactites, the floor scattered with their fallen remains like a rocky bone yard. Deep amid the shadows and gloom, she swore she saw movement.
“We have to go,” said Eloryn. “We’re not safe here.”
The girl made no effort to leave. She put her hands over her ears and sank further toward the ground.
“Please!” said Eloryn.
“I don’t even know my name,” the girl said, her words broken by a shiver.
“I’ll give you a name,” Eloryn promised in desperation. She’d never had anything she needed to name. Things spoke with her as she could speak with them. They already had their own names. Only one thought came to her. “Memory. Your name is Memory.”
The girl looked both horrified and amused. “You’re cruel.”
“I’m sorry.” Eloryn tried to think of an alternative, but the girl – Memory – stood up.
“No, it’s... it’s OK. It’s better than nothing.” Her voice still shook as much as her hands, which she wedged under her armpits, but the glaze of confusion had left her eyes.
Eloryn nodded to Memory, then turned and took a tentative step forward, crunching twigs that had gathered at the mouth of the cave.
The scattering of pebbles echoed back. Something crawled toward them through the dark. Eloryn mentally flicked through pages of her reference books. What lives like this? Animal or fairy-kind? What other clues did she have? She looked down and saw the sticks under her feet were in fact old, fragile bones. A slithering chatter of dark words ricocheted down the cavern walls. Eloryn realized what the creatures were before they came into view. She gasped.
“What is...?” Memory’s question cut off as the monstrous shapes shambled into the light.
Flesh eaters, cave dwellers, unseelie fae. The illustrations didn’t do them justice. Human in shape but larger and malformed, the creatures were long armed, with grey hanging skin that rippled underneath, as though they were made from dripping mud. Eyes like deep holes were set in their angled skulls, black and without shine. Their yellowed teeth, too big for their mouths, smelt of death. Eloryn’s first sight of trolls shook her to the core.
“I’m guessing they aren’t your friends either?” Memory whispered.
“They shouldn’t hurt us. We should be protected by the Pact.”
“Shouldn’t doesn’t really do it for me right now. Like monsters shouldn’t be real.”
Eloryn took a deep breath, also finding no comfort in her words. They were in the trolls’ territory. The Pact would give them no protection here. Eloryn could hear the twisted voices of the creatures, speaking of their desire to crunch small bones. Her stomach lurched. The trolls moved closer, but circled, keeping their distance, testing an invisible boundary. They hissed in frustration. One repeated word reached Eloryn from the mess of whispers; Forbidden.
“This way.” Eloryn stepped between the piles of bones, edging around the side of the cavern to another tunnel.
Memory followed close behind, barely taking her wide eyes off the trolls. She picked up a large bone, holding its broken end outwards like a weapon. The trolls laughed in response; a harsh noise, like the bones crackling under their feet. They gathered at the edge of the light, coming to them from all the dark crevices of the cave, forming a wall of sharp toothed monsters.
Eloryn whispered, “When we reach that tunnel, just run. It’s small. They might fit but we’ll move faster.”
“What if we get stuck in there? What if we can’t get out?”
“Please, trust me,” Eloryn said.
One ambitious troll surged forward and Memory swung the bone blade. It crumbled against the troll like chalk across a stone. She dropped the useless bone, but the troll backed away, choking laughter again. Just a few more tricky steps from the tunnel entrance and more trolls tensed to lunge.
“Run, now!” Eloryn cried, then spoke her words to the earth.
A trunk sized stalactite fell, crashing down between them and the trolls, shards and dust flying. Eloryn bolted into the tunnel. Memory tripped, stumbling into her. The tunnel floor dropped in front of them. Eloryn’s knees gave way and they both fell forward, rolling down the uneven rocks and steep slope faster than they would have dared to run. Hips and elbows cracked into rocks, and hands cut as she reached out to slow her fall. The tunnel’s descent smoothed and they washed up on top of a pile of broken pebbles and bones.
A blow to Eloryn’s chest left her sucking breath back into flattened lungs. Fortunately she’d chosen not to wear a corset today. She directed the glowing wisp back up the tunnel. Through the smallest gap between bends a few determined trolls could be seen making a less clumsy descent.
“Have to keep going.” She got to her feet too quickly and scraped her head, the tunnel roof too low to stand fully. Wincing from the sharp sting, she was too slow to warn Memory from doing the same. The girl spat a word Eloryn didn’t know. She guessed it was a curse.
They dashed over uneven ground, deeper into the mountain through the winding tunnel. Openings branched out on either side but Eloryn led on without hesitation, a clear direction whispered to her by the life in the earth. The tunnel stayed tight by their shoulders, sometimes pressing in closer and making them squeeze sideways through the narrow gaps, sometimes dropping in height, making them crawl. The sound of the trolls’ pursuit faded away and the girls slowed to a tired stumble.
Eloryn’s heart ached for the strange girl who blindly followed her like a lost animal almost as much as it ached for herself. Once enough stale air returned to her lungs, Eloryn gave answers to unspoken questions. She explained that the tunnel would lead them to Maerranton. The men chasing her might also head that way, it being the nearest major city, but the tunnel would be faster than travelling over the steep and heavily wooded mountain.
“Why are they chasing us?” Memory asked.
The very question Eloryn didn’t want to answer. She couldn’t tell the truth but it seemed wrong to lie to someone with no memory. What if that was a lie, that Memory remembered nothing? Alward often chided her for being too trusting. Just give the simplest details, she told herself.
“My guardian is a wanted man. Those who associate with him are also considered to be criminals. They will no doubt believe you were with us too, having seen us together. I’m sorry. Please believe that he’s a good man though, that we are no harm to anyone.”
“You said ‘Wizard Hunters’ before. Is it not allowed, being a wizard? Doing that stuff you were doing?”
Eloryn cringed, and planned her words. “All but the simplest of behests have been outlawed.” Eloryn shook her head, upset at herself. “Alward, he would be furious if he knew I had been casting in front of a stranger. You wouldn’t... I hope...”
“Turn you in for it? No chance.” Memory looked as if she could laugh. She waved a hand toward Eloryn’s wisp that lit their way. “I feel crazy even talking about magic like it’s real, but I’m seeing it right now so I guess I’m crazy.”
“The magic,” Eloryn continued, “it could explain your memory loss. When a powerful spell goes wrong, it can often steal memories. A Veil door is a very powerful spell...”
“And it really went wrong? Ugh, just thinking about how that felt is all kinds of wrong, like the worst thing ever.” Memory shuddered. “But worse.”
Eloryn shook too, remembering reaching for Alward, her hand passing through his, leaving him behind. “It was interrupted. I went in and where I came out wasn’t where we planned. It shouldn’t have been possible, but you were there, caught part way, stuck between the world and the Veil. I helped pull you free.”
“Thanks, for that. Damn lucky you didn’t just leave me stuck there,” Memory said.
Eloryn blushed. “It didn’t occur to me to do so.”
Memory did laugh this time. “It probably would have been the right decision by the sounds of things. I was a perfect escape goat for the slaughter.”
Did she mean scapegoat? Eloryn’s face flushed even more and she looked away. Who would consider doing such a thing?
“But thanks, anyway, for not,” Memory added.
A loud grumble from Memory’s stomach broke the awkward silence. They had been walking for what felt like hours, and Eloryn noticed her own stomach was also hollow and hurting.
“Will you share some food with me? I have enough for us both.” Eloryn tried to hide the pain in her voice. It should have been her and Alward sharing this bread. She took it from where it sat upon the travelling cloaks that covered her and Alward’s most precious belongings. She tore the loaf and handed half to Memory.
“God this is good. Thanks. I don’t know when I last ate. Literally,” Memory said with a stuffed mouth.
“I wish I knew how you appeared, that I could give you more answers. Whether you were in the forest already, or it brought you from somewhere else, or...” Eloryn let her musings fade out. She had read other explanations in Alward’s research. Darker, scarier, more complicated alternatives she would keep to herself, not wanting to give more worry to her already confused companion.
“I wish even more I knew where I was before that. I mean, how am I supposed to find my way home?”
“Alward,” Eloryn mumbled between nibbling on her bread. A flash fire of guilt passed through her to say his name. What would he say, when he found out it was her fault they were found? “He spent much of his life studying the Veil and doorway spells. He must know everything there is to know about them.” Eloryn hesitated. She had to decide once and for all whether she would trust this girl. Her heart could find nothing to distrust, felt only warmth and sadness for her, empathy stronger than the warnings that came to her in Alward’s voice. “We have another home in the south of Avall, on Rhynn island, that we were to go to if we were found here. That is where I am going and... You can come too, if you like. It is at least part my fault to have brought you into this danger, so I will help you as best I can, and am sure Alward will too.”
“If you think he can help me get my memories back, help me get home, I’m Team Magic all the way.”
“I’m sure he can.” Even though they were separated, Alward would come for her, and if he couldn’t find her he would wait for her on Rhynn. Those men couldn’t catch him, couldn’t hold him. He was too clever, too powerful, and she needed him. She fought back a persistent fear that tore at the fringes of her thoughts.
The two girls trudged onwards, dragging their tired bodies through the rough tunnel.
“Just one more question,” Memory asked after a short silence. “Is life always like this?”