The clang of swords meeting reverberates down Aniseed’s arms, and she has to wrench her body into blocking the next blow. Her opponent is fast, fresh, strong, and far more skilled than she is: it’s all Aniseed can do to parry and defend; she has no hope of striking back.
It’s dark, so dark, and the sounds of battle pour in from all directions. She left Lucius behind her, she thinks, and Columbus was near the shrine, but the only people she’s sure of are Thyrian and Nicodemus, coming in from her right.
And they fall.
She drags her sword free of its lock with the druid’s and dives down towards the prone figures on the ground. At some point, her hands lose their grip on the hilt, but it doesn’t matter because she’s found Thyrian and she’s gasping out, “Heal Life!” The miracle tears its power from her soul, and her vision blurs with tears; she forces herself through it, but Thyrian hasn’t stirred.
“Heal Life!” she calls again, gasping at the pain, but she can’t wait to see if that works. Aniseed lunges across the grass, scrabbling for Nicodemus. Get them up, get them fighting – “My Lady, please, Heal Life!” – and the searing burn through her heart is consuming her whole body, but if she can just pull out one more –
The flat stone is smooth and cool, a little damp from the night’s dew. Aniseed watches from her seat, heels idly thumping against the wall she’s perched on, as a few hundred yards away the thatched roof of the cottage lights up the dark, cloudy sky like a bonfire.
The flames have spread to the outhouse now; she can see a second plume of smoke rising off to the side. The wind changes, pushing the fumes and heat away from Aniseed, and she shivers as the cold air pierces her nightgown.
No, she’s not wearing her nightgown. Dragging her eyes off the fire, Aniseed looks down at herself. She’s in a green shirt, leather trousers, armour – a waterskin and empty sword sheath hang from her belt. When did she get those? Why is she dressed like a soldier?
That’s not all that’s odd. Where are Mum and Dad, who ought to be watching with her? Where are Jonn, Nicodemus, Thyrian, where’s Eirlys?
Why is she thinking of her comrades while her home burns?
Why is she watching the farm go up in flames when there’s a fight going on, and people need her healing?
With that question, the last few moments jump back into Aniseed’s head, and the truth drops in with them. She slides from the wall, falling onto her knees in the long grass as the wind shifts back and hot air, smelling of acrid ash, washes over her face once more.
The question is quiet, hesitant. Aniseed closes her eyes, though the firelight still dances through her eyelids, and tries to open her heart and listen for an answer. But all she hears is the dull roar of the fire.
“My Lady, please, I don’t understand. I – why am I here? This is what you saved me from. And now I’m … my Lady, I’m … did I save them? Did you save me then so I could save them now?
“If this is your will, then … then it’s not my right to question it. But I’m … a bit scared. I could really do with hearing your voice.”
There’s a slow crash as part of the cottage roof collapses, and Aniseed can tell it’s her bedroom that’s just been destroyed. All her books are in there, and her paints, and her sketches.
That’s probably their ash that’s fluttering out now. Her shoulders sag; she can’t find the energy to keep them squared anymore.
The sting of that loss, though, faded months ago. What’s hurting now, like an ache where her heart sits, is not knowing if what she did was enough. She never saw Thyrian or Nicodemus get up. Maybe they woke and found her lying there dead, or maybe they never opened their eyes, because she could have saved one of them and killed them by trying to help both.
A new light shows that the sheepshed is on fire, though its wooden roof doesn’t burn with the ferocity of the thatch. Aniseed knows what will happen next: the shutters on the downstairs windows will catch, as the fire moves through the lower levels of the house, and she waits, because after that –
There’s a rumble as the staircase inside collapses, and Aniseed drops forwards onto her hands. It’s like a weight suddenly pulled her down – it’s like she’s falling with her childhood home.
If she stays until the fire burns itself out, she’ll die forever. She realises that with a slow resignation. At least it’s going to her Lady. At least her death came trying to do something, and Mum and Dad and Jonn are still around …
She thinks she’s imagined the voice. Or maybe it’s her Lady, beckoning her on, inviting her home.
No, it doesn’t sound quite right.
Justice would never need to shout, would never call her Teasel instead of Aniseed, and wouldn’t bark out her name like an order. There’s someone else here.
Lifting her head is a struggle – across the field, the sheep are starting to bleat as the fire from their shed threatens to scorch their pen – but she manages to lift her voice instead.