Authors: Robin D Owens
“Quiet and smells funny and…it’s out of balance.” His voice had lowered and deepened on the last. He lifted his feet one at a time and the action was slow, as if he pulled invisible roots from the ground below the shabby oriental rug and the flagstones beneath.
Jenni stilled. She’d been concentrating so much on her human senses that she hadn’t noticed. But he was right. From before she’d been born, for a century before that, this land—this house—was equal in all four elemental energies. Now there were equal parts of air and fire, but earth was about a quarter less than it should be. Water was a good two-thirds less than air or fire. The very thought of it shocked her.
After a quick breath, she nodded. “Yes. I’ll fix that before we leave.” The best practice she could have to build her skill set to save Rothly. She needed three balancings at least, with rest in between. But no resting here. “I don’t want to spend the night here. This is Rothly’s home.”
Aric grunted. “Not much of one.” He turned up his hands, spreading his fingers, testing the magic and atmosphere of the place in the way of Treefolk. “Feels like he’s just existing.” Aric’s mouth turned down. He shook his head. “Full of anger and grief.” There was a pause. “Like you, though worse than yours.”
“I’m not crippled,” Jenni said.
“Not physically or magically,” Aric agreed.
Jenni stomped away from him—through the house to the kitchen. It was clean and soulless, though it appeared the same as when her mother and sisters were alive. Jenni and her mother and one of her sisters—the one with more djinn than elf nature—had loved cooking. Together. Jenni’s throat closed and she pushed through the kitchen to the pantry. Her mouth twisted as she recalled that she’d painted her own kitchen the same creamy yellow.
She stopped in the large pantry, turned to the glass-fronted cabinets on her left that were for magical ingredients—and found it full of both the makings for the special tea and the tea itself. Pounds of it, stored in large tin containers. It appeared as if Rothly had made enough for her whole family for a decade—or enough to boost his crippled magic for a vital, dangerous mission?
Her heart simply ached. The tins had been labeled with the date…no more than two and a half weeks ago. After Jenni had refused the dwarf at her door and the mission of the Lightfolk.
Thrusting that thought and guilt away, Jenni flicked her fingers to let the steam roiling within her out and banish negative emotions. She took off her backpack and flipped back the flap, then opened the cabinet. The canister was a large, squarish tin with rounded edges. She took it, pried open the top and sniffed.
A wave of dizziness engulfed her. The edges of her vision grayed and thinned to mist…. This was a prime mixture of the tea. Better than Rothly had ever made before. He’d taken more care with it. He’d had to. He was lucky even a nonmagical human could make the tea…the magic was in when the herbs were cut, how they were dried and the processing itself.
With an impatient shrug, Jenni poured the concoction into a smaller tin, plenty enough to see her through a couple of years of intense daily balancing.
She’d brew the potion to balance this place before she left, as well as filling a few travel vials for emergencies.
Aric watched from the doorway but said nothing. She glanced at him. “Maybe you could check the library.” She cleared her voice. “And Dad’s study to see if Rothly left any notes?”
Nodding, Aric left and Jenni let out a relieved breath. She didn’t think Aric had the nose or the magical sense or training to sort out the mixture of herbs, but she felt better keeping him away from the family secret.
They should have separated the moment they walked into the place. Why had he followed her to the kitchen, the heart of the house when her family had been alive? Maybe he, too, missed them.
The thought insinuated itself into her emotions and she couldn’t rid herself of it. He’d told her that he’d grieved, hadn’t he? She hadn’t allowed herself to believe him. Was she so selfish in her grief? As selfish as Rothly had been. Calming her feelings, she settled into her own balance, unfocused her eyes and murmured the proper words over the tea mixture to reinforce Rothly’s arrhythmic and limping spell. This would boost the magical properties of the herbs, keep them fresh.
When her tin was stowed in her pack, she went to see if Aric had discovered anything. As she entered the hallway bisecting the house, she comprehended that he wasn’t on the ground floor that held the library and den. He wasn’t even in the sunroom that ran the length of the back of the house. He was upstairs where the bed rooms were.
Jenni hadn’t planned on going upstairs, hadn’t wanted to. From what she’d already experienced since she’d walked into the house, she was damn sure that her bedroom wouldn’t be as she had left it.
She hesitated, but couldn’t bear to leave Aric alone with her family’s things. Slowly she took the stairs to the second floor. They creaked beneath her feet. When she turned right at the top of the landing, shadows laddered the hallway. The dim light let in by the window at the end was watery—like tears instead of rain.
The hall was full of silent squares of closed white doors, except one. The door to her parents’ room was open and Aric stood as if frozen outside it. She thought she saw a silver glinting line on his cheek.
“What are you doing here?” She’d wanted her voice to be strong, to snap, but it was barely a whisper disturbing the silence.
“I never got to say goodbye to them, either.” Aric’s words fell stark.
Something inside Jenni just shattered, tearing her patchwork heart back into bits. A liquid cry escaped her, she staggered back and hit the wall and slid down it, dropped her pack as she curled into herself, and wept. Wept like she hadn’t since her family had died.
Before she knew it, Aric sat beside her, gathered her into his arms, next to his warm chest, holding her, shaking himself.
They were my good friends, too, all of them, and I didn’t get to say goodbye,
he said mentally.
Guilt ate at Jenni in fat, greedy, bloody bites. She sobbed, but managed a coherent thought or two aimed at her former lover, who had failed, also.
I was too late to save them.
Finally, finally she could expose the depth of her guilt.
They all left an hour and a half before the circle dance to open the portal, early, like I was supposed to do. But I stayed with you.
ARIC SHUDDERED. “AND WE MADE LOVE AND
the Lightfolk moved up the ceremony to open the portal and the Darkfolk attacked.”
“I sh-sh-should have b-been th-ere.” Jenni spoke through wet gulps.
“If you had been there—if
had been there—we would be dead, too. You would have stepped from the misty interdimension when your mother, the anchor for the great spell, was killed, just like the rest of your family. Instead we arrived after the first fighting, and you had the chance to help Rothly keep the balance of elements, contain the uneven powers so that we all didn’t perish.”
Aric paused and stroked her hair. “I thought of what you said yesterday. You were right. If you and Rothly hadn’t managed all the elemental magic your family had summoned, the portal would have collapsed. The older two couples wouldn’t have made it through to their new world. If the dimensional portal had become unstable, it would have killed many. If you Mistweavers hadn’t taken the time to dismiss the elemental energies your family had gathered,
would have killed us.” His inhalation was audible. “I reminded Cloudsylph of that after you…left.”
Some of the guilt she’d punished herself with for so long had leaked away with her tears.
Aric shifted and rubbed his chin on the top of her head and new tears welled. They’d sat like this before and it felt too damn good. His tone was softer when he continued. “Those of us fighting didn’t see you and Rothly working so hard, doing such dangerous duty in the gray mist. We didn’t think of how our lives were in your hands. The Air King realized that, so did the others of the Eight. Eight Corp has transferred five million dollars to your account.”
Jenni yelled in outrage, tried to pull away from Aric’s embrace. “You think I care about
We didn’t do the mission for money.” She thrashed, but Aric set his large hands on her biceps and rose with her.
“No, I knew your family didn’t accept the mission for money.”
“They—we—they only wanted to be respected in the Lightfolk community. Half-breeds aren’t.”
Aric flinched. “They weren’t. Now that Eight Corp has been established and the Lightfolk are moving more into the human community, able to merge magic and technology, you are more valued, I promise you.”
“Huh.” Once again Jenni pulled away and this time Aric let her go. She pulled a tissue from a wad in her coat pocket, wiped her face and blew her nose.
A distant roll of thunder sounded through the window, a brief flash of lightning illuminated the hall. It looked just as she had remembered except it was dustier. And she’d never remembered it dim. The overhead lights had always been on, doors had remained open with cheery yellow light pouring from the rooms.
Cold and wet and dark and late winter in Northumberland—winter had always been
the house but not inside, where warmth and laughter and family filled the rooms.
How long had Rothly lived in this dim silence? Enough to feed bitterness.
Jenni walked unsteadily toward her parents’ door, the only one open, bracing herself with every quiet footfall. One pace away, she hauled breath into her body and stepped from dark shadow into gray light, pivoted to look into the large room that should have gleamed warm wood and rosy chintz.
It was blue and gray with shadows and dust. Pain caught and strangled in her chest, along with breath and voice.
Aric put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed. Then he entered the room and marched through the thick layers of dust, his face set. When he reached the bureau against the wall and the many tarnished-silver framed photos he stood, hands fisted at his side. A fine tremor shivered up his body and pain flashed across his features. Then he scooped up two pictures, turned, scuffing gray globules of dust, and returned to the threshold where Jenni hovered, breathing shallowly.
As she’d watched him, she’d become aware of a scent…not just her mother’s fragrance of heat and perfume, but the air element that her father had mastered held his scent—and the smell of them together. Parents. Love. Home. She barely saw Aric through renewed tears.
“Here.” He handed her a frame crusty with grime, and she glanced down to see a photograph of the whole family—all her sisters and brothers and her parents. It had been taken a year before she’d lost them.
In the picture, Jenni sat cross-legged on the floor between her sisters, her arms around them, grinning cheekily. Her parents sat on a plump love seat behind them, her mother’s head tilted against her father’s shoulder, obviously both loving and beloved. Rothly lounged against the right arm of the love seat, lanky as he’d reached his final inches. Her second brother, Stewart, leaned against the left arm in a mimicking pose. Her oldest brother stood behind her parents. Lohr had looked the most like their father, the half elf. His smile was shy and proud.
Jenni clutched the picture to her chest, wailing breaths pounded her body. Again Aric was there, arm curving around her, gently moving her down the hall. They passed doors on the right and left that belonged to her siblings—rooms that Jenni was glad were closed. She yearned to open them, but knew the pain would be beyond bearing.
They stopped at the landing, and Aric pressed her to descend, but she balked.
“Come, Jenni, enough of memories. We have work to do. We must find Rothly’s notes.” Aric had tucked his photograph into a large pocket that had appeared in his coat, then vanished.
“No.” She pivoted in the circle of his arm and paced away to the door at the far end of the hall and the little room—the smallest in the house, as she’d been the youngest—and stood there. She steadied her breath and her emotions, once again groped for the mass of tissues that Hartha had put in her coat pocket. Foresightful brownie.
After cleaning herself up again, she stared at the door. “I need to do this,” she said in a cloggy voice. “H-he— Rothly—threw silver and salt at me.”
“At us, and he was wrong.” Aric laid his arm once again across her shoulders. “We did nothing to be made dead to him.”
Jenni shrugged off his arm. “I didn’t get to the ritual dancing circle to open the portal on time.”
“You didn’t get there early,” Aric corrected. “As your family did, and they didn’t call you when plans changed. We would have been on time. But the Lightfolk moved the opening of the portal up.”
There was the faintest note of cool satisfaction in his voice that reminded her that he’d been her family’s guest for the great event. He wasn’t anywhere close to being high enough status to have been invited on his own. No, he wouldn’t have been late for the dancing circle to open the portal.
Unwanted shades of memories flitted near. She didn’t intend to take a closer look at them. “They opened the portal while we were having sex.”
“While we were enjoying each other. None of that is a reason for guilt.”
Jenni blinked away sticky tears that clung to her lashes, peered at him. He sounded completely reasonable. He didn’t feel any guilt—hadn’t ever—about being in bed rolling around with her having sex when her family was being cut down by Darkfolk.
She didn’t want to think of memories, so only stared at the barrier to her old room. She couldn’t bring herself to touch the knob and open the door. Aric reached around her, twisted the knob and flung the door open. Her room was empty and painted a white as stark as clean bones.
Air whisked from the place into the hall, carrying a faint searing scent. Jenni knew in that moment that Rothly had called on his djinn fire nature to flash-incinerate everything in her room, including the bed that her grandfather had made for their mother when she was a girl. Jenni’s breath was stolen again and she rocked back. Aric’s arm curled around her waist and he drew her against his body, pulled the door shut with a slam. He inhaled a lungful of air. “Rothly burnt your things!”
“I know,” she said thinly.
“He’s your brother.”
A terrible smile formed her lips. “No. He threw silver and salt at me, disinheriting me, making me dead to him. Since he’s older than me and so the head of the family, he made me no longer a Mistweaver.”
“You will always be a Mistweaver.” Aric’s hands curved around her shoulders and he gave her a small shake. “The Air King was angry with you yesterday when you baited him, but I double-checked the official lists. You and Rothly are still both listed as Mistweavers.”
Jenni just closed her eyes, and went dizzy as Aric swung her up in his arms. He took her back to the landing and clomped down the stairs. “And you can still move into the gray mist, the interdimension, and weave elemental energies to make the land and Folk more powerful. That makes you a Mistweaver.” He set her on her feet with a little jolt, handed her pack to her. She was glad to be back in the light they’d left on the ground floor. “Let’s do what we must do and leave this sad place,” Aric ended.
Her chest hurt and breath came short from all the emotions pressing inside her—grief and anger and guilt. She slid the photo into her backpack. With even steps she walked to the center of the entryway and raised her arms above her head, called on her djinn nature and fire. She
do something else here for Rothly—more, for the memory of her parents. She could send a cleansing wind through the place and remove every particle of dust. She tapped her foot in the right rhythm, conjured the sound of finger cymbals, a thumping drumbeat began and she saw Aric tapping both hands against the sturdy wooden stair banister. “I helped your mother occasionally,” he said.
He had. As Rothly’s friend, he had come to stay now and again.
Jenni nodded at him, started the nasal chant, then began to spin. Soon the room was only a blur, as she gathered air and fire around her, then let it go with a spell and the snapping of her fingers. The fire-wind whistled from her and shot up the stairs, doors opened and closed, the whole atmosphere of the house vibrated and by the time Jenni crossed to the stairs and sat down to rest a little, it was done. The house was clean.
Aric sat beside her and it was almost companionable.
He took out the other photograph he’d chosen from the top of her parents’ dresser, leaned his arms on his knees and they both looked down at it. Another jolt through her chest into her heart.
He’d chosen the picture they’d all had taken before the mission in the elegant clothes they’d purchased for the event. Aric himself was in the picture, arm in arm with her, smiling with easy charm. He really was photogenic.
Another frisson slipped through her. She looked as if she’d been in love.
For a moment she sat frozen. Why had Aric chosen this photograph? Because he was in it? Because she was?
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to them.” His voice had the native lilt of a Treeman. He used his sleeve to clean off lingering dust. “And there was that party the night before the portal opening.” He smiled and it was beautiful and almost like an old one that she remembered. Surely he’d lost that original smile as she had most of hers. “We all got a little drunk on mead.”
She remembered. She’d stayed to the end of the music, but retired before he, knowing that he would come. They shared a room in those days. When he’d arrived later he’d been singing some Treefolk song that she couldn’t understand. They’d loved then, slept in later than they should have, and had loved again…until they’d heard screams.
Jenni rose. “Let’s see if Rothly left any sign of his exact path.” She grimaced. “Though I still think that the Eight could find him if they tried. They are, after all, the most powerful beings on Earth.”
Aric didn’t defend them. He stood, looked down at her with an inscrutable face, then moved from the stairs down the main hall and turned toward her father’s study.
She glanced upstairs, wondering if she could face the second floor again.
“I examined Rothly’s bedroom.” Aric’s words carried to her through the echoing house. “Nothing there.”
Nodding to herself, Jenni snagged her pack, then joined him.
The den was different than she remembered. The overflowing shelves were gone and Jenni understood with a shock that her father’s friends and colleagues would have wanted some of his collection. She vaguely recalled her parents joking about making wills, but hadn’t considered any legacy she might have until this moment. A grudging anger at her brother took more edge off her grief.
She shook herself from her thoughts to see Aric leafing through one of the opened books on the wide desk. He glanced up at her, tapped the book. “Atlas open to Yellowstone, Wyoming, but no papers showing Rothly’s exact route.” Aric’s green gaze glanced off hers. “But we knew he’d gone to Yellowstone.”
“We did?” she asked, but not in as neutral a tone as she’d wanted. She recalled her recon mission to find Rothly. Northwest of Denver. Yellowstone, it fit.
“No notes,” Rothly continued in a steady voice. Then a corner of his mouth lifted. “If it had been you, I’d be looking for electronics, but there isn’t any kind of computer here.”
He was right. Jenni scanned the room. All of them had grown up with books, of course. Books and family journals and personal papers. Her parents had been reluctant to take up electronics, as was her oldest brother. The rest of them had enjoyed the new electronic toys, including Rothly, but there was no sign of his personal computer.
Naturally he’d taken it with him. But would he only have one? Jenni had three herself, all state-of-the-art, not counting the little one she carried in her pocket. “He must have backup drives somewhere.” She’d never go anywhere without leaving saved information behind…and uploaded…and emailed to someone. That just wasn’t her personal procedure, it was the whole family’s. Her father had been a scholar, studying Lightfolk magic, elemental energies and the Mistweaver gifts in particular.
He’d taught them all, as he’d been taught by his parents and great-aunt, that records of every experiment, every passing notion of an idea regarding elemental balancing must be kept.
Jenni bumped Aric with her hip to make him move aside from the middle of the desk. She checked under the books—no papers. The piece of furniture was full of secret cubbyholes. Closing her eyes, she tried to visualize Rothly here. Her throat tightened and the damn tears threatened once more as images of her father, mother, various siblings, showed up as memories.