The Beginning After The End - Chapter 314
The pain of my fall was really starting to set in by the time we found our way back to Elder Rinia’s cave . Most of my body was covered in black and purple bruises, which I knew would look even worse by the time I made it home .
Mom is going tofreak out .
Boo’s sense of direction was just as good as his sense of smell, so the return trip was pretty straightforward . I gave him a few scratches around his ears and across the silver crescent of fur on his chest, then limped through the narrow crack opening into the little cavern, carrying my broken bow and the blight hob’s slimy tongue wrapped in a piece of cloth from my shirt .
Inside, Elder Rinia was sitting at a little table, staring down at a square board covered in marbles . As I watched, she picked up a marble, set it back down at a different place on the board, and mumbled something under her breath .
I opened my mouth to say something suitably dramatic, like, “I’ve returned!” but the old seer raised a wrinkled hand and motioned for me to be quiet .
Typical, I thought .
After what seemed like a very long time, Elder Rinia quickly moved two more stones, then turned to me with a satisfied smirk on her face .
“You’ve returned,” she said, eyeing the bundle in my hand . “And successfully, from the looks of it . ” Her gaze quickly traveled over my body, lingering on the visible bruising on my cheek, neck, and arms . “Though not without a few bumps and bruises, I see . ”
I opened my mouth to start telling her about the hunt for the blight hob, but Elder Rinia waved for me to come closer, cutting me off again . “Here, let me see it . Quickly now!”
Scowling, I stomped across the cave and handed the cloth-wrapped tongue to the elder . She gingerly unwrapped it, examining the tongue carefully .
“Yes, yes . This will do nicely . Very nicely . ” Without even looking at me, she hopped up and practically ran across the cave .
I watched, bewildered, as she dumped the tongue into a pot that was steaming over her little fire . The cave, I realized, was filled with the scent of cooking food . My eyes bounced from the boiling pot to Elder Rinia and back again, then went wide with horror .
“You—you’re not going to—”
“Oh, yes dear . Blight hob tongue is a very rare delicacy . Tender, juicy, fatty, with just a hint of bitterness . ”
I seriously considered vomiting on her floor for the second time that day, but I choked back my revulsion .
Opening my mouth to ask for the information I’d been promised, I was cut off for the third time .
“I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid the tongue needs to cook just right, so it’ll need my full attention . Plus, I’m sure your mother will want to see to those injuries, shouldn’t be a problem for an emitter, I imagine . So be a dear and run along now, will you?”
“But what about—”
“Oh, yes,” Elder Rinia said distractedly . I would have sworn she was drooling as she stared down into the black pot containing her blight hob tongue stew . “Go with my blessing, of course . You tell that old fool Virion that the mission will be successful, but it won’t be without cost . ”
I blinked, my mouth hanging open . “That’s it?”
Elder Rinia turned to meet my eyes, serious for a moment . “Yes . Know there is always a cost, child . The cost of those elves’ lives may be more than Virion cares to pay . ”
“I—I almost died!” I yelled, the stress of the last few hours boiling over and turning to anger, which I vented on the old seer . “I gave up my bow, just so you can eat some nasty old tongue and tell me ‘it’ll cost’?”
Elder Rinia raised a single thin eyebrow . “Died? Hardly, dear . You still have your brother’s present around your neck, don’t you?”
My hand went to the phoenix wyrm pendant hidden beneath my clothes . I’d worn it so long that I’d nearly forgotten what it was actually for .
Snorting at my surprise, Rinia continued . “As I said, there is always a price to pay, a choice to make . You made one in the tunnels, and you’ll have another to make in Elenoir . When the time comes, Ellie, you must choose the mission . ”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said, throwing my hands up in the air and shaking my head incredulously . “Just give me a straight answer!”
“Choose the mission . The price will be paid either way, but you decide if the plan works or not . Now go, the others are beginning to worry, and they’ll come looking for you soon . ” She turned back to her pot, using a wooden spoon to carefully stir the contents, then dropping in a pinch of something from a little jar . “And I don’t want anyone turning up and ruining my meal . ”
The walk back to town was long and uncomfortable, but thankfully uneventful . Boo let me ride on his large and furry back most of the way, since every part of my body hurt . I spent the time preparing my story—and excuses—for my mother, though I couldn’t think of anything I could possibly say that would make her any less mad when she saw how bruised up I was .
“I can’t believe that old crackpot,” I grumbled to Boo . “That blight hob almost killed me, all so she could eat its nasty old tongue and tell me the mission ‘won’t be without cost . ’ Like, I could have told you that . ”
Boo grunted consolingly .
I was about to say something else, but was distracted by a tiny source of light that bobbed and weaved ahead of us in the tunnel . A moment later, a voice rang out: “Ellie—Eleanor Leywin, is that you?”
Oh man,I thought, realizing that people in the tunnels looking for me was a bad sign .
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“Yeah,” I wheezed painfully . “Who’s that?”
The light source moved toward me quickly, accompanied by the sound of soft footfalls . The wide, kind face of Durden, one of the Twin Horns and my parents’ friend, came into focus once I blinked away the brightness of his light artifact .
“Ellie, there you are . Your mother was really worried, so Helen sent me to search for you, to make sure you are—”
“I’m fine,” I lied, forcing myself to sit up straight on Boo’s back as I stared down at Durden . “I was on a mission for the commander . I need to go see Virion at City Hall, then I’ll head home . ”
Durden smiled sheepishly . “I’ve been asked to make sure you go straight to your mother, actually . Apparently she gave the commander quite an earful…” The big mage trailed off, then added, “Don’t tell anyone I said that, would you?”
At least if Mom already yelled at Virion, maybe it won’t be so bad for me . . .
I knew it’d be worse if I didn’t go home right away, but this was mymission, and, despite Elder Rinia’s unhelpful guidance, I felt like I needed to give her words to Virion myself .
When I informed Durden of this, he hesitantly nodded . “Well, let’s get going then . I’d like to get you back to your mother before she—”
“Explodes like a volcano?” I suggested .
He smiled wryly and led the way back along the tunnel toward town .
Durden held aside the door hanging and gestured for me to enter, so I did . Boo stayed outside, curling up like a huge dog next to the stairs that lead up to the City Hall’s front door . Inside the door, Albold stood at his usual post .
“Glad to see you’re okay, Lady Eleanor . ” He gestured down the hall to the main meeting room . “The commander will want to see you right away . ”
I started down the hall, but slowed when I heard voices coming from the open archway .
“—were too late again, Commander . ” It was Bairon’s deep, nasally voice . “While there were definitely signs of Lances Varay, Aya, and Mica, we can’t find a strong enough trace to go after them . ”
“Damn . What in the world are those three up to?” Virion grumbled in reply .
“We haven’t found any reason or plausible pattern to the location of their strikes yet . We can’t even be sure they know we’re alive . I can’t see any other reason why they wouldn’t have made contact yet . ”
“Keep trying . The other Lances will be essential if we’re ever going to really push back against the Alacryans . ”
I had stopped at the edge of the archway, listening to Bairon and Virion’s conversation . There hadn’t been any news of the other Lances since Dicathen had fallen . It was good to know they were still out there fighting .
Albold walked around me, stopping in the doorway and bowing . “Commander Virion, young Eleanor Leywin has just now returned from the tunnels . ” He gestured for me to enter the room, which I did hesitantly .
I was too tired to really be nervous, but I still wasn’t sure how to explain what Rinia had said .
Virion’s stern gaze took in my bruises and the cut on my leg, and his expression softened . “It appears the journey to Rinia’s was more difficult than expected . My apologies, Eleanor . If I’d have known—”
“It’s okay,” I cut in, then mentally berated myself for my rudeness . “Elder Rinia asked me to prove myself so that she would know I was ready to fight, and I did . I—she…” I trailed off, repeating in my head everything she had told me—what little there was .
Virion listened carefully while I repeated Elder Rinia’s words .
“A price I’m not willing to pay, eh?” The commander looked down at the desk, but his eyes were unfocused . “Shows what my old friend knows . ” Virion looked up, staring past my shoulder into the far distance . “There is no price I won’t pay for success…for rescuing as many of our people as possible . The elves will not be slaves . Better dead than that . ”
He stood suddenly, his chair scraping unpleasantly on the stone floor . “Thank you, Eleanor . Your assistance is most appreciated . We’ll have several days to prepare for the journey to Elenoir, but I’ll send Tessia to you when you are needed . ” Looking at Albold, he said, “Please, escort Ms . Leywin home . I believe her mother is eager to see her returned . ”
Albold and I both bowed, and I followed the elf out of City Hall .
No price he wouldn’t pay?I wondered . The commander had changed so much since the castle . It was like the loss of the war had stolen the kindness and warmth from him . Then again, who hasn’t been affected by it?I asked myself .
A few minutes later, I said farewell to Albold and Durden, both of whom had insisted on seeing that I got home safely, outside of the little two story house I shared with my mother and Boo . I watched them walk quickly away, then smiled at Durden when he cast a last glance back at me over his shoulder .
“He looks like someone running from the scene of a crime, doesn’t he Boo?”
My bond huffed in agreement, then unceremoniously shoved the door cover out of the way with his snout and disappeared into the house .
From inside, I heard, “Boo! Where’s Ellie? Ellie!”
I thought for a second about following Durden, trying to dart out of sight around the corner of one of the nearby buildings . I imagined hiding out in one of the unoccupied houses, fishing from the river when everyone else was asleep, having Tessia smuggle me fresh clothes and that sweet bread the elves loved…
Sighing, I listened to my mother’s footsteps pounding down the stairs and forced an innocent smile onto my face while I waited for her to burst through the door hanging, which she did an instant later .
Her auburn hair was half pulled out of her ponytail, giving her a sort of rushed look, and her eyes were wet and red, as if she’d been crying .
Those eyes moved over my bruises with the efficiency of a trained emitter, and she gasped . “Ellie, what in the world has happened to you?”
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Before I could respond, she was pulling at the sleeves and hem of my shirt, following the trail of bruising up my arms, across my neck, down my back and hips . Then her hands began to emit a soft green and gold light . I immediately felt warm and cool at the same time as the scratches, scrapes, cuts, and bruises all over my body began to heal .
Mother was silent while she worked, focusing entirely on my injuries . It seemed best to follow her lead, so I kept my mouth shut and watched as the purple and black bruises faded to green, then yellow, then disappeared before my eyes .
When she was done I took a deep breath of the cool cavern air . The pain was gone . I couldn’t remember ever having felt better!
Then the icy knife of her voice cut through the pleasant, post-healing fog . “Inside . Now . ”
I risked a glance at her face; her eyes were full of fire and fury . Oh boy .
My mother wasn’t a mean person . In fact, she’d always been a very kind woman . However, the stress of being Arthur Leywin’s mother had worn her down, giving her a sharp edge . She’d been forced to harden herself against the constant stress and worry of having a son like Arthur who was there one day and gone the next, and always, wherever he was, in constant mortal danger .
Or that’s what I kept reminding myself as, for the next hour, she told me in a dozen different ways how reckless, foolish, immature, dangerous, and stupid it had been to go by myself into the tunnels, and how she was going to tell everyone from Elder Rinia to Commander Virion to the sad old elf woman who lived next door that I wasn’t to be sent on any missions or hunts or assaults or anything else without her express permission .
She finished off my thorough chewing out by insisting that if anything ever happened to me that she’d die of a broken heart, and did I want to be responsible for that?
I stood up from where I’d been sitting on the floor, my back pressed against the wall on the second level of the house . Mom was sitting at the dining table, her face in her hands, tears dripping from her nose to splash on the petrified wood .
I crossed the room and walked around behind her, then leaned down and wrapped my arms around her, resting my cheek on her shoulder .
There were a hundred things I wanted to tell her: how much I loved her, how sorry I was that Arthur and Dad were gone, how much I wished she didn’t have to be so angry and scared all the time; how, no matter what, I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch Dicathen struggle to survive anymore…
But instead, what I said was, “I’m going to Elenoir to fight the Alacryans, Mom . ”
My mother burst out of her chair, tearing free of my grip and nearly knocking me over backwards . She stomped across the room, ripping the leather band from her hair that held up her ponytail, then turned around and brandished it at me like a whip .
“Haven’t you heard a damned thing I’ve said, Eleanor?” Her hair fell around her bright red face in a wild tangle . She looked like a crazy person .
Speaking slowly and calmly, I said, “I have, Mom, I really have . I’ve listened to every word, and now I need you to listen to me . ” She scoffed, but I held up a hand and kept speaking, infusing as much confidence as I could muster into my words . “I have to do something, Mom . I haveto . ”
I pointed to the ceiling of our little shelter . “Somewhere up there, right now, a mother is watching her child die, or a wife her husband, or a sister her brother . We’re not the only ones who have lost someone, Mom . Everyonehas lost people!” I was pleading now, the confidence slipping from my tone, but I didn’t care . I had to make her understand .
She opened her mouth to reply, but I kept going, knowing that if I lost the thread of my thought that I’d never get the words out . “We’re the lucky ones, Mom! The lucky ones . So many people—most people—don’t have a chance to fight back . But we do! We can make a difference, all of us .
“If I just sit down here, that thing inside me that makes me capable of helping will turn against me, it’ll eat me from the inside out like a leech . If I don’t dosomething, I might as well already be dead!”
I realized that I was huffing like Boo and on the verge of tears . My mother, on the other hand, seemed to have sobered up . She was giving me an appraising look that I couldn’t remember seeing on her face before .
After several long moments, she crossed the room again, took my hand, and led me back to the table . We sat down and she just looked at me silently for a while .
“There’s something I should have told you a long time ago, Ellie . ” Mom met my eye, pausing to make sure I was listening, then continued . “You’ve grown up at the center of all this adventure and chaos and war, making friends with princesses and mana beasts, learning magic and fighting—but that isn’t the life you were meant for . ”
I looked at her uncertainly . “What do you mean?”
My mother drummed her fingers on the ancient tabletop, gazing down at the petrified wood as if hoping it might spell out the words she was looking for . “Your brother…he pulled us into a life that we weren’t equipped for . He was, of course, but Arthur was different . ”
She looked up at me, searching my eyes, my face, for understanding . I wanted to take advantage of having this moment of peace and togetherness with my mom, but I wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to communicate .
Sighing, she reached out and put her hand on mine . “Arthur…but this is difficult to explain . ”
“Is this about Arthur being reincarnated or whatever?” I asked, my mother’s words clicking into place in my head .
She gaped at me, her eyes wide and her mouth open . “How did you find out?” I could see her swallowing, hesitating, before she asked, “Did Arthur tell you?”
I shook my head . “No, though I wish he would have . I pieced it together from things you and Dad said . I overheard you fighting a few times in the castle, while Arthur was training with the asuras . ” Seeing the look of surprise still on her face, I let out a sigh . “I’m not dumb, Mom . ”
She squeezed my hand and smiled . “No, sweetie, you are not . ”
“I don’t see why it matters anyway . Just because he had memories from another life doesn’t make him not my brother . He’s still the same person who joked around with me, who stood by me, who helped me…He wasn’t always around, but he always treated me like his sister . ”
“I know, Ellie, and you’re right . It doesn’t matter . Not anymore . What I want you to see, though, is how Arthur was meant for this life . I think…I think he was brought here to fight for Dicathen…” Mom was starting to falter, to lose the thread of her thought . “He was a quadra-elemental mage with two lifetimes of battle experience, Ellie . But you’re—”
“Just a girl?” I asked, my temper flaring . “Arthur’s gone, Mom, so whatever reason Arthur might have been reborn with us, his purpose must have already been fulfilled, right?”
“Or failed…” she replied sadly, not meeting my eye .
“He could’ve been here to inspire us, to show us what we could do, so that when he left we’d know we could still win without him . I know you think it’s safer to let Virion and Bairon and the others handle things, but I don’t want to run away from a responsibility that I know I have as a trained mage . ”
I held my mother’s gaze with the piercing stare I’d learned from Arthur . “I know what happened to Dad and Brother . I’m scared too, but I want to fight . ”
Her mouth opened, but closed again as she wiped her tears . My mother let out a hoarse chuckle . “I guess it’s my own fault for raising you to be such a strong and upright young lady . ”
A laugh escaped my lips as I walked around the table and pulled my mother into a seated hug .