“Grace! Where is Aidyn? I don't want to fight you, but I will if you don't tell me!”
Skye and Grace stood on the edge of the Crow’s Nest camp. The place had a ramshackle appearance, as if a capricious wind spirit had gathered up debris from the coasts, and had tossed it onto the side of a mountain. But she’d felt welcome there, as more than just a customer of the Silver Crows, the mercenary group led by Grace O’Malley and the Soulwarden.
She turned toward the valley below, and bit down hard on the inside of her cheek. Time was short. She didn’t even want to think about Aidyn being at the mercy of the Varangians. Every second that passed was too long. And yet.
And yet, here you are, threatening someone you call a friend.
The cursed styrkr sigil that the Faceless One had burned onto her back hadn’t only sapped her physical strength. Even her own thoughts had turned on her, had filled her with resentment and self-doubt.
You were always weak. It’s not the curse. It’s your emotions. They make you weak.
It was getting more difficult to sort out which thoughts were her own, which were caused by the curse, and which were echoes of her father’s cruelty. And it was impossible to tell, which thoughts she could trust.
Skye gritted her teeth in frustration. “I won’t ask again, Grace. Where is Aidyn?”
Grace hesitated to speak, which was unusual for her, to say the least.
She’s thinking up the lies you want to hear.
Skye realized from Grace’s reaction, that she had shouted aloud.
Concern softened Grace’s features. “It’s getting worse, isn’t it, Skye? That damned Varangian’s curse.”
She’s looking down on you.
“I don’t need your damned pity, Grace!” Skye hissed, the legacy of distrust her father had left her, the curse, all of it weighing down on her. She scratched at her arm, though it didn’t itch.
Grace spread her hands. "Skye. Look, how about we take a breath and calm down, hey?"
“You expect me to be calm? Would you be calm, if the Varangians captured your lover?” Skye feigned a sudden understanding. “Ah. But who would be fool enough to love you?”
It only lasted a heartbeat, but Skye saw it. Pain. A small, ugly part of Skye tasted blood, and smiled.
Grace failed to keep the fire from her eyes. “All right. I know you didn’t mean that.”
The malignant emptiness that had supplanted Skye’s confidence, wanted more. She pushed harder, seeking Grace’s weakness, her soft throat. “I only spoke aloud what everyone knows.” She gestured toward the camp. “Even your mercenary friends know. That in the end, Grace O’Malley only cares about one person. Herself.”
Grace’s smile dropped from her face.
Skye smirked. Yes. That’s right. Show your true self. Show me, that you’re every bit as small as me.
“You’re my customer, and you’re my friend,” Grace said. “But whatever you’re doing, Skye, I suggest you stop it right now.”
“‘I suggest you stop it right now,’” Skye mocked. “Listen to the high born lady of Clew Bay, dishing out her noble decree!”
Grace let out an exasperated breath.
Skye flushed with anger. “Do I trouble you, Grace?”
“To be honest, I am troubled, that this curse is making you say and do things that you’ll regret later,” said Grace.
“That sounded like a threat to me. Was it? Were you stupid enough to insult and threaten a Speardaughter?” Skye reached around for her spear and stamped the shaft into the hard-packed earth. Even that small movement left Skye winded and weak. And that made her more angry than ever.
Someone coughed loudly. Skye looked over to see the shirtless, oak tree-sized Silver Crow named Zander “The Undying,” walk into the clearing, standing with his mallet slung over his left shoulder. Leading the way was a baby lynx, who the Silver Crows had inexplicably named Dog. She watched the kitten leap onto a crate where she’d seen it a few minutes ago. Had it fetched Zander to break up their argument?
Skye frowned, a growing sense of paranoia making her step back, outside of Zander’s attack range. Though heavily scarred, Zander “The Undying” had earned his namesake by never being killed on Aeternum. It was easy to see why - the man was a tower of muscle.
Zander spoke loudly, with a thick Greek accent. “Listen, my friends. I was hearing you from all the way over there.” He gestured with a heavily muscled arm, past the fire pit.
Grace waved her arms as if to compel a bear back to its cave. “Now is not a good time, Zander.”
“Of course! I understand,” said Zander.
“Good,” said Grace.
Zander stepped toward Skye.
Grace’s warning was lost on Zander. His typical demeanor, that of a mildly confused minotaur, was gone. He was frowning slightly, staring intently into Skye’s eyes. As if he could see the taught snarl of fear and hate within her.
Skye didn’t like it. She didn’t want to be seen.
Out of the corner of her eye, Skye saw Grace move toward them.
“Back away, Grace.” Skye said in a low growl, as she crouched into a fighting stance.
“What- Skye, Zander, what are you doing?” said Grace.
Without taking his eyes off of Skye, Zander said, “Grace, stay there. You know many things I do not, but I know a warrior’s heart. And I know what this Speardaughter needs.”
“And what is that?” asked Skye, her heart pounding in her ears.
“To feel with this.” He pointed to his head. “And think with this.” He pointed to his heart.
Zander’s stance didn’t change, but she could feel the tension coil.
A gust of wind blew, sending a leaf drifting lazily between the two warriors.
As the leaf fell, something happened to Skye.
She saw everything clearly, for the first time in months, without the murky veil of the curse clouding her vision.
Dog’s ears flattening, claws splintering the weathered crate below him.
Grace’s right hand, drifting to her blunderbuss.
Zander’s grip tightening on the handle of his mallet.
The leaf hit the ground.
Zander’s mallet swung in a downward diagonal, as Skye had expected. She ducked under its path, sweeping her spear low to take his legs out, but her strength was gone! And the blow glanced away.
Skye swept her spear tip back, repositioning to thrust at Zander’s exposed flank.
But Zander had pivoted to face her, using the momentum of his initial swing to continue upward at her new position. Skye spun to avoid, but was already in motion, and took a partial hit on her shoulder.
She grunted in pain, and saw stars.
As her vision cleared, she saw Zander coming at her with a double-handed overhead swing.
She charged forward and slid between his legs, ignoring the pain of rocks tearing at her skin.
Zander and Skye circled one another, searching for an opening.
Skye and Zander charged at one another, each yelling a war cry.
She thrust at him, and he swung.
Their blows met in a shower of sparks.
Her spear vibrated against the force of Zander’s mallet swing, threatening to shatter her arms apart. But she did not drop her weapon.
And then, she felt it. A tear, rolling down her cheek. A tear of joy.
Zander had a crazed smile on his face.
Skye laughed, and Zander joined in heartily. They lowered their weapons.
Zander extended an arm, and Skye took it, clasping his forearm.
He leaned in close and said, “You are still a warrior. Do not forget.”
Grace whistled low, shaking her head. “I’ve got no bloody idea what happened there. But, are you both all right?”
Skye looked at Zander, “Thanks to this one, yes.”
Zander nodded, then sniffed the air, turning in alarm. “Ah! My lemon cakes are burning!” As he rushed back to the fire, he groused, “If I could only get a real kitchen instead of this- fire hole!"
Skye watched Zander go, then holstered her spear behind her back and turned to Grace. “You were right. I already regret the way I acted to you. I am sorry.”
Grace waved her hand dismissively, but Skye pressed on.
“I was afraid. I am afraid. To die. I’ve never been afraid of dying. And, I am ashamed, of who and what I am now. What am I, Grace?”
Grace cracked a smile, and this time, Skye could feel its warmth. “Human, I think. I was wrong too, to try to protect you, to judge you. I know you need to go after Aidyn, and I shouldn’t have stopped you.”
“And,” Grace said, “I want you to know. You’re a friend to me, Skye. I care about you.”
Skye felt hot tears spill onto her cheeks, as she embraced Grace. She smelled like leather, and the sea.
“And I you,” said Skye.
“If I may be honest, I’ll have a difficult time rescuing Aidyn,” she said. “I can’t fight like this.” Skye looked at her hands as if she’d find an answer there.
Grace shook her head. “I’m afraid to see what a monster you’ll be when we lift that curse. And you won’t be fighting alone. That’s right, I’m going with you. Us old ladies need to stick together, right?"
“I am not sure what other old lady you are referring to,” Skye said with a smirk.
Grace grinned back. “Glad to have you back, Skye. Now let me see that map.”
Skye smiled. For now, she’d enjoy the sense of peace that the Silver Crows lent her, and pierced the darkness that twisted around her heart. For now, she’d let herself hope.