01 - Before
If there was one thing that I knew about us, it was that we were soulmates. Destined to spend an eternity hacking away at each other’s very being until we were a pair of broken, empty shells.
He won that game. He took what spirit I had and he crushed it.
This hole that I have can never be fixed. His blade once filled it perfectly, plugging the hole in my back that he created. If only he had resisted twisting the blade, twisting my insides, my mind. But fate doesn’t work that way. Two pieces that fit together so immaculately can never stay separate, for what distance I have spent years trying to put between us is no match for a bond that strong.
The memories still bring me to my knees. Heavy, breathless memories that prod at the scars he left me with. I can’t be what I’ve tried to hard to become while he still exists. While his presence still marrs this world, I can never be whole.
And so I’m giving in. I’m taking back the distance between us, ready for one final showdown.
This time, it won’t be him that gets out intact.
02 - Then
The new boy sat in the snow, his dark hair entangled with feathers. His face was formed differently to ours, with prominent cheekbones and darkened skin.
“Fresh meat.” Bailee grinned, running her tongue across her teeth, copying the women that always lurked outside the bar.
I rolled my eyes, tugging on one of her ebony curls. “You look like an animal.”
“So? I love animals.”
School had barely begun, and she was already eyeing up the boys. I couldn’t blame her, given the family business, but we were still children of just fourteen. She had years before she needed to go to work.
I followed her as she sauntered up to him, hiking her flowing skirt up just enough to reveal her bare feet. He looked up as we approached, a smile playing at his lips. Flicking between the two of us, his eyes were as light as his hair was dark, crinkled with suppressed laughter.
“Little young to be out on the job, aren’t we?” His voice was strange, too, each word spoken with an odd inflection.
“I’m going to go ahead and take that as a compliment.”
“It wasn’t.” He stood, towering over the two of us. Muscles thicker than I had ever seen padded his bare skin like armour. “They’ll never get a piece from me.”
Other people were starting to stare, cloaked figures turning towards us in curiosity. The clearing was almost empty, today, with the sickness going around. Several groups cloaked in black were dotted around, chattering as we waited to see if the teacher would appear. The pine trees that surrounded us were thick with snow, the branches bowing under the fresh fall.
Shuddering, Bailee took a step back, and he laughed, harshly. “That’s what I thought.”
I fought off the urge to kick him in the shins. “There’s no need to be so mean.”
That just made him laugh even harder. “So you can speak.”
“Come on, Pipa.” Bailee hissed, pulling at my arm. “Let’s go.”
With a last glare at the boy behind us, I followed her back towards the centre of the clearing, where the teacher had appeared.
A soft wind blew my hair around my face like fire, wispy red waves of it that had escaped my braids. I blushed, tugging them back into place.
“What was that?” Bailee muttered with a mischievous smile. “Not like you to fight back.”
“He didn’t need to treat you like that.”
The teacher was starting to explain that we would spend the day foraging, looking at the ways that we could use basic ingredients for magical purposes, but I was barely listening.
“And I had it under control.”
“I know.” I sighed.
The group started to move, following the teacher further into the forest. We trailed to the back, trudging along slowly. It was more work to keep up, this way, but Bailee was exclusively friends with those that would follow her lead. I had learned that the hard way.
My feet were numb to the cold, by now, but I still shivered at the boy’s stare as he looked back.
“What is his problem?” I hissed to Bailee.
She just laughed. “I knew you’d develop feelings, eventually.”
“Sure, you don’t.”
I gave up arguing, instead straining to hear what the teacher was saying. “Colour is the most important aspect of figuring out what an ingredient can be used for.” I knew that, of course. Any of us that had bothered to listen in just one lesson knew that. It was part of what made winter such an important time in the magical calendar; the snow formed a blank canvas, ready for any kind of magic.
We were split into pairs, each with a specific colour to forage for. Given the reputation that Bailee and I had, there was no way we could be put together. Instead, I was given the task of looking after the new kid.
He smirked as he walked over to me, wiping his hands on the wolf coat around his waist.
“Are you not freezing?” I asked, glancing from his barely dressed form to the cloaked figures behind him.
“I’m used to the cold, where I come from.”
“Where you come from?”
“You wouldn’t know it.”
Nodding, I followed him into the trees, watching the bases for anything red.
“So, anyway… Pipa, is it?”
I nodded again, picking my skirt up as I stepped over a root. He had the right idea, wearing minimal clothing - my floor length, fern coloured dress just got in the way on foraging trips. “I didn’t catch your name?”
“Cai.” I repeated, under my breath. It seemed too soft to be associated with the boy in front of me.
“Do you get many berries, around here?”
“Almost nothing but.”
“That’s probably our best shot, then.”
I’d already been looking for berries, but I didn’t mention it. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know the area. “If we keep heading west, there are tonnes around the lake.”
He slowed to let me take the lead, walking barely behind me.
“Your friend seemed… Nice.”
I spluttered a laugh. “You didn’t seem to think so.”
“Not my type.” He bared his teeth. “Even if she were of age.”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Bailee didn’t have a choice, around here.
“Don’t be so sure.” There was an undercurrent to his tone that held back any further questions.
We walked in silence for a few more yards, until the lake came into sight in the near distance.
“You don’t have to be her human shadow, you know.”
“I know.” I said, lightly. “Wait- I mean, not that I am.”
Too late. His wolfish laugh frightened some nearby birds. “Yeah, right.”
I caught sight of some crimson berries on a nearby branch, growing up from the roots of the tree and weaving their way around the trunk.
“Don’t change the topic.”
“But we need to-”
“I wasn’t finished.” The words, despite being an order to be quiet, were said gently, with a laugh. Uneasily, I stopped, for him to continue.
“Where I come from, you need to speak out or be spoken over.”
“You mean like you just spoke over me?”
Not waiting for his reaction, I turned to walk over to the berries, plucking a few. He was immediately following me, laughing again. “I like you, you’re smarter than you seem.”
“I don’t need you to tell me that.”
When I turned around again, he was directly behind me. I jumped, falling back into the tree.
His hands were on my face before I realised what was happening. He ran one thumb down the middle of my chin, the other across my eyebrows. They were cool and wet, startlingly so, but the rough bark of the tree stopped me retreating any further.
“What are you-”
“Ssh…” He breathed, feathers of breath tickling my face, inches from his.
Both his thumbs brushed across my cheeks before he stepped back, rubbing his hands on his clothes again. They left a blood-like stain on the fur.
“Much better.” Cai grinned, pointing to the lake. “Take a look.”
His thumbs had left a trail of thick, juice stained dirt across my face. I looked strong, warrior-like, in my reflection. As if the dirt was warpaint.
“Where I come from, that's how you spot a leader.”
“A leader?” I could feel my face mimicking the colour of the paint.
He was already walking away, stepping backwards as he mocked me with a smile. “Someone who won't get talked over.”
03 - Now
I let myself down again. It had been so long since I had let him into my mind, and I've ruined it again. I curse, forcing the thoughts out with all of my strength.
There is nothing of him in my life now - nothing real, anyway - and yet I feel him there, constantly.
I need to move again.
This place has already been shattered by memories of him. I already know that every time I sit in this spot, I will remember missing him, ruining yet another new life before it's even begun.
It’s ridiculous, really, how watching the first snow of winter sends me back to the first day I saw him. There have been countless snows, before and since then, where he hasn't been in my life, and yet it's as if pieces of him are raining down around me.
Alas, there is the curse of the soulmate.
You're theirs, whether you like it or not. Whether they can suppress it or not.
I start packing my things. It doesn't take long. When you run as much as I do, you learn to travel light. The small inn that I've been calling my home only has a few belongings dotted around; my leather bag hung from the head of my bed, a single wooden bowl on the windowsill, and of course the blade under my pillow. It's a small room, but I deliberately choose them that way. It means there's no room for loneliness. I'm already wearing my only dress, the deep green cotton frayed at the edges. It matches my velvet cloak, draped across the bed as a spare blanket.
I don't give the room, or the traitorous view of the snow, another glance, dropping a few gold pieces onto the front desk. It's more of a gesture than a payment.
When I exit the building, I head straight north, as always. The cold of the snow isn't a shock anymore - I've spent so many winters on the run that I have no reason to react. I'm careful to wipe him from my mind before I move, focusing instead on what I might find next. The surrounding forest is empty, as far as I can see, but I know better. I am one of the things that lurk in the dim dawnlight. Or at least I have been. I've been whatever I've had to be, to survive.
A fox runs alongside me, rubbing affectionately against my legs. Figures. I've not lived like a human for so long that they don't recognise me as one of them.
The weak sun is high in the sky by the time I take a break. I come across a lake, just beginning to ice over, and punch a hole in the top. Shards of ice scrape the skin from my knuckles, but I heal them easily with the snow.
It used to startle me, how instinctively I use magic, but by now it barely registers. Before, magic took time, concentration. Separation. A channel of nothing but emotion. But now, I constantly live under a channel of emotion. A full on wave, of an emotion in it's own right: emptiness. And in the few moments where the pain overcomes my barriers, that just fuels it, too. Even finding resources is a second nature, as if I feel them before I see them.
It's this extra sight that causes my head to flick up before I even hear the crunch of snow to my left. My hands are full of the water that I've just scooped from the lake, but I let it drop, poising for a confrontation. It wouldn't be the first one.
The crunching continues, seeming to quicken. There's no sign of anyone approaching, though. Cautiously, I take a step forwards, pulling the blade from my belt.
A fox lies in the snow, the area around it dyed with blood. Each time it lurches, attempting to get to it's feet, it burrows further into the snow, the blood smearing across even more ice. I drop my guard immediately, running the rest of the way.
It startles as it sees me, it's struggle becoming even more urgent.
“Sssh.” I mutter, my hand in the blood. I wipe some across his fur, willing him to calm down. He does. Blood is the best ingredient to use for emotion magic, the most brilliant red.
It doesn't take long to find the cause of his injuries. An arrowhead is buried in his back leg, clearly a poor attempt at hunting. I pack some nearby snow into one hand, holding the leg with the other.
“I'm sorry, Mr. fox, but this is going to hurt.”
Taking a second to gather myself, then pull the arrow out in one swift move. The fox shudders, trying to break free, but I keep hold of his leg, placing the snow over it and willing him to heal. He does, the white of the snow being the perfect carrier for my healing magic. There's just a thin, raised scar, now.
By this point, I'm covered in the fox’s blood. It stains the front of my dress, my hands, even my cloak. He eyes me, nervously, as if wondering if I might have only healed him to eat him.
“You're in no danger from me.”
I know he won't understand me, but it's been a few days since I've used my voice. It's nice to have someone to talk to that won't talk back.
Despite not understanding the words, he stumbles to his feet, stepping uneasily onto my folded knees. Underneath all that blood, he has black socks of fur on his legs. His eyes are the liquid amber of most foxes, but more inquisitive. If I was the kind to keep pets, I would bundle him along with me, but I can't afford the extra weight.
Reluctantly, I place him back on the ground, returning to my feet.
“Just try not to get yourself in any more trouble.” I wave a finger at him, hoping that he gets the message. It seems unlikely, though, as he scuttles straight back into the forest.
I don't have time to dwell on that, though. A night on the forest ground is just asking for trouble, for something much worse than the fox to come and find me. So I keep moving.
I keep an eye out for somewhere to wash my dress, but my hopes aren't high. I can hardly strip down in the middle of the woods, anyway.
Progress becomes slower, after the fox. The ice seems infinitely colder now that I remember what it's like to be close to a warm body. Yet another ridiculous habit of mine. I find myself shivering, grasping my cloak more.
I reach a small village just as the light is beginning to dim. Small, wooden huts are built together in a circle, facing the centre, where a fire pit sits. These are the worst kinds of villages - the ones that rely on the community to survive. They're the hardest to arrive in, and the hardest to leave.
The inn is the first building I come to. It's nothing special, only two rooms for hire, but thankfully few people are mad enough to come this far out from the larger towns.
I open the door cautiously, bracing myself. Few innkeepers take gold, anymore, especially in the darkest parts of the woods. Gold is useless in places with nothing to buy. Instead, they seek more immediate goods. Finding a room is a difficult negotiation, but one I'm rehearsed in. The only problem is that in places like these, at this time of day, they know I have to rent the room, no matter the cost.
More than once, that's caught me out.
The innkeeper is an old man, complete with a long, wispy beard. The desk he stands behind is the same kind of dark wood that everything here is made of, even the roofs. I know he needs something as soon as he sees me, his eyes lighting up. That could be a blessing or a curse.
“How much for a room and food?” I ask.
“Can you heal?”
I breathe a sigh of relief. This will be one of the easier transactions.
In my sheltered childhood, I found it hard to imagine that there were places that didn't know how to do magic, but there are many. If you don't learn before a certain age, you never will, and so those that do can easily turn a profit while travelling.
“My daughter is sick. She just gave birth to my granddaughter, but she's not healing as she should. I need your help.”
My relief is bittersweet. This is a situation that I could easily solve, but it's too close to home. Too much dangerous emotion.
“Do you have washing facilities?” I gesture to the blood on my clothes.
“Yes, we have a washroom.”
“Then I'll heal her in exchange for a room and a trip to the washroom.”
He leads me around the back of the desk, into the room on the left. There's a fire in the corner, and a makeshift bed of blankets. His daughter looks too old to be giving birth, her face etched with wrinkles, but I daren’t to say.
I know what's wrong with her, immediately. Her heart is beating irregularly, after giving birth.
“Could you fetch me a handful of snow?” I ask the innkeeper, already on my knees next to the daughter. She smiles at me, weakly, covered in sweat.
I deliberately don't look at the smaller bundle of blankets that she holds. I've never been one to coo over children. She has different ideas, though, making to hand me the thing.
“I- Please-” I splutter. “I have no children of my own, it's probably better for your father to take her.”
Mercifully, he returns, then, snow in hand. I take it before it melts.
“Can you take the child?’
With the baby out of the way, I place a snow laden hand on her chest, willing her to heal. Internal injuries are harder to heal, harder to make contact with. I've been getting stronger, though, as I feel her heart returning to normal pace under my hand.
Thankfully, the two if them are unfamiliar with magic, so assume it's normal. They're suitability grateful, leading me straight to the washroom. It's a few buildings over, hidden at the back, which is a blessing given my lack of apparel while I wash them.
Even after dunking it in the barrel, my dress is stained with the fox's blood. I search the shelves at the back for something to fix that. Their crude soap stands no chance against it, but a dusty old bottle of crushed rose sits tucked at the back. While it is presumably to help with the smell, I make the most of the dusty pink’s power to change appearances. I pour it out across my hands, gripping the dress in the hope that the colour will change. The result is immediate; the whole thing turns sanguine red.
Whispers follow me as I leave the hut, wrapped in the unrecognisable clothing. I left my cloak the same colour - that never changes - but the red is so striking that even under the cloak, it stands out. There are few people in the village, but they all peek through the windows at me as I walk through. It makes sense that they're intrigued by this strange girl with bright clothes and bright hair and empty eyes, but I don't appreciate the attention.
This whole place feels too exposed, too quiet. The nearest forest is at least two hundred metres away, and I feel naked without the cover of its branches.
Funny, I would once have said I would run to the ends of the earth for him, but now I run to the ends of the earth from him. Even once I get there, it won't be far enough.
Once I reach the room, it's like the last day never happened. It's almost a carbon copy of the one I woke up in this morning. The old man has left food on the dresser; a steaming cup of soup, a slice of cheese and a crusted roll.
I don't even drop my cloak before I start to eat. It's easy to forget to eat - when you're cutting off all emotions, feelings like hunger go with it. Now, though, I notice the aching emptiness of my stomach, shovelling the bread into my mouth. Once, I would have found this simple food vile, but surprisingly few villages have food even this nice.
The thoughts of home reveal another aching emptiness that I can't explain. I try to drown it in soup, burning my chin and then my hands as it slops everywhere. I must look like a savage. At this point, I probably am.
As always, I struggle to sleep. With nothing to do but stare into the darkness, my mind wanders. I’ve got better at training it, now, but I focus so hard on not thinking about him that he tugs at the sides of the strict cage that I’ve penned my thoughts into, swinging on the bars like a deranged monkey. Tonight, maybe, will be the night that he doesn’t get in. Maybe tonight, he won’t plague my dreams. Even as I drift off, though, I know there’s no chance. Five years, and still I haven’t healed. Five years, and I’m just as lost as the day he left.