by Brian J. White

I ghosted along the path, more slowly than I would have six years before. It was the same, and different all at once. But it was home.

The undergrowth was all wrong. The trees were where they belonged, but each a bit taller, wider, more twisted than they were in memory. The smell though. That was the same. The damp scent of moss and bark, of decay and life. It carried a flood of emotion, of my happiest days, and the single worst day of my life.

A branch cracked off to the left. My hand settled on the hilt of my sword, as I scanned the foggy gloom.

There.

Just a fox.

I smiled and patted the scabbard, its familiar weight a comfort that I’d had by my side since the day I cast away my skirts for the boiled leather armor of the Daughters of the Phoenix. Jenna had often teased me that I cared more for that sword than I did for her.

The final time she had said it, it had been with tears.

The ground began to slope beneath my cracked leather boots. I was nearly there. Our – her – home was at the bottom of a deep hollow. If not for the fog, I’d be able to see it already.

First I could make out the glow in the lower window. She was there, then. A hearth in a home built in a tree seemed madness. I’d said so, when she had started to build it. But she was right. It was only a worry when left untended, and we never had.

I sighed, not sure if I was happy or disappointed by the glow. This would have been much easier had she not been here. But, save for my dreams, I had not seen her face in… Goddess, had it really been six years?

The rest of the house emerged from the mist. Built partly inside the tree, where a forest fire had left a deep scar decades ago, and partly around it. I knew every board, every window, every creaking knot. We had built it together. Aside from a small room on the second level, she did not seem to have added to it.

I neared the door, my feet slowing. Fear clawed along my spine, bad as it ever was on the battlefield. It was foolish, but, then, love is foolish.

I hesitated before the door. Almost turned and walked away, then and there, despite my need. The war’s need.

The fucking war.

My hand was raised, as I wavered. But, as always, Jenna saved me from myself. The door swung open, my fist hanging dumbly in the air.

We stared. Six years hung in the air between us. What can you say, after all that time? I could only think of one thing.

“Hello.”

She closed her eyes, a tear leaking out, and then flew into my arms. Even through my armor I could feel the fierceness of her embrace. Even through her hair in my face, I could feel my own tears.

She drew in a shaky breath, and breathed into my ear. “Amalia. My Goddess. I thought you dead.”

I drew my shoulders back, and held her at arm’s length. “They’ve been trying, my lo—” I choked back the words, my joking confidence smashing up against the rocks of my heart. After a long moment, she smiled, and ushered me into the home.

It was… the same. And different. The carved furniture had been rearranged – exactly how she’d always said she wanted it. New pieces mixed in with old. The wall hangings were strangers to me, but then, I had taken my banners, emblazoned with the icons of the Daughters, with me. The smell though – her stew bubbling on the fire – the smell.

I was glad I had already cried.

Jenna looked me up and down.

“Amalia. Why? Why are you here? The war is still raging, I know. Have you left it? Have you come… have you come home?”

The hope in her eyes nearly destroyed me, nearly destroyed every vow I had taken, every oath I had sworn as a comrade lay dying in my arms, every bit of courage I had wrapped around my bones.

Nearly.

I looked away. “No, Jenna. You know I… we fought this battle six years ago. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish it were otherwise. But I am sworn to duty.”

“Duty.” She did not spit the word. She said it softly. I met her eyes. The hate I expected was not there.

I knew then that I had truly lost her. She had made peace with my choice.

“Why are you here, Amalia?”

I took a deep breath. “I left something behind. I didn’t want to be tempted by it, and I had hoped it would never be needed. But the enemy… they have unearthed magic that has not been seen in the world for a thousand years. And we are losing.”

Jenna’s eyes had widened. “That. You left that HERE?” There was the venom. “How could you leave it here, without telling me?”

I shrank back, only a little, but I shrank back. “I couldn’t… I didn’t want to put you at risk. If you did not know it was here, then no harm could come of it. You know I warded it well…”

WARDS? YOUR DEFENSE IS WARDS?

“I—”

“Where is it?”

“Jenna, ple—” She shot me a look that I had hoped to never be on the speartip of. I shook my head. “It is within the wall, there.” I pointed where a purple and gray silk hung in the back hollow of the tree.

“Get it. And go.”

My hands were shaking as I edged past her, unmoving, rage rolling off her in waves. I twitched aside the cloth. I spoke the words I had memorized long ago. The tree groaned, and then split along the grain. A bundle, wrapped in soft red oilcloth, was within. I drew it out, and tucked it quickly into my pack. I turned, trying to think of what to say, when a motion by the stairs caught my eye.

A boy, of perhaps seven or eight summers. I stared. He stared. Jenna snapped to face him.

“I told you to stay upstairs.”

“But—”

Go.”

He fled.

My mouth hung open. She moved to open the door, speaking as she walked. “He is an orphan. Of your war. I found him wandering the woods the spring before last. He barely spoke. He did not even know his own name. So I gave him a home. A name. And a life. A quiet life.”

She held the door. “It is time for you to leave.”

I stopped in front of her, said the first thing that fell off the tip of my tongue. “What name did you give him?”

She leveled her gaze.

“Duty. I named him Duty. To remind me, every time I thought of writing to you, of calling you home, to remind me of what your duty costs. Of what you chose.”

I ghosted along the path, more quickly than I had six years before. It was the same, and different all at once. But it would never be home again.