Batair Nikolaus clutched the framed photograph as he studied the constellations in the heavens above.
“Karista, are you and little Donella Eir seeing this?” he asked aloud. “Do you ever look at the night sky and wonder if I, too, can see its glory?”
This is one thing to be thankful for, he thought to himself. I can still see the night sky.
Batair glanced down at the animated faces in the photograph, faces captured only one month ago. He stroked the glass, void of warmth and life. He hugged the frame against his chest, longing to hold his beloved wife and precious daughter again.
Shifting his weight, he leaned against the porch railing of the abandoned cottage. Only a month ago, this valley had teemed with workers and their families, people of all the various ethnic groups among the Kellans, Arelians, and his own people, the Lirrians, mixing and trading and crossing into one another’s lands.
He exhaled slowly. Already the clearings around the cottage showed signs of abandonment. The forests abounded with new vegetation and small animals.
“Karista, I never meant to leave you,” he whispered, pounding his fist against the railing. “I only meant to help our family.”
He looked down at a brown burlap sack. As he bent to loosen the cords strangling the neck of the bag, the wooden boards beneath his feet groaned. He reached in and pulled out a rugged piece of gold, pinching it in his fingers. Rays of moonlight bounced off the gleaming veins of ore that hinted at the precious metal within. His fist closed around the rock’s sharp corners, biting into his palm.
“It wasn’t worth it.” He opened his hand and glared at the offending stone. Bile filled his mouth. “You’re not worth it.”
He hurled the piece of gold, unleashing the pent-up anger and remorse that filled his soul. It left his hand and sailed through the air, mocking him in its gentle glide and soft thump back into the earth.
“I miss you, Karista.” Batair caressed the photograph and kissed the cold image of his wife. “I miss our daughter. Raise her well for us. I was such a fool to trade these golden rocks for our lives together. I fear I may never see you again. The Great Father has seen fit to punish me with this separation from the ones I love… I should have valued you more than this earthly treasure. You are my treasures, and I should have realized that… when I still had the chance. I should never have listened to the Kellans. I should have stayed with you and faced our struggles like a man. I’m so sorry. Will you ever forgive me? Please forgive me. I need to know…”
His voice trailed off as he heard the shrill cry of a child.
Batair’s fatherly instincts kicked in with the lament, and his heart pierced with thoughts for his own Donella Eir.
He tucked the photograph into the large right hand pocket of his jacket and quickly stored the coarse bag of gold in the cottage. He could come back for it later.
But as he strode into the trees, following the infant’s cry, he doubted he’d ever want to return.
Delete Created with Sketch.
Batair didn’t have to go far before he reached the entrance of a familiar cave. He’d been through this dark corridor regularly in the past month since he’d raised the barrier at the request of Declan and Mungo. They had discovered a sliver of gold deep in one of the caves and offered him a portion of their bounty as payment for his services. He thought of the barrier as he often did and wondered how his magic had produced such a strong structure to the point he’d lost control of it and was now trapped on this side. His mind pondered the possibilities and settled on the influence of dark Fenarian magic. But that was impossible. The Fenris lived beyond Arelia and never crossed the border. Maybe he was just too good at the gift the great Father gave him.
He hesitated for a moment, then entered the cave, following the baby’s hollow cries. Had a Kellan mother been stranded out here in one of the cabins? He picked up his pace, despite not being able to see his surroundings.
Raising his hand next to his face, he concentrated, letting a gentle spark of magic swirl into light. The ability to manipulate matter was a gift bestowed to the Lirrian race by the Great Father, and Batair was especially talented at wielding the elements among his people. He watched as an orb grew from a flicker to a glow about the size of a man’s fist. The light bounced off the rock surfaces surrounding him, giving him a clear view of at least five steps ahead.
Batair’s feet pounded softly against the earth, causing the odd nocturnal insect or rodent to scuttle out of his way. He rounded one corner and then the next.
His stomach flipped when he thought of what had happened to the Kellan people in the mines. He had desired to free the Kellans caught in the Arelians’ slave trade, to protect them, but he’d gone about it all wrong. He should have spoken with the Arelian leaders before trusting the words of Declan and Mungo alone. Perhaps then he would have learned that there was more to the story. Perhaps Lord Russet and Lady Coral could have done something.
Perhaps he should have trusted the Great Father instead of attempting to be the Great Father.
The wails ahead of him sounded less hollow, and he even heard the muffled cooing of a woman’s comforting voice.
Moonlight streamed into his field of vision as he reached the mouth of the cave on the opposite side of where he’d entered. With a snap of his wrist, he extinguished his orb of light. It disappeared with a pop and burst into a million speckles of glittering light.
Ahead of him, Batair made out the silhouette of a woman. Her long dark brown tresses hung down her back and she knelt next to a child who lay on the ground.
“It’s all right,” she cooed. “Glenna will take care of you. I promise. You’re all right.”
The woman continued to shush a small infant, and from Batair’s vantage it looked like she massaged the child’s chesttreasure as she swaddled it.
He didn’t recognize the woman and given his status as a Lirrian in the Lowlands he didn’t think it would be wise to reveal himself. His mind raced. He could remain hidden in the valley where he’d visited nightly and cast a net of ivy over the cave to conceal its entrance. No Kellan would have any reason to find it. Before long most people would probably forget it had ever been there.
The Kellan settlement was at least an hour away by foot, so what was this woman doing here—alone in the middle of the night with a child? He knew he had to help her… what had she called herself? Glenna? If Karista were here, she’d tell him it was his duty.
Batair allowed his feet to drag slightly along the ground to alert the woman to his presence. He didn’t want to sneak up on her.
The woman jumped.
“Excuse me,” he said from a polite distance. “I don’t mean to startle you, but do you need help?”
“I didn’t know anyone was out this far.” Glenna scrambled to her feet with the weeping child clutched to her chest.
Batair moved out of the shadows. “I was on an evening stroll and heard your child crying.”
“Oh, she’s not my child.” The woman’s face held a startled expression, and in the dim moonlight Batair wondered if the blood had drained from it. “I mean, I found her. I know… I… I knew her parents.”
Glenna dropped her eyes and cradled the infant’s head. She shifted the bundle in her arms.
Batair was certain the woman was keeping the child covered as much as possible, but he’d caught a brief glimpse of the fiery red face of an upset babe. Did she have some deformity? It was a girl—he’d heard the woman refer to it as a female. Perhaps she’d been hurt.
“May I offer you assistance? It’s rather late for you to be out here alone. My name is—”
Batair paused. He didn’t want to give his real name. He was stuck in the Lowlands with the Kellans, by his own hand. He needed to leave his past identity behind.
He was thankful that only his lean stature common to all Lirrians separated him from the ideal stocky Kellan. It wouldn’t be too difficult to pass as one of them.
“My name is Bain,” he said. “My offer is sincere.”
“I’m Glenna. Uh, no… no, thank you.”
“Are you sure? I have a cabin just through the trees over here. It’s not much, but you and, uh—” He pointed towards the bundle in Glenna’s arms.
“Her name is Aut… t… Tully.”
“You and Tully are welcome to stay inside for the night…”
“That’s awfully kind, and it is a long way back to the settlement. But what about you? Where will you sleep?”
“I don’t mind spending a night under the stars, and I haven’t slept well since the barrier was raised. I find myself often taking midnight strolls.”
“Are you sure? We wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Right this way.”
He moved ahead of Glenna, listening to Tully’s soft whimpers. He glanced over his shoulder at them every once and a while and noticed the woman’s eyes darting about. Perhaps he’d be able to find out more, but he already carried enough regret for his involvement in the affairs of Kellans. The barrier had already cost him his most valued treasure.
“Here you are,” Batair said when they entered the clearing around his cabin. “I found it abandoned a month ago and have been staying here ever since. Go on inside and rest for the night. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Relief softened Glenna’s features and a smile pulled at her mouth. “Thank you.”
Batair bowed his head and watched the woman enter the cabin, then moved swiftly back through the woods. As he walked, he pulled out the picture of his family and hugged it close. He stroked the faces of the ones he loved.
“I’m sorry and I’ll never forget you,” he said softly. “And by the will of the Great Father, perhaps one day I’ll find my way back to you. But I can’t keep coming into the forest night after night…”
Batair’s eyes remained steady on his wife’s laughing eyes.
After a few minutes, he returned to the mouth of the cave. For the past month, he daily came here and strolled through to the valley on the other side to the cabin where he stored the gold. A routine, and he needed to let go of it. If Karista knew, she’d be angry with him.
He lifted his free hand and moved it in an arc before him, letting the magic flow from him towards the yawning cave. Long tendrils of ivy began to spread over the rockface, completely coating the entrance. He lowered his hand and surveyed his handiwork.
The Kellans will forget about this entrance soon enough, he told himself. He’d noticed that the Kellans avoided coming out this far into the forest. They seemed intent on forgetting any of their previous associations with the Arelians or the Great Father. They had already begun to claim that they’d freed themselves.
Batair sighed. Standing a little straighter, he deposited the picture back into his pocket and moved through the forest. He stopped in a nearby meadow, his heart feeling as though it broke into two pieces. Part his heart lived back in the forests of the Lirrians bordering Arelia Proper—with his family, with his own people, the Lirrians. But the other part remained here, in the Lowlands. He couldn’t get back.
Hopefully, by the will of the Great Father, he’d one day find a way to reverse this wretched barrier and set right what he’d put horribly wrong.