Miro stared into the hearth, into the cavity of fired clay, where flames flickered at each term Guarin proposed. The conjurer’s words hung on the hem of Miro’s traveling cloak and, as the weight grew heavy, he circled the clasp pinning the wool at his throat. Fire warmed the pendant’s ivy ribs, the ridges stinging his fingertips when the flames quieted.
“That is what I can offer, sire,” said Guarin.
Miro seared his thumb with a press on the sword carved at the clasp’s center. “I accept.”
Miro set his hand on Wyot’s shoulder, silencing his son’s imprudent tongue. Broadcloth and a chainmail tunic intercepted the touch of wiry flesh underneath. Through the layers, however, Miro felt the beat of a heart, one young but yearning to make things right.
“I’ve taken a vow to protect our people, Wyot.”
“Protect them with your sword, father. Protect them with our armies. Protect them with compromise. Not this.”
“The Aventi Canon will not compromise,” said Guarin.
Miro released his hold on Wyot and squared himself to the conjurer.
From his seat, Guarin placed his mug onto the smooth stump serving as his table and wrapped the gnarled fingers of his remaining hand around the potter’s work. The truth in his simple statement twined with the smoke in the air and Miro gripped his sword’s hilt.
“No, they won’t.”
Wyot turned away from the flames. “How can you both be so certain?
Guarin lifted his white eyes, their sightless gaze locking onto the boy. “Because I have seen it.”
“You are nothing but a blind man.”
“And you a pup in armor.”
After a balk and sputter, Wyot stormed to a curtain hung by the hovel’s front door. Plucking the ratty cloth aside, he revealed a clawed hole, the night, their waiting horses, and the Scuro Woods flanking the sleeping kingdom of Terrasin. “You’ve come to a one-armed blind man in search for answers, father.”
Miro glared through the table. “I didn’t ask you to join me, boy.”
Wyot huffed while Guarin stroked his mug, his gaze drifting into the fire. “I have told you what I can do, sire.”
Miro strode from the hearth, stopping with boot-tips brushing the table’s bark sides. “Will it work?”
Guarin’s gaze grew wide. Firelight glittered in his blind eyes and danced in the crags of his face. The orange light swirled with the shadows beneath his matted bangs and the darker pits below his mossy brows. A breeze swept down the chimney and pushed at Guarin’s mane of raven hair. The thick locks blew off his shoulders and his pitch-dark robes fluttered.
The gust died and Guarin closed his eyes, his chest heaving with each wheezing breath. “It may.”
“May?” Wyot scoffed and flung down the curtain. “This is not your only choice, father.”
“But,” said Guarin, “it is the only choice with a chance of success.”
The logs snapped in the silence.
Warmth licked at Miro’s calves, toasting his cloak and skin sheltered by breeches and leather boots. The heat began urging his feet to move, for him to take some kind of action. At each fiery crackle, he recalled messages reporting raiders, pillagers, fires in the villages at Terrasin’s borders. Rumors of horsemen, pike men, an entire army in the evergreen and midnight blue of Aventi gained credence with every refugee seeking protection in Terra’s walls. Bruised faces, broken limbs, backs burdened by shattered lives, forced Miro’s tongue.
“I’ve made my decision.”
His hardened jaw quieted Wyot this time and Miro never looked away from Guarin. “How long will it take?”
The conjurer settled onto Miro’s face. “Time is a fickle mistress, sire. The only moment you can be certain of is the one in which you draw breath.”
Miro exhaled, emptying his lungs. “By dawn?”
A twist gripped the corner of Guarin’s mouth, curving his lips like a climbing vine. “Long before then.”
Releasing his cup, he motioned for Miro to sit.
Miro back away from the stump, seeking the chair Guarin’s gesture implied. Bark hit his heels, and Miro caught his stumble on the severed trunk suddenly behind him. Flapping out his cloak, he perched on the wooden edge and adjusted his sword. He interlaced his fingers atop the table.
“You choose,” said Guarin.
Miro licked his lips, sweat and ash alighting on his tongue. “Take taste in exchange for sight.”
Wyot crossed his arms, his chainmail clinking. “Only an Aventi poisoner would agree.”
Miro faced his son, the broad shoulders he’d inherited through generations of Terrasin lines framed in firelight, the longer limbs from his mother rigid. “Poison is the least of my concern.”
Shadows darkened the frustration on Wyot’s pinched features. A gale doused the fire, amplifying the room’s black. Even so, Miro caught the gape of his son’s mouth, the blanch of his olive tan, the stagger of his boy against the hard-packed wall. His hand returned to his hilt when Miro swiveled back to Guarin.
The whites of the conjurer’s eyes glowed amber as embers. Inside his once empty sleeve, captured firelight formed a left arm, the flamed fingers held out, palm empty and waiting to be filled.
“Once you place yours in mine,” said Guarin, his voice emanating from the earthen walls, through the floor, pouring out of the root-threaded ceiling, “there is no going back.”
Cold raced in Miro’s veins, nearly freezing him to his seat. “I understand.”
He forced his fingers free and rested his bare hand on the fiery one Guarin extended. Heat washed against his skin, hot enough to burn. A thought of retreat entered Miro’s mind, but Guarin grabbed tight.
“We have begun.” With his other hand, the one of flesh and coarse skin, Guarin shoved his mug across the table. “Take one mouthful but do not swallow.”
Putting his focus on the cup, Miro blotted the pain of the conjurer’s cinched grip. The clay felt soothing and cool against his fingers, the drink sloshing when he raised the rim to his lips. At the window, he sensed Wyot stiffening. Closing his eyes, Miro ignored his son’s concern, the expectation from Guarin, the numbness in his charred hand, the agony racing up his wrist and nearing his elbow, and the stench of the brew beneath his nose.
He tipped the cup and bitterness blended with sour. He fought against gagging as the liquid, thicker than he expected, smeared his tongue, weaved between his teeth, and coated the roof of his mouth. His gums rebelled against the tang seeping through them and melding with the bones in his jaw.
“Now spit,” said Guarin, “into the hearth.”
Miro choked, preventing a swallow as the order bore into his ears. Releasing the cup, Miro turned on his stoop, his eyes aglow like the conjurer’s unblinking pair. Guarin kept his hand, forcing Miro to lean toward the fire but he spat with enthusiasm. Wadding up a mouthful of saliva, he spat again, clearing the brew’s foul taste.
A tug brought him back to the stump and his nose into the palm of Guarin’s fleshy hand. Miro closed his eyes and kept himself still while the conjurer’s gnarled fingertips found his shut lids. The pressure shot down his arm, meeting the firestorm rising from Guarin’s fiery grip.
Within the blaze, Miro’s hand seemed to disappear, then his forearm and shoulder. The creep of nothingness surged up his neck and pooled behind each of Miro’s eyes. Two bolts, sharp as arrow tips, shot out of his skull as if to complete the loop with Guarin’s musky fingers.
The circle formed a field, a never-ending darkness into which Miro tumbled. He plunged into a widening hole, scraped at the sides, sought light, peered for the bottom, for any escape from the unending black striking him like a blade through his gut.
After a smack of flesh against steel, of a corpse onto wet ground, Miro discovered himself seated beside the stump. Guarin had relinquished his hand, unhurt, unblemished. Firelight had returned, the flames flickering as they should, casting proper shadows upon the one-armed conjurer and his white eyes. The mug sat before him, Guarin’s gnarled hand circling the clay.
Miro licked his lips but instead of ash or the remains of Guarin’s drink, he tasted nothing. “Is it done?”
Guarin mouth twisted into an almost-grin. “You tell me, sire.”
Miro looked to his son. The flames never rose, the night remained dark, but the worry in Wyot’s blue eyes resonated with crystalline clarity. Every link covering his chest gleamed as if freshly oiled.
A shudder shook Miro from boots to receding hair, and the shape of his eldest child swelled with bulked muscle. Age and scars marked his boy’s face. The cygnet crown worn by those upon the throne rested on curls as umber as his mother’s longer locks.
Miro’s eyes cried out, dry and tired, as if he’d stared into the sun too long. He blinked and upon a second look, watched the younger version, the true version, of Wyot approach. Holding out a hand, he halted his son’s next step.
Miro dropped his fingers to his hilt and gazed down, eyeing the digits of a once enflamed hand now gripping his sword’s handle.
Blood smeared the weapon despite its sheath and spilled onto the floor. At each drop, the packed earth sprouted grass, the blades then pounded by feet, by hooves, by bodies trampled to the ground. Muddy browns shifted into evergreen and midnight blue waves. They lapped Miro’s boots and the stump supporting him, then retreated, leaving Terrasin scarlet and honey in its wake.
Again, his eyes burned and a blink left Miro staring at his hilt, a void on his tongue.
Wyot and Guarin’s tones spanned fear and curiosity, each distracting Miro from his sword. He glanced at his son, and then met the smirk on Guarin’s lips.
Standing, Miro brushed against the clasp of his cloak and braced himself before looking at the seal.
A face appeared within the ivy ring, an Aventi by her pale hue and tattooed cheekbones. Her name leapt to mind from the reports of the approaching forces, detailing a love of plunder not conquest and offering a path to peace.
Blinking with control, Miro ceased his eyes’ enhanced vision and centered himself in the present. “We should go.”
Wyot stepped to his side, sturdy and willing, but too young yet for the crown he’d wear. “Are you sure you’re well enough to ride?”
“I am,” Miro started for the door, “and I have a traitor to meet.”