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September 15, 2009

The Lady Blooms

       Every night, deer would cross the field behind her house and feast on her neighbor's vegetable garden. Bess watched them at the same time, just after sundown. She would take a break from her tools and wipe the sweat of her brow, then just sit and chuckle as they went.
       She knelt down one day, especially tired. The dry dirt was hard beneath her knees. She should have been grateful for the work. It was better than being poor, but it certainly didn't make life easier. Her fingers were callused and she had soot all over her pants. Her arms were thicker than they used to be, not like a man's, but they had lost that gentle elegance from when her father was still alive.
       She waited for the deer. Oddly, they didn't show. She was just about to go back inside, when she saw movement in the high grass. Something was out there and it wasn't an animal. Either it was human or it was an abnormally large and loud beast.
       Bess frowned and grabbed her ax, freshly sharpened that morning. She dove into the high grass and wriggled beneath the top leaves. With her weapon extended, she stalked the creature, moving only when it moved. She was close, very close to it, although she couldn't quite see it clearly. It was better to attack first even blindly, she thought, then to let them discover her and attack first. She leapt above the grass and brought her ax high to strike.
       “No!” A girl screamed when she saw her attacker. “Please!” Bess caught herself and hesitated. It was a girl, a young one at that. She had fallen onto her backside and held her hands in front of her face as if that would protect her.
       Bess lowered the ax. “What are you doing out here?” She demanded.
       “I...” The girl stuttered. “I'm... sorry...”
       “You have three seconds,” Bess said.
       “I don't have anywhere else to go!” She yelled in desperation.
       Bess wasn't sure what to do or say. She was in no way going to hurt the girl, she had just imagined a much different encounter. She lowered her ax. “You were going somewhere...”
       The girl seemed as if she were about to cry. “I'm just... hungry. I know it's wrong to steal, but I saw the vegetable garden from the street earlier today and...”
       Bess smiled, although it was too dark to see. “Well, anything ripe would have been eaten tonight anyway.”
       “Nothing,” Bess said quickly. “Come with me. I'll give you something to eat.”
       Bess turned to go, but nearly tripped. Her feet had become entangled in roots. One more step and she would have fallen flat on her face. She wriggled her feet free and looked back at the girl. She was standing now, still on edge as if she were about to sprint away.
       “I'm not going to hurt you,” Bess said. The girl didn't look convinced. “Listen, I'm not the one skulking around in the shadows...”
       “Actually,” the girl said politely, “You were...”
       She had a point. Bess threw her hands up in exasperation. “Alright, stay out here and steal vegetables. I don't care.”
       After several paces, the girl followed her. Now Bess had the peculiar task of cooking for someone else. She thought about what she had at home. There was a scrap of pottage left from that morning. Really, she had nothing else except a bag of peas and acorns.
       “Hold here,” Bess said outside her door. There was always hot coals in the shed, where she did all of her work.
       When she came back with her hand cradling a candle, she saw the girl's face for the first time.  She had thick, drab hair. Her eyes seemed to be dark and wide. She was returning the studious gaze, seeing Bess for the first time as well.
       “What's your name?” The girl asked.
       “Bess, and you?”
       “You probably have quite the story to tell,” Bess said, stepping inside. She lit candles around the room and fetched the pottage in the kitchen.
       “It's so big,” May said, looking around herself. “Where is your husband?”
       “I have none.”
       “You live alone?” she asked, troubled.
       “You speak as if I should be unhappy.” Bess set the pottage down in front of her. “I'm sorry I don't have anything else. We can go to the market tomorrow and get you a decent meal.”
       “You're not eating?” May asked.
       “I already ate,” she lied. She wasn't hungry, though.
       “Thank you.” May said. Bess had never seen a girl eat so fast in her life.
       That night Bess let her sleep in her father's bed. It had sat empty for years. Bess stayed awake for some time, unsure exactly what she was doing. A stranger was sleeping in her house. She could not remember a time that happened before.


       May awoke the next day in the afternoon sun. She was warm and fed and oddly secure. For the past week she had been sleeping in barns and carts, catching whatever sleep she could find. She stretched, wondering both what hour it was and where the woman was.
       She heard a clanking outside and discovered Bess in the shed near the field. So she was a blacksmith. It was a strange profession, but rather fitting. May smiled. She'd never met such a hard-edged woman in her life. Yet despite her rough facade, she seemed genuinely hospitable.
       Bess had striking features. She had remarkably clear skin for a labor-worker. Her figure was  sculptural and very smooth, but she firmly held her stance as if she wasn't sure how to stand beautifully. May wanted to fix her, wanted to help her become beautiful. It wouldn't be hard.
       She walked to the window and noticed a dried-up flowerbed attached. There was one dead flower inside. Someone had planted it in the Spring. They may not have kept it alive, but at one time they wanted the house to be more beautiful.
       May touched a dried petal. Then she pressed her fingers into the dirt, waking the roots. She willed it to rise, to bloom, to breathe again. The flower lifted its head and obeyed. It's stem stiffened. The leaves pulsed green. At very last, the petals unfurled and drank light from the warm sun.


       Clouds in the distance were dark that afternoon. Despite this, the sky above Billinwood was a bright, happy blue. Bess dreaded the coming of rain.
       May was ahead of her, walking in the market with her hands clasped in front of her. She was wearing a beige dress that Bess had worn when she was a young. Her hair was tied back, but still fell out in dark curls on the sides.
       She had been there nearly a week and had not said a word about her past or why she was there. Bess couldn't help getting attached to the girl. There was just something so new about her. She would not admit it, even to herself, but the girl captured something in her that she missed. May was waiting for something wonderful to happen, a great life with absolutely no doubt.
       She turned around and waved to Bess. “Come here, look at these.” There was a stack of roots on a market stand, sitting beside several piles of fresh vegetables. “If you boil these, they're delicious.” Bess would have thought they were scraps if she were by herself. “If you eat them raw, they're poisonous. You have to be careful.” May looked up to the lady at the stand. “Can I have a dozen of these, please?”
       “Four coins,” the woman said.
       Bess handed her the money and May gladly accepted the roots. “What are they called?” Bess asked her.
       May seemed distracted. She stared at the market square behind her, where every stand had two or three people buying goods before the rain came. Three men were on the side, though. They were soldiers, by the looks of them, but not from Billinwood. They were looking for something.
       It wasn't hard to figure out what was happening. “May,” Bess asked. “Who are those men?”
       “I...” May didn't know what to say.
       “You don't have to tell me why, but are they looking for you?”
       May moved quickly out of sight from the soldiers. “Yes.”
       “Do you want to go home?”
       She glanced at the soldiers and shook her head minutely. “Why are they here?”
       Bess felt a raindrop. She took May's arm. “We'd better go soon anyway. It's going to rain.”
       “Rain?” May asked. She looked up to the sky and widened her eyes. “Great sky...” She murmured.
       “What's wrong?” Bess asked.
       The sky darkened more, unnaturally so. Clouds rolled over themselves and a rumble echoed over the village. “We have to go, now!” May said. She moved towards the house, faster than even Bess could keep up with. More rain fell, but a hissing wind promised more.
       May weaved in and out of the crowd, somehow darting through people as they scrambled for cover. A larger sheet of rain fell down on them. Bess started to shove.
       Bess caught up with May and grabbed her shoulders. “Slow down!” She yelled. “Tell me why we're running.”
       May looked at Bess as if she were an obstacle she needed to climb. But still, even frightened, there was hope in her eyes. Then something strange happened in the sky. Both of them turned to see.
       The storm, which drove over the village as a mound of water down a stream, suddenly parted in the sky. As if a great boulder floated unseen, the dark clouds split in two and allowed the white light to shine through. Everything was dark except a column of light that gently fell on one part of the village. It fell on her house.
       May broke away and ran to the peculiar oasis. Bess didn't know what to do or think. Something was in her house, something that could not be rained on.
       Bess chased her inside and into her father's room. May was on her knees already, holding something in her hand. It was small rock of sorts. She could have been chanting, but she spoke no words. It was clear, however, that she was using magic.
       Within a moment, the sky darkened and rain fell. Whatever had warded the sunlight above them was gone now. May held the stone up, but looked to Bess, breathing heavily. Bess stared back with a look she would have recognized on her father's face.
       “What was that?” She demanded.
       May said nothing for a second, then answered nervously, “I hope it was enough.”
       “No!” Bess barked. “No more riddles, no more games. What is that thing you're holding in your hand?”
       May looked down at it and held it like a small creature.“A moonstone. When invoked, it negates skyborn magic.”
       “There is no magic in these parts.” There had not been since the war.
       Fifteen years ago, a war against tyrant magic had torn two neighboring kingdoms apart. In Ashland to the East, a skyborn came to power who used magic against the evil. He garrisoned a small army of disciples to fight the darkness. In Oskaria to the West, skyborn magic was outlawed entirely with penalty of death.
       Bess lived in Oskaria, and though she was alive during the war, had never seen skyborn magic and only heard of it through stories. May seemed much more aware.
       “How do you explain the storm?” She asked Bess. “The stone?”
       Bess lowered her hand, which she had raised with blind accusation. “Who are you?”
       May stood. She spoke quietly, but with firmness that Bess knew her words were true. “My full name is Isemay of Glasbury. My mother kept this moonstone and used it in service of the king.”
       “Why are you here? Why are you running?”
       “My mother is dead. She was killed three weeks ago.” Her words were void of emotion.
       “Murdered by the king.”
       Bess knew she was treading on a dangerous path. “Why would he do that?”
       “For this,” May said, holding the moonstone up to her. “He wants it for control. With this stone, he can invade Ashland to the East.”
       “But why did your mother have to die?”
       May shrugged and looked uncomfortable. “She would not give it to him.”
       “Upon penalty of death?”
       “This stone was made to protect us, not to destroy the skyborn people. Ashland is a peaceful country. He has no right to use this against them.”
       Bess stepped slowly towards the bed and sat down. “But... now your mother is dead.”
       “She took an oath,” May said quickly, then more quietly she added, “As have I.”
       “To protect this stone?”
       May nodded and sat down next to her. “That storm. It wasn't natural. I'm sure it was created to find me. The moonstone naturally cancels its magic. I shouldn't have left the stone here. It was just so important...”
       “Not something you should take to the market,” Bess finished for her. “You did the right thing.”
       May looked up. Her dark eyes were welling with water. “I'm so scared...”
       “Listen,” Bess said very suddenly, even surprising herself. “If anyone lays a finger on you, I'll...” She was at a loss of words, but finally said, “I'll protect you.”
       May pulled Bess close and hugged her deeply. “You've been so kind, for no reason at all.”
       Bess calmly remembered what it felt like to care about someone. She knew at that moment that if anyone did touch her, she would destroy them.

       There was a rap at the door not two minutes later. Both of their heads darted towards the sound. The guest knocked loudly again.
       “They found me...” May said quietly. She pulled away from the embrace and picked up the stone.
       Bess stood, a shiver of anger flowing down her arms. “Stay here,” she commanded May. “I'll answer the door.”
       “Please,” May said. “It might be dangerous. Just...” They pounded against the door again.
       “Stay here,” Bess repeated. Her axe was near the back door, she picked it up quickly and prepared herself to face whoever would be waiting.
       “What is it?” She asked gruffly after she opened the door. Her ax was raised.
       A young man was standing there. If it weren't for his cheap clothing, she would have guessed he was of royal blood. He was tall, well-built with thick arms. His stance was firm. His dark hair was pulled back and tied behind his head. His shirt had been partly unbound, moistened against his skin. The rain still poured down around him, but he seemed not to care. In his eyes was a determination that defied comfort.
       “Please, I'm looking for a girl,” he said quickly. “I think she might be here. Her name is Isemay.”
       “You've got the wrong place,” Bess said and tried to shut the door.
       The young man stuck his foot in the door. Perhaps he hadn't seen her axe. “Please, I... I know she's here.” Bess saw now that he had a sword strapped to his waist.
       “If you know what's good for you, you'll leave now,” Bess warned.
       “I understand she might be frightened. I want to help her,” he said.
       “If you want to help her, you'll leave now.”
       The young man looked Bess in the eye and considered what she said. “Is... is she safe?”
       “She is.”
       He stepped back very reluctantly. “Please tell her Tristen was here.”
       “Tristen?” A young voice asked eagerly behind her.
       “May!” Tristen yelled.
       May pushed past Bess and ran outside to see him. They collided in each other's arms and their lips touched a moment later. “What are you doing here?” May asked after a rushed second.
       “I came to protect you.”
       “You fool!” May whimpered. “Do you know what I've done?”
       “I don't care,” he said. “Don't you know I don't care?”
       “They'll kill you.”
       “Then I'll spend my last moment with you.”
       “Tristen, your life, your father... everything you left in Glasbury...”
       “It doesn't matter,” he said, touching both of her cheeks. “Everything I want is right here. May, I'll follow you forever.”
       May looked troubled. She grabbed both of his shoulders and kissed him close, shutting her eyes and letting the rain run down her cheeks.
       Bess watched from the doorstep. Her axe was still resting in her hand. She knew nothing of this girl. Ten minutes ago, she didn't even know her true name. How could she have let herself give so much for nothing? He was willing to risk everything for her and more.
       “You must come inside,” May said suddenly. She pulled Tristen to the door and noticed Bess as if for the first time. She smiled broadly. “Bess this is Tristen. He's...” She looked at him.
       “A friend,” Bess said warmly. “Any friend of yours is welcome here.” She realized that she couldn't smile.
       “Thank you,” he told Bess, “For watching her.”
       Bess wasted no time. “How did you know she was here?”
       Tristen seemed worried. “The storm,” he answered.
       “You sent it?”
       “Of course not,” Tristen said with disgust. “That was skyborn magic.”
       “Skyborn can create storms?” Bess asked.
       “They can do anything,” May said. “Each one channels a different power. Some alter the weather. Some manipulate fire. Some can make plants grow...”
       “Which one can control storms, then?”
       May shook her head. “I don't know. I know the king wants the moonstone more than anything right now. It is possible that the he, himself may have a skyborn working for him.”
       “Wait,” Tristen interrupted.
       “Who would stop him?” May continued. “What better weapon against fire than fire?”
       “No, I mean we shouldn't be talking about this here. May, that light on this house was a beacon to this whole village. If I saw it, that means others did, too.”
       “He's right,” May said, turning to Bess.
       “Come on,” Bess said, “I know someplace we can go.” Bess led them to the door, grabbing her axe on the way.
       Tristen took May's hand and kissed it. “I'm never leaving you again,” he told her.
       Bess opened her door to an unwelcome surprise. Three soldiers of the king were waiting in the street, ready with swords unsheathed. The unnatural rain still poured down on them.
       Bess lifted her axe. “Step aside!” She commanded.
       A soldier stood forward. “Release that girl, by order of the king.”
       “Never!” Tristen said, stepping in front of May with his sword extended.
       “Careful, boy,” the soldier said, “Is she really worth your life?”
       “She is worth twenty.”
       “She is also under my protection,” Bess said.
       May stood, terrified by the doorway. The soldiers readied their stance, as did Bess and Tristen. “So be it,” the soldier said.
       At once, all five moved in to fight. Bess latched her attacker's sword against the hilt of her axe and twisted it around to disarm him. The suddenly frightened soldier stumbled back away from her.
       Tristen had no such luck. He batted away the first sword and even made the soldier stumble back. He was strong, but another soldier was right behind him. He brought his sword down on Tristen's shoulder. It was a poor swing, but it effectively cut him open. Tristen screamed  and dropped his sword.
       Tristen found himself with a sword against his back. If he moved, he would be killed. The main solider saw May, unguarded. Bess jumped in front of her and held her back with one hand. With the other she extended her axe, ready to strike.
       The soldier held his stance, but noticeably hesitated. Without averting his eyes from the girl, he shouted, “Bind him!”
       The disarmed soldier grabbed a long strap of leather from a cart in the street. He bound Tristen's hands behind his back and kicked his legs so the young man fell to his knees.
       “You know what we want,” the solider told May, who stood behind Bess.
       “I can't...” May said.
       “Do you want him to die, right here in front of you?”
       “Then give me the stone!”
       Tristen said nothing. He came to protect her, not the stone. Bess was unsure. May reached into her dress pocket and held the moonstone. Would this one simple action start a war?
       Its power could protect Oskaria from skyborn magic to the East. But the King had other plans. He would use its magic to invade the troubled land. But right then, with Tristen on his knees in front of her, she knew she could never let him die.
       “If I give it to you, you will let him go?”
       “We will let him live,” the soldier corrected. “What would stop him from coming after us, once we let him go?”
       Bess almost resented his words. Was she invisible?
       May watched her love as she walked forward. She handed the solider the moonstone and he snatched it quickly. Immediately, the stone's power returned and the sky opened .
       A column of light fell heavily from above. Tristen's head was downcast, ashamed. May's hair was wet in curls on her shoulders. The soldiers seemed moved by the stone's sudden power. They glanced cautiously up at the sky, but held their swords ready to strike.
       They were gone minutes later. As they left, the storm covered them again like a blanket. May collapsed to the ground, her palms pressed into the dirt.
       Bess widened her eyes even further. In front of May, a small green plant sprouted out of the dirt. It continued to grow and stretch towards the wet sky. May was uninterested. Bess said nothing. What was there to say? There was so much about the girl that she didn't know.


       Later, Bess had a choice. After the sky cleared and May seemed to compose herself, she asked Bess to help her retrieve the stone and Tristen. May was finally alive and safe and she wanted to put them all in danger again.
       “May, are you sure you want this?” Bess asked her.
       “I cannot let him suffer for what I've done,” she said. Then as an afterthought she added, “And I made an oath to protect the stone.”
       “Do you really believe we can keep it?” Bess asked. “Even if we get it back, how long will it be until they take it again? The king has resources, many more than us. If he wants something...” She dangled the question as a suggestion. What two fools would stand against the king?
       May seemed unconvinced. “I... am not without resources.”
       Bess knew exactly what she was talking about. “The plants grow for you.”
       “Skyborn magic,” May said quickly. She turned away. “Not many know...”
       “Does Tristen?” Bess asked before she could stop herself.
       May shook her head. “I've never told him. People like me aren't welcome in this land.”
       “I'm sorry,” Bess said quietly.
       “No,” May said, suddenly excited as if something great had happened. “It is not something to be sorry for at all. This is a gift, a power most dream of.”
       “What exactly do you do?”
       “I channel the power of plant life. I make plants grow.” The words sounded strange on her lips. She'd imagined saying them many times, but had never heard them said.
       “Did you choose this power?”
       “... not directly.”
       “What does that mean?”
       May walked to the door. The bag of roots she bought at the market earlier had been tossed to the ground. “It means that plants grow for me if I ask them, but I never needed to ask. I can manipulate most nature, but only a little. I can even created a little rain if I have enough time.”
       She picked up the root and immediately it started to grow. Like a hundred tiny snakes, more roots wriggled out of the base and grasped onto her palm. Near the top a little green sprout unfolded. Then it stopped and May held it up as if it were a sculpture. “Some things come to people naturally,” she said. “You don't always know why.”
       She set the plant down and it latched onto the dirt. “We are not without resources,” she said. “I cannot stand idly by while the stone is taken from me.”
       “Then you will give your gift to the grave.” Bess could not take her eyes off of the plant, now motionless. “The stone is not worth your life. If they come at you, what will you do? Will you throw flowers at them?”
       In a sudden outburst, May turned to face her. “There is a reason why the moonstone is so precious. No matter what power they channel, skyborn are unstoppable if they are determined.”
       Bess left a grim expression on her face. “Do you really believe that?”
       She was quieter now. “Mostly. My mother would tell me that every night. But now she's dead and I don't know anymore.” She turned away. “She had so much faith in me and I've already... I've lost everything she left me.”
       “May,” Bess started.
       “Please,” May said. “I cannot do this alone. If you won't do it for the stone, do it for Tristen. If he is free, he can protect me. I won't be a burden for you anymore.”
       Bess realized quickly that if the young man was free, May would no longer need to stay with her. She didn't want her to go. Was it wrong of her to wish him riddance?
       May stepped in front of Bess and grabbed both her hands, rather, her fingers. She stared at Bess with large, troubled eyes. Her fingers were still wet from the rain. “Please,” she asked with a wavering voice, “Will you do this last thing for me? That's all I ask and will ever ask again.”


       Tristen lay on his side with his hands tied behind his back. He had been placed in a wooden cart with high sides, so all he could see were the trees steadily passing by above him. Yet he hardly looked. He felt nothing.
       “Woa,” a soldier called to his horse. The cart bounced to a stop shortly after.
       “What is it?” Another asked.
       “I... let me check.” Tristen heard him get off his horse. “It's a black albus.”
       At this, Tristen struggled to sit up and see. He twisted around and stretched his neck so he could look over the side. All three soldiers were off of their horses now, inspecting a black flower with looks of awe and fear.
       The black albus was incredibly rare, said to be an omen even. The albus was usually a white flower, void of decoration except for lines of gold on the tip of each leaf. Only very occasionally, the albus would grow completely black. It was said that a great misfortune would befall anyone who kills a black albus flower.
       “We almost trampled it,” a soldier said, relieved.
       “You believe the tales?”
       “You don't?”
       “Well... it's best to avoid it, either way. Come, get back on your horse.”
       May watched under the cover of a bush she had grown. The three soldiers found the black albus. All three of them jumped off of their horses. All three of them were very distracted. It was not everyday one sees that flower.
       “It worked,” Bess whispered. “Remind me not to cross you.”
       Bess held her axe, alert. The lean muscles in her arm were tensed and ready to strike. “Likewise,” May told her with a smile. “Go, quickly before they continue.”
       Bess crept behind the cart and waited for one to discover her. May had never killed a man, yet if all went to plan, she was welcoming fresh blood on her hands.
       These three men were starting a war. Many more would suffer and die if they took the moonstone back to the king. Killing them would effectively save thousands. She repeated this thought in her mind, over and over. Yet no matter how just it seemed, she still did not feel right.
       But the war had already started, she was merely striking first.
       When the soldier moved to the back of the cart, Bess was already swinging her axe down upon him. His throat was cut and severed before he knew she was there.
       The other two heard and scrambled to defend themselves, drawing their swords to face their sudden foe. Bess wasted no time charging at one. She screamed and threw her axe down on him. He was quick, though, with senses already on edge from the black albus. Their weapons collided and Bess saw another one coming up beside her. She pushed with all her might and jumped back, allowing them to regain their stance.
       May watched, feeling helpless. She's made sure to plant the black albus before they reached them on the path, because now that they were there and the moonstone was active and in their presence, she was powerless around them.
       The other soldier attacked Bess, enraged after a quick glance to see the first one dead. Bess rushed him and slammed her shoulder into his. She received a slap of the blade on her forearm, but far less of an injury than she would have gotten.
       They continued to fight, exchanging advantages and blows. He was a much better fighter than both of the other two. Meanwhile, the spare soldier jumped into the cart and grabbed Tristen. He dug the blade into Tristen's neck, just enough to make it bleed.
       “Drop your weapon if you want him to live!” He screamed.
       Both Bess and the soldier stopped fighting, but neither dropped their weapon.
       “I said drop it!”
       Bess had no doubt that the soldier's blade would find it's way into her belly if she let go of her axe. But she wasn't sure if May knew that, watching from the forest.
       “So be it!” The soldier yelled. He put more pressure on the blade and Tristen squeezed his eyes shut from pain.
       “No!” May called, involuntarily.
       Both of the soldiers glared towards her. “There's more of them,” one said.
       “It's just the girl,” the other said.
       May needed to do something, and while she could do nothing to the woods around the stone, she was not entirely helpless.
       A great roar sounded deep in the forest. May's eyes were closed as she felt the woods far away. It was not actually a roar, but several trees that decided to bend completely in a circle. Their wood and bark cracked and moaned. The echoes sounded like a giant beast.
       “What is that?”
       Bess smiled. She had no idea, but she knew May was involved.
       The roar sounded again, this time much closer.
       “Liam,” the soldier in the cart said. “Get the stone and ride to the castle. Do not stop for anything on the way.”
       “And leave you here?”
       “Do as I say!”
       The soldier backed away slowly from Bess and grabbed the moonstone, which was in a satchel on the dead soldier. He grabbed the largest horse and took off without another word. The hooves pounded into the dirt as they went. And May felt the forest awaken around her.
       Beneath the cart, several acorns were scattered in the dirt. May only needed one. As the soldier considered what he would do with Tristen, the acorn started to grow.
       “You killed a friend of mine,” the soldier said, “For that he will pay.”
       Tristen's whole body tensed. Bess watched coldly. The cart moaned, for a small tree was growing beneath it.
       The soldier looked down, realizing that something strange was happening. The cart shifted, then jerked enough to knock the soldier to his knees. “What is this?” He screamed.
       Branches crept up the sides, then over. The soldier was awestruck and he let go of Tristen, looking for an escape. As if it had been told to at that moment, the tree snapped the cart in two, breaking the wooden siding and sending the two men rolling to the floor.
       The disarmed soldier wasted no time scrambling away from the tree and running down the path. He left his horse and turned his head once as he left to make sure no one was chasing him. Or perhaps he turned to see how large the tree had grown. Either way, neither Bess nor May were watching him anymore.
       “Tristen!” May called, running forward and embracing the bound man in the dirt. “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
       “May,” he said with a desperate smile. May touched the blood on his neck. It was not deep. “How did you do it?”
       “Later,” May said. She started to work on the leather around his wrists. “Tristen, I was so scared I lost you.”
       Tristen's hands were free and he used them to grab May and kiss her fiercely. “I'm just so glad I got to see you again.” May kissed him again and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He accepted her warmly, but then held her hands away. “May, who did this?” He glanced at the tree. “Someone extremely powerful conjured this either to kill me or to save me...”
       May looked to Bess with a look that asked her to say nothing. “It... might be because of the stone,” she lied. “It can wreck havoc on its surroundings if used improperly.”
       Tristen touched the tree bark, now static and unmoving. “One more reason to get it quickly.”
       “The stone is gone,” Bess said. “We don't know where it is or where he's going.”
       “No,” May said. “We do know where it is going. The king will take it to Ashland.”
       “With an army,” Bess said. “You sound as if you want to intercept him there.”
       May did not smile, but shook her head instead. “I don't expect you to follow me anymore,” she said. “You've already done so much for me.”
       Hand in hand, the young girl and young man watched her, waiting for her next words. What would Bess do? She barely knew herself. “I can't go home,” Bess said. “My house will be ransacked in a day by the king. I did kill one of his soldiers.”
       “I'm so sorry,” May said.
       “It was my choice.”
       Tristen cleared his throat. “You are, of course, welcome to come with us.”
       Bess looked at him. He was brave, she would give him that. And he certainly seemed worthy enough for May. Still, he was just stupid enough to get May into trouble. She needed her, just as she did before.
       “Where are you going?” She asked them.
       May bit her lip. “There are three roads that lead to Ashland through the mountains. I don't know which one he'll take, but all of them are East. We'll have to listen for any word on where they might be going.”
       “He will need to send word to his soldiers around the castle, first,” Bess said. “We'll have a better chance of following them if we head South to to Bealcrest.”
       “We?” May asked.
       Bess took a deep breath. “I told you I'd protect you, and it sounds like you're going to go get yourself killed.”
       May smiled broadly. She squeezed Tristen's hand. “Then South it is.”
       They took the two remaining horses and went South, leaving the tree standing where it was. They stopped briefly in Billinwood so Bess could take what she needed from her house. It was funny, she'd lived there her whole life and there was little there she cared about. She should have been sad or at least regretful to leave so much behind, but nothing in her past mattered to her anymore. Everything she cared about now was right there beside her on the road.