At breakfast that day, Helena noticed one of the twenty-eight sufferers of the Fever currently staying in her barn had come through the worst of it. She’d expected exhaustion to keep him sleeping until she arrived with dinner; instead, he sought her out, picking his way across the fallow fields toward where she stood on the centuries-old pre-magic slab of concrete she used for the pyres. She judged his distance and speed, weak from illness, then continued prodding through the ashy remains of yesterday’s pyre with what had once been a fireplace poker. Best to clear away as much as she could, to spare him the sight.
In direct sunlight, the still air of the afternoon left her sweaty, but at least she could avoid any plumes of ash puffing up before they coated her throat. The larger bones couldn’t be scooped up with the shovel, so she nudged those out of the mound with the poker and, gloved, set them in the wheelbarrow first. Then she shoveled up the rest of the ash, making a steady rhythm of the scrape of metal along concrete until it was bare—or at least evenly coated with a layer too thin to be scooped up. Once she’d dealt with this survivor, she would return to trundle the load out to the corner of her family’s land where she was burying Fever victims this season.
She shouldn’t really call the fields fallow, she reflected as she leaned on her shovel and waited for the survivor to cross the last hundred yards. That implied an intentionality that had vanished from the world with her last sister-in-law. Instead, they were tangles of autumn-browned scrub. This man had started lean and a bit hard—the first ones to flee from the cities across the pass were softer and richer, but that had been three years ago now—and his survival seemed to have left him distilled rather than haggard, though his color was still a bit gray beneath the brown.
The man’s dark hair was rendered even darker by wetness; he must have washed at the pump by the house. A few droplets lingered on his neck, but the rest had been sopped up by a quilt thrown over his bare shoulders, one of the many she’d tasked with keeping those in the barn warm. Its white was yellow and its yellows and reds were translucent from too many washings that couldn’t remove every trace of Fever sweats.
She had a vague memory that when this man first arrived, staggering up the road from the pass, he’d been in company with another man who’d gone on the pyre a few days ago now, but she couldn’t be sure. She’d have noted it down, however, and could check at the house. She always asked names as she showed them to the barn, for those notes. If they weren’t lucid enough to answer, she searched possessions when she later tallied them up as each body disappeared into the pyre. That had been her brother’s idea, in case anyone ever arrived to ask after one of the dead.
No one had yet, but perhaps when the Fever burned itself out, someone would. In the meantime, too many names had arrived, too many names had gone on the pyre, for Helena to keep any in her head.
She didn’t have her youngest brother’s inborn gentleness either, but she tried to make her voice kind. Soon enough, grief would be ravaging what the Fever had left. “Follow me to the house and I’ll get you your things, as well as his. The man you came with, I mean...?” She trailed off for him to supply the relationship.
“My husband.” The quilt slipped off one of the man’s shoulders and he smoothed it back again, restless. He was nude to the waist, shirt no doubt unbearably permeated with the Fever sweats—no less so than the rest of his clothes, but the farm retained some semblance of civilization, pulling them into the corresponding mores. “His things?—he’s not—I couldn’t find him among the others in the barn—” He sidestepped to see around her, face crumpling.
As if ash and bones would be recognizable. Helena propped the shovel with the poker against the barrow, stripped off her gloves, and stepped up to him to herd him toward the house. “What’s your name? I’m Helena.” She wished the survivors felt more like successes and less like one more bump in the wheel of the seasons.
Each spring so far, when the pass cleared, those who had escaped the cities but not the Fever started to arrive. They died, or they didn’t, and Helena burned them or handed their things back before they headed down the road to fight for a place among the farmsteads and ranches that didn’t want the cities’ survivors. Her oldest brother and sister-in-law, they’d been good at celebrating the small victories, but she didn’t have the knack.
Eventually, when the Fever burned itself out, she’d have to figure out something to do with herself in the long term. Or maybe one winter, in agonizing solitude, she’d decide enough was enough and set her own stopping point.
“Benedict. My husband’s name is Sam.” He scratched at the scraggle of his beard, expression souring with disgust as if that one point of divergence from his normal, clean appearance had come to stand for all the rest.
Was Sam. Helena didn’t correct him. “We can get you some clean clothes as well as a razor.”
Her blood magic wards plucked at her heartbeat briefly as Benedict crossed the threshold of the house behind her. She’d strengthen them again tonight once he was gone. After she’d buried the ashes, after she’d taken dinner out to the barn and checked to see if anyone had died today. As long as there were chores to do, it wasn’t time to stop yet.
She’d moved into the room nearest the kitchen, once a sitting room, to save on heating, which left the rest of the house for filing. She led Benedict to the former dining room, the rough piles of possessions left by the latest deaths. She didn’t clean inside enough—didn’t clean at all—leaving the house smelling musty, but at least it was a must of people’s absence, not of active death. “I haven’t had a chance to wash anything from the most recent ones who— Well, I haven’t washed your husband’s clothes yet.” She gathered up the clothing anyway, bunching it around a simple wedding ring and a chain with a pendant of a rearing stallion. When she handed them over, Benedict couldn’t seem to figure out how to make his arms encompass both the quilt and his dead husband’s possessions, never mind an added burden of grief, so he let the quilt slip to the floorboards.
She retrieved her notebook and flipped to the correct page. Sam & Ben, possessions left outside: one horse, one cart, two long coats, one shotgun—no ammo, as was so often the way. It continued at length. She winced. He wasn’t going to be happy, as she couldn’t provide all those things. “I bartered your horse to my neighbors, I’m afraid. I have nothing to feed people’s animals with, and I’m no good at caring for them anyway. That was my middle sister and the children. You can take whatever clothes and other things you can carry, though, in recompense. I’ve sorted things roughly upstairs. I’ll see if I can spare any extra food...”
“You expect me to buy back my own horse?” There was a growl beginning in Benedict’s voice, as she’d anticipated. Well, this was why she had the wards, even if each time she hoped anew she wouldn’t need them.
“Better that than trying to catch it, if I’d set it free.” Helena smoothed the notebook open with a firm movement and sought out what she could within this room, muttering to herself. “Two cans of beans—”
“What gives you the right to redistribute the property of the dead without family? And keep all the valuables for yourself, no doubt!” The growl became the vibration of true rage, and Benedict was suddenly right there, yanking at her wrist to pull her close. He glowered at the opal chips set into her stud earrings, all too exposed with her hair back in its usual tight tail. “Why would a farmer be wearing jewels? What dead traveler did these come from?”
“Take your hands off me!” With her free hand, she drew out her blood-magic working knife, flicked it open. He wouldn’t understand its primary purpose, but its secondary one was threatening enough. “These were my sister’s.” Why did anyone in a farming family wear jewels, then? Because they were blood mages, not simply farmers. Before the Fever, before their deaths one by one, some turned their blood magic to farming tasks, and some ranged out from the farm as a base, selling their skills as far as the cities beyond the pass. That bought opal studs.
Before the Fever, Helena would soon have ranged—
No. She didn’t even think that. Wishing the world was other than it was accomplished nothing.
Neither did wrangling with grieving survivors, but perhaps she could talk him down yet. He wasn’t wrong to question her motives; she knew how it looked.
“I haven’t taken a single thing besides food.” Not even clothing, as her own and what she’d altered from her family went the way of the quilts, translucent when it didn’t tear. None of this belonged to her; dying did not mean the owners had gifted it to her by default.
Benedict backed up, arms held first open and unthreatening and then crossed over his chest as he perhaps acutely felt his lack of shirt or anything to slow the blade. “You’re still collecting everything together, though. All ready to sell, a few years down the road?”
“I keep records of everything so I can return it to anyone who asks.” She tipped her head to the notebook. “As for the food, I need it. Cooking, doing laundry, burning and burying the bodies—it’s not like I have time to keep a garden or gather eggs.”
Benedict drew himself up, taller than her by a good half a foot. “A price for the nursing you provided? I wasn’t delirious the entire time—what did you even do to earn it? Dropped off food and blankets, pointed the way to the privy, and fucked off? What about those without slightly healthier companions? Who feeds them and helps them to the privy while you sit here and catalog your hoard?”
“I’m one person. Did you count everyone in the barn? Twenty-seven, now you’re on your feet.” Helena rocked a step in his direction, to ease him subconsciously toward the door, but he was too set in his judging to move. “How am I supposed to individually care for that many? My brother tried, he was good at that kind of thing, but even he couldn’t. I do as much as I can!” And of course she wished she could do more. His objections were only her own guilt given voice.
Now he was pushing forward, looming. Helena didn’t give ground any more than he had. “I’m so glad you’ve found a way to pat yourself on the back for doing nothing! Sam—Sam was recovering, with a little help, maybe he could have made it—” A sob eased into his voice and he strangled it back down. “Instead you took his body before I could—how do I know he was even dead?”
And there it was. She wasn’t talking to Benedict now, she was talking to the grief, and the grief was never going to listen. Helena drew a line along the meat of her opposite thumb with her working knife. This wasn’t going to make this situation better, but she had no choice.
“Did you help him die? And the others? If they came in with something especially valuable?!” Screaming, now.
“I helped save your sorry life!” Helena curled her fingers on that hand into the line of blood and flicked them outward at Benedict. No droplets freed themselves, but she was only activating the wards, so she didn’t need much. The ward spell pulsed her heart once, too hard and out of rhythm, then Benedict was slammed backward, out of the front door, as if she’d thrown the force of a gale at him instead.
He landed on his ass on the rutted dirt of the front path and skidded. She watched him through the slight distortion of the ward across the doorway for a few seconds, making sure that he coughed and choked his way into breathing properly after the impact to his chest. Now. He could pick himself up and retreat, or—
“You’re a shitting blood mage? How many people could that save if you didn’t waste it on violence?” He scrambled up, threw himself at the ward. A sheen of red light clotted around his touch, growling in a low buzz as it held him back. Her heartbeat wavered at the same low frequency for a second before she breathed it away.
“None!” She was screaming herself now. How could she make him understand how much she wished her magic could do a single thing to help? “Blood mages may be able to heal flesh and bone, using what meager quantity of our own blood we can spare, but we can’t stop sickness of any kind.”
Enough. She had things to do, a whole list. She whirled, back to the dining room. She gathered up Sam’s clothes and the other listed items and returned to the front door. Benedict met her eyes in panting silence, grief keeping his muscles wound tight.
Helena first tossed the soft items through the wards to the dirt, then threw the food cans at his belly, keeping him too occupied with dodging to renew his verbal attack. Then she shut the door firmly, leaving him to no doubt pace the wards. She could work on the soup for tonight’s dinner until he stopped hanging around outside.
Benedict showed himself in the doorway of the barn that evening as Helena approached with the heavy pot of soup. She always had to let it cool to lukewarm before carrying it, weight balanced into her belly as she clasped the two handles. Past years, it had been her and her brother both, a handle each, and the soup just off boiling.
She set it down immediately on seeing him, grabbed her working knife, but Benedict stepped out and away from the barn, hands held non-threateningly. “You should know, I’m staying, to take care of the others,” he said, raising his voice to carry to her with a brush of defiance.
The sun was setting, and the sudden loss of the pot’s warmth, scant as it was, made her shiver. Benedict was wearing his original shirt, still damp in patches as if he’d washed it at the pump. At the neck, it showed a chain that Helena deduced must now hold Sam’s ring as well as his pendant. The huge barn with its weathered patchwork of additions and repairs, raw orange on pitch brown, stood in solemn solidity behind him, throwing gold cheatgrass into deep shadow to one side.
“Knock yourself out, but stay away from the house. And me,” Helena said. Looking at his face, she guessed he’d shoved the grief somewhere deep, cultivating the defiance as a cover. Unhealthy, her brother would have said, but who was he to talk? He was dead.
Benedict stayed well back as ordered while she set the soup inside, retrieved the bowls and ladle, washed them at the pump, then set out the bowls, filled, in a line for those who were awake and lucid enough to feed themselves or others. The smell inside was—well, it was how the barn always smelled. Sweat. Sickness. Soiled blankets. Death by degrees. She breathed shallowly through her mouth as she walked the two rows of pallets. One row held sufferers to a sort of order, providing even spacing along the line of people with faces carved down to tight misery or glazed feverishness, their bodies twisted in restless discomfort or far too still under their quilts. The other row ran more raggedly in and around former stalls, often chosen by those who wanted to sit by a loved one before they succumbed too, a rough privacy for family groupings.
Helena held a small hand mirror above the mouth of anyone who was still, wiped away the condensation with a sleeve pulled over the heel of her palm, and moved to the next. No new deaths today.
As she walked, Benedict’s voice, his grief, twisted through her mind like the roots of a weed you couldn’t pull from the kitchen garden. Why wasn’t she staying to spoon the soup into people’s mouths? What if someone, the sole survivor of their party, was dying right now, not from the Fever but from hunger?
But Benedict was going to try to do that now. For her part, she still hadn’t buried the ashes from the last pyre. Or gathered wood for the next and for the stove tomorrow, to cook the next dinner. She didn’t have much daylight left to do either. A heroic effort to save one set of victims only left them all shivering completely without heat a week later, or fighting off predators that came to eat the bodies she didn’t have the strength to bury deep enough. She set the hand mirror back in its place on a window sill near the door and stepped outside, nodding to Benedict to release him to enter.
He dipped his head in reciprocal acknowledgment. Helena figured it was best to presume he’d hidden his grief, his disgust with her, in the long shadows of the sunset. That was all right. They could help travelers without liking each other.
Three weeks later, when Benedict collapsed, they had only twenty-one in the barn, travelers having tailed off to nothing as autumn thinned out. Helena had just arrived with the pot of breakfast, the porridge today a bit odd as she’d had to add rice to supplement dwindling oats. She’d grown used to handing the first two full bowls into Benedict’s hands these past weeks, but today he staggered to the doorway of the barn when she was filling the fifth one.
She held it out to him. “You eat first.” The words were becoming a ritual for her now. Sometimes he listened, sometimes he didn’t. She didn’t comment that his color was, if anything, perhaps worse than that of his patients, when seen in the sunlight; the dark stains beneath his eyes reminded her of farm ponds dried to fetid mud at the height of summer.
He blinked at her, then—folded. On the way down, his shoulder slammed into the doorjamb, and that seemed to jar some consciousness back into his eyes. He fetched up on his ass, legs awkwardly folded under, and clung to the wood beside his shoulder.
She’d told him so, but she didn’t say anything now. She set the bowl down and crouched before him. “Have you been sleeping?”
He managed to focus on her face. “On and off, whenever I can.”
That was something, at least. “And eating, on and off. What about drinking water?”
Blankness, in reply. Right. Helena rose and dipped him out a cup from the stack by the water barrel on the other side of the door. She should haul a few more buckets from the pump for it today. Maybe before she did the laundry.
“Cordelia died last night.” Benedict’s voice was a thin thread, but it didn’t break. “Brandon in the early morning. And—the little girl—no one was left who knew her name...” When Helena placed his hands around the cup, he roused enough to lift it to his lips and drink under his own power. One sip and then he was gulping, thirst apparently awakened.
A pyre before laundry today, then. Eighteen left in the barn. Helena refilled the cup for Benedict, then went back to spooning out porridge.
“He looked just like Sam.” As Benedict’s voice gained power, it also gained the potential to fracture. It broke after his husband’s name. Helena doubted there had been any resemblance at all, other than what the Fever wrought on anyone. “I couldn’t— I don’t even know exactly when he died, I was working on the other side of the barn. If I’d checked people starting at the door instead, I might have been able to do—something.”
“I know,” Helena said. She did.
“He’s dead— Sam’s dead—” Benedict broke into dry, wracking sobs.
“I know.” Not dismissive; simply the best sympathy she had. Helena crouched before him once more. “Go up to the house, try to sleep as long as you can, all right?” When he nodded, she helped him to his feet. He’d be back to the barn soon enough, she supposed.
Benedict did go back to the barn, but for less time each day, and he continued to sleep at the house. As winter neared and the dark pressed in from both ends of the day, the need to gather enough firewood to last them through the season grew more and more pressing, and eventually that task consumed all of his waking time. Helena never spoke to him about the fact that he’d abandoned nursing, or indeed anything else of importance. Coordinating chores was more than enough to make up their conversations, day after day. She suspected he’d found a way to exorcise his grief in the solitude of dragging wood back, the physicality of swinging the ax to split it. Once, she heard him screaming his anger out into the uncaring universe as the world leaked its colors away into the blue of twilight. She left him to it.
Today, a few hours before dinner, she was doing laundry in a big metal tub once used to water livestock, her hair bunned up tight against a breeze that smelled like the birth of snow in the mountains. Benedict, companionable in a way she didn’t understand, had dropped a barrow-load of wood nearby, though he was currently seated on one of the logs, absorbed in the small movements of splitting kindling instead.
Helena drew a line with her working knife along her inner forearm and shook a few droplets over the clothes soaking in the tub, already turning the water a bit yellow-gray. She concentrated as she took up the broken handle of a shovel and churned the clothes, making sure the magic-laced water seeped into every pore of the fabric. Dirt clumped with the magic and drifted steadily to the surface. She scooped it off with a curve of bark that had split off one of Benedict’s logs.
“How do you manage to avoid having any scars?” Benedict had laid his ax across his thighs, and his eyes were on her now-unmarked arm.
“I add a little bit of healing at the end of every spell. When you’re trained properly, it becomes second nature.” It was such a normal question, it bumped Helena off balance for a second.
She started wringing out the pieces of clothing, stacking them damp in a basket to carry to the line. She could use magic to dry them too—and would, once snow fell—but for now she could save the effort. She lifted a stylish jacket of a peacock shade and considered it in the sunlight. “My sister loved this color.”
“It looks like it would fit you. As it gets colder, you could use something without holes. Unless it belongs to someone with family who might still recover?” Benedict went back to his kindling.
“No, the last one in her party died a month ago. This is a catch-up load of laundry.” Helena set the jacket aside to wring out the next item. “But I don’t take anything except food, you know that.”
Benedict gave a vindicated little “ha!”, and she realized he’d only been pretending to focus on his task. “I never understood how you could forget people’s names and fates seconds after adding them to your records. But something deep in your mind is doing it on purpose, isn’t it? You can’t stand to count the dead, but remembering a list of shirts and shoes, that’s safe. Hell, I’ve never even heard you use a name for one of your family members.”
Helena rocked back a step, hand going for her working knife, as if she could hit him with a spell every time he said something that stung. She forced herself to lift her hand away. “You keep saying I’m not doing enough for them, what about you? How much are you doing for them?”
Benedict let out a long breath and set his ax aside but didn’t rise. “I did say that once, and then I tried it. And now, it seems you read that into everything, no matter what I actually say. What’s enough to avoid the judgment you’re afraid of, then? I don’t think Sam would have wanted me to freeze to death this winter.” He scrubbed a hand along his jaw, clean-shaven since the first morning after his recovery. “What’s enough to keep your guilt at bay? We’re both grieving, only you don’t seem to admit it. No one is ever going to come back to get that jacket. When do you get to have nice things again? When do you get to love things, to be good at things?”
Helena couldn’t make sense of his words. “What?”
“You say your sister loved that color, your brother was good with the horses. But I’ve never heard you say something about your own opinions and skills. You would still be honoring their memories even if you left space in your own life for yourself.”
Helena stopped, drew her next breath deep.
Smoke, carried on the breeze. But wildfire season was past. With winter coming on, they’d started stoking a stove in the barn, but that trickle of smoke was a constant her nose had learned to ignore. This was more, much more.
“The barn—” It had not just a stove but also a few lamps now, to counteract the failing sunlight. “If someone knocked over a lamp—” She was running now, cursing making a syncopated rhythm with her steps. Benedict soon passed her with his longer legs but stopped when he spotted the barn.
Helena kept going. They still had time. Yes, pale smoke, rapidly darkening, was pluming upward from the far edge of the roof, but no flames were visible, yet. The front wall, door closed to keep the heat from the stove in, was untouched. Crackling reached her, eager and growing, but as she ran she shut it out and focused on the door handle, across the length of the barn’s yard. They still had time.
“With that much smoke, it’ll be all along the back wall! The other walls will be catching in moments. Helena, stop!”
Benedict’s voice spurred her on instead of stopping her. “That means we need to get them out before then!” The crackling had reached a near roar, forcing Helena to reply in a bellow. A single gout of flame burst free on a side wall near the roof, its orange against the blackening wood and darkening gray smoke searing the eyes.
But the door. The door was untouched.
Helena had imagined the heat might be a wall, one she could choose to push through, but instead it encompassed her completely with no warning, hazing her sight and scalding the skin of her cheeks and hands. Her next breath came hard, burning her throat with the heat and smoke both, but she could still see the door.
“It’ll be even worse inside! They’re already dead from the heat or the smoke! They’re already dead, Helena!”
She’d never make it to that door in time at the rate she was moving. The whole top half of the barn’s side wall was a mass of that licking, searing orange, and individual plumes of smoke from the roof had merged into one thick, roiling column. She’d already slowed, stopped, so she drew out her working knife. She cut along her thumb and flicked the magic down over herself, ending with a smear over her lower lip. That would keep the heat and smoke back. Another step toward the door, a second. So slow. Even if the air she drew into her lungs didn’t directly burn any longer, the heat beat like physical blows against her magic.
And then her magic shattered, her heart stuttering as if she’d been punched in the chest. In her next breath, the air burned again. She stumbled—stumbled back, pulled by Benedict, and she didn’t have any air to resist him until he’d dragged them nearly back across the yard and she’d coughed and coughed and finally managed several breaths that scoured her injured throat so deeply it felt like it must bleed soon.
She pulled away from his hold, slashed at him with the knife still in her hand. “My magic was working—” Too much pain to keep speaking, but she had to make him understand.
“You would have to bleed yourself dry to reach the door, and then when you open it and let in the air, the fire would engulf you, as well as the people inside who are already dead.” Benedict caught her around the waist, dragging her farther. Her flailing with the knife didn’t deter him, and while she could have stabbed him, she didn’t want—didn’t want to hurt— She didn’t want anyone to be hurt, why couldn’t he see—
“Stop punishing yourself for living when your family died. Stop punishing yourself for not doing enough for these people either! Giving your life won’t save them, and it won’t bring your family back!” Benedict had to shout into her ear. Orange had found the door, just one tongue, while the rest of the building was orange shooting so high it became yellow and the smoke was black, black, as black as the remaining wood.
Now she was sobbing. Or choking on the smoke, or both at the same time. Her burned throat couldn’t tell the difference. “They’re dead,” he said again. “They were dying anyway. Let them go, let them all go!”
“I fucking know my family is dead!” She screamed it at the fire, relishing the pain seizing her throat because she was wild with it, wild with the feeling of it filling her whole vision like the end of all things instead of the end of one barn and nine dying—dead—strangers. Maybe she needed that in order to crack herself open, break the grief free. “Peter! Susanna!” Every sibling, every sibling’s partner, every child. Every name.
The columns rising to the sky from the barn weren’t just smoke now; they were a whirling mixture of flame reaching to half the barn’s height above it.
Nothing left of the barn itself, only flame in a barn shape, so bright as to wash out the remaining daylight and make the sky look like night beyond the smoke.
Then, slowly, the wildest of the flames diminished. Somehow, the structure still stood, posts and boards reduced to a black skeleton silhouetted against the flame. A pyre leaving bones; only these would eventually be consumed as well, and that would be an end to it. Like the end, finally, she needed to give to her guilt.
When Benedict relaxed his hold, tentatively, she whirled on him. “You know what I was? I was a good blood mage. With wards, not healing. A damn good blood mage. The best of all of us.” She got those words out through the pain; then coughing swallowed anything further.
And while she regathered her breath, she saw that sparks had spattered into the summer’s tinder-dry cheatgrass and birthed flames now racing outward, low along the ground. The barn was gone; now she’d have to move fast to save the house. And that would be impossible without breathing hard, so she pricked her thumb and swallowed a few drops to pull her damaged throat back to something useable.
Then she was running back toward the house even as she planned—planned properly this time, rather than grasping at the first action that seemed likely to silence the guilt of being here when her family was not, of all the travelers she couldn’t save. Wards were about readiness triggered, not direct opposition, so once she was far enough ahead of the flames—
Yes, here, using part of the cracked pavement of a pre-magic road. At the last moment, Helena spared a quick thought for Benedict. “This will look like a lot of blood, but it’s not dangerous.”
Dubious didn’t begin to describe his expression, but he didn’t interfere as she set her feet, slashed her cheek, smeared her whole palm with the blood. That, she cast in a great line along the road, a huge gesture that drew most of her heartbeat away with it. She collapsed to her knees as the ward snapped up, arcing wide until it encircled the barn and the spreading flames. The flames reached it a breath later, splashing up and back like a flood against a wall. Another breath and the ward snapped out of existence, but that terrifying splatter of fire had taken the grass in that circle down to blackened soil. Low flames continued to coil and chew at the collapsed mound of the barn, but none jumped the pavement firebreak.
Benedict was holding her up, she realized. And shaking her. “Helena! How was that not dangerous?”
Helena smacked a fist against her chest to remind her heart of its duty, though it was slowly grinding its way back to normal already. “I’m fine, I know how much blood I can spare. When I’m doing the kind of things I’m actually good at. Since the Fever, my talents haven’t been very... applicable.” She was crying again. When had that happened?
“It won’t last forever.” Benedict folded his long legs down properly, settled her back against his chest. It wasn’t as intimate as crying on someone’s shoulder, but somehow it was exactly what she needed. He wasn’t facing her, they were looking outward, toward... that world, perhaps. Where the Fever had burned itself out and people had picked themselves back up.
Her voice thinned to nothing, around the tears, but she got it out. “We need to hole up for the winter, now, but come spring— I think I’d like to pull together supplies from everything I’ve kept—new clothes, to start—and head back over the pass. Use my magic to help rebuild.” She scrubbed at her nose before snot obscured her words entirely. “Would you want to come with me? I’ll leave the house open for travelers to continue to use; you could stay to help them. Or move on alone. But you asked what I loved— I loved being a part of the chaos and joy of my family. You might prefer to find a new partner and family of your own, but—”
“But maybe I’ll find a partner in the city. Maybe this damn good blood mage I know will be beating suitors off with a stick and I’ll console a loser.” Benedict’s laugh creaked like a rusty pump no one had primed. She understood the feeling. “We’ll see.”
Together, as Helena cried herself out, they looked outward toward that world.