III. THE TRAIL OF FIRE
In her twenty-third year, Avis was knighted. The same day she was knighted, Flora was being prepared to be sent away to be wed. King Philip's first task for her as a knight was to ensure Flora's safe delivery to her fiancé. Faolán was also to accompany them. With Flora's fiancé an ally of King Mark and tensions still existing between the kingdoms, Flora was to be transported in absolute secrecy. The kingdoms were already on the verge of war. The wedding was meant to be a public gesture toward peace, according to what Silvanus told the court.
Flora was not present for Avis's knighting, kept busy by her father's servants. Silvanus had a joyous expression when she came in. The queen and their son sat beside the king, happy as could be. That space was one she had often came through. In the five years she had guarded Flora, not once had the king invited his own daughter there. Of all days, Flora should have been there. Flora should have been the one to knight her.
Avis shed no tears nor smiled. When the ceremony was over, she packed her things for the trip in silence. Her father came to her room to check on her. She ignored his presence.
"So, that's it then? You're really going to let her go?" He stood beside her. "Tell me, Avis, what are you really planning? Will this night be one of fire?"
"No, Father. I will not burn anyone's lands. I have a duty to the king to fulfill." Avis finished packing her bags. She fixed her hair after that.
"Not this again. Avis, you know she's the one. Go on and steal her." He got between her and the mirror.
"I can't do such a thing. You yourself were the one who told me our time was limited. I serve the king. If I were to do that, war will break out." Avis turned away from him.
"War will always exist." He put his hands on her shoulders. "Avis, listen to me..."
"I can't base my actions solely around what I want." Avis raised her voice at him as she knocked his hands away.
"But you can base them around what she wants, can you not?" His words carried more determination than hers.
"She has not said to me that is what she wishes for."
"Does she know you would be willing to do that for her?"
"Of course she knows that. I would do anything for her." Avis could not face him. She felt weaker than she had felt before. When she was at her lowest point on the battlefield, she did not feel this sense of shame. There was still a shred of hope in her then that she could do something for Flora. That hope was nearly gone now.
Faolán calmed his tone. Avis was stressed from the situation. He would only make it worse if he yelled at her. "Have you said it?"
"No, but I..."
"You must tell her. You can decide your fate after that." He put his hands on her shoulders again. She didn't push him away this time. He lowered his voice, knowing she would not want to hear what he was about to say. "But if not now, you will take her. You are not meant to stay within such walls."
"I will not burn any kingdom." Avis proclaimed in a matter-of-fact tone.
"The land will burn. I know it will." She flinched at his words. "Avis, you mustn't be afraid of what you will have to do. I can help you. Let me be your shield once more."
"You misunderstand me. I'm not afraid of becoming a monster for Flora's sake. I would do anything for her." Avis stared down at the floor.
"Then...you are afraid of what she will think of you if you do."
Avis walked away from him, sitting down on her bed. "It isn't fair. I shouldn't have to go to those kind of lengths to keep her near me."
"Avis, that's simply how life is. What you love will always cause you the most pain. You must endure it." He sat down beside her.
"And I am." Avis crossed her arms. She spoke coldly. "I will not be like you."
Faolán got up from the bed. He turned away from her and moved to the door. "Forgive me."
"Wait...I didn't...I'm sorry. I did not mean to say that." Avis got up. She ran over to him.
"You don't need to apologize. I have no place in telling you such things. I simply can't bear to see you like this. I suppose that is me being selfish again." He patted her on the head.
"All humans are selfish." Avis hugged him. He didn't expect it. He petted her hair as she clung to him. Avis confessed, "You're right. I am...afraid of what I might do. I don't want to burn anything..."
"Shh. You know, it's not as if that woman said how those flames started. Perhaps, that fire will be started by someone else."
Avis felt a chill over her body. "Father...what are you..."
"Go see the princess. I'm sure right now, more than anything, she wants to see you." He gave her a smile.
"I will..." Avis bowed to him, in a strange display of formality. She left the room first.
Faolán did shortly after. He returned to his room. Avis's words echoed in his thoughts.
'I will not be like you.'
The words burned through him in a way no physical pain could compare to. He prepared his own things in silence. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. The reflection weighed against his thoughts, clawing for his attention. It nagged at him. Compulsively, he caved into the desire and stared into the mirror again and again as he packed, never letting his eyes linger too long.
With each glance, it became clearer. A wolf replaced his image. He looked away from it and poured water into a bowl to wash his face with. As he dipped his hands into the water, the color shifted from an empty clearness to thick crimson. The texture changed. He could smell the blood before him.
It was an illusion, he reminded himself. He cupped his hands in the water and drew it close to his face. His reflection changed again. In the red, he saw Avis's face instead of his own. Sadness dominated her appearance. The blood trickle down in between his fingers until the small pool in his hands was gone and only residue remained.
In the bowl, Avis was there. He reached his hands in again, pulling the liquid up to himself again. Flannán flashed in his mind. He could recall every time he visited her. Counting back the years, he realized which visit must have been when Avis was conceived.
Flannán had been cooking in the kitchen that day. Her husband let him in and went out to work on the farm. Luke was beside Flannán, helping her in the kitchen. He was clearly trying to get his mother's attention. An air of desperation surrounded him. Flannán carried on as she always did, empty and angry.
Luke noticed him there first. He hid close to his mother. The look in his eyes was a mix of fear and hope. Until he was older, Luke was always like that. He wanted affection from anyone, even if it as from someone who terrified him. Back then, Faolán could not give him that affection.
Flannán noticed him when Luke hid. She pushed Luke away. 'Go outside.'
Luke tried to cling to her again, but she moved away. Luke quietly left.
As soon as they were alone, Flannán wiped off her hands and took off her apron. 'Come to torment me again, little wolf?'
The memory was impossibly clear to him. Twenty-four years had passed since that day. It had been eighteen years since he had last seen Flannán, and eighteen years since he had been with any woman. He hadn't thought deeply on it before. Being celibate wasn't an intentional goal. Once he knew about Avis, he kept his distance from Flannán. Avis had asked him to stop seeing her altogether, but he hadn't considered it after then either. He was too caught up in training Avis to think about filling any desire left in him. Before she left her mother's side, he was already thinking about her inevitable arrival and nothing else.
Since Avis had come to stay with him, she ruled over much of his thoughts. His attempts to keep her out were useless. She shone on him, illuminating everything--good and bad--that he had buried away. It wasn't the light of the moon, the night's pale sun, but the light of the night's first star. A small and fragile light shining against a vast darkness, that was her light. A little flame, one that should have been easy to snuff out, far too stubborn for her own good. He couldn't pinpoint the moment when she had managed to undo the layers of locks and chains around his heart.
Perhaps, he joked, she had burned it all away.
As he thought back on her, his mind returned to Flannán. He wondered what she looked like now. He had acquired many grays in the last few years, and the wrinkles were beginning to show more with each day. Surely, he thought, she must be growing old too. His mind ran through what his life might have been like if he had accepted that woman's gift.
Flannán, he reasoned, would likely have still not loved him. At least he could have freed her himself.
He stared down at the pool before him. The red shifted away, revealing the water again in the center. Avis's face was still there. Surrounding her, the blood took on the form of a cloak. He could feel the texture of the cloak against his skin. Flannán's cloak, he could never get the feeling of it out of his mind.
If he allowed Avis to carry on as she was, she would be the same as her mother--empty.
'This shouldn't be happening. The answer is obvious. Why won't you do it?'
Then the true answer dawn on him.
"Your path is clear...I've had it reversed." The blood disappeared. His reflection returned to normal. "That still leaves the fire."
He pressed his left hand against the frame of the mirror. The wood smoked. A bit of fear lingered in him. The flame of it was dwindling away.
He smiled. "I'll carry her there, you devil woman. There will be no falter in my steps this time."
Outside his room, he heard men passing by. He recognized one of the voices as belonging to the king. Curious, he listened against his door as the men passed.
"My king, the preparations have been arranged." Faolán did not know who this voice belonged to. It didn't sound like any of the king's knights or servants.
"Good, good. See to it that it is over quickly. I want it done cleanly. I can't put up a glass display of broken parts." The king spoke. "Have all three been finished?"
"Yes, they are ready." The man snickered.
"Excellent. Prepare to depart shortly after they leave." Silvanus laughed with him.
Faolán opened the door. The king turned around quickly to see who was behind them. He gestured for the stranger to leave. When the man was gone, Silvanus came over to him with a wide smile.
"Sir Faolán, my loyal guardian wolf. I would like to thank you for all your years of service. You have kept my lands safe, and your son has been so good to my daughter. I can't express my gratitude enough." His words seemed too sincere, as if he had been practicing in advance.
"I am flattered, your majesty, but you speak as if you are letting me go." Faolán cut straight to the point. He wanted to see how the king would react.
"No, not at all. It does well to show your appreciation for your men every now and then. I don't want you going around thinking I don't value your work." Silvanus gave him another scripted response. He didn't let any anxiousness escape his poised appearance.
"Thank you, my king. It is an honor to serve you." Faolán bowed, keeping his own thoughts well hidden.
"Well, I must be going. So much to prepare, you know. I'm sure you're still busy preparing yourself."
"Yes. I should get back to that."
The king left quickly. Faolán did not follow him. He returned to his room. "So, this is how your kingdom will burn."
Elsewhere, Avis stood in front of Flora's bedroom door. She lingered in front of it for a while, preparing herself for what she needed to say. Avis didn't know what to expect on the other side of that door. Taking a deep breath, she knocked. Flora said from inside the room, "You may come in."
Avis found Flora sitting on her bed, several bags around her. Only one bag had been filled. Her shoulders hung heavily and her dark hair was messy. Avis said down beside her.
"Flora, do you really wish to go through with this?" Avis asked, putting her hand on Flora's.
"If I don't, there will be war. I'm a peace offering." Avis could see bags under Flora's eyes.
Her heart sunk at seeing Flora in such a state. She rubbed Flora's hand. "I know that...but if you do not wish to bear this burden, I would take you from it..."
"I can't ask such a heavy burden of you." Flora lowered her head.
Avis put her other hand on Flora's, holding it with both hands. She kissed it. "Yes, you can. I would move the heavens for you. Even if it's impossible, I swear it."
"I know that. That is precisely why I cannot ask you do something like that for me. My own happiness is not worth the lives of others." Flora's lips quivered. She threw herself into Avis's arms and clung to her. "Avis, I must confess something to you, how deeply selfish I am. All this time, I've been wanting you to take me away from this place. I've been dreaming of the day I would be freed from here since I was small. I can't...I can't let the lands burn for my own happiness."
"I cannot allow it for my own happiness either, but for you..." She ran her fingers through Flora's hair.
"I can't let you do something like that for my sake." Tears fell from Flora's face. "I can't let you become a monster."
"If it would keep you safe and happy, I don't care if I have to become a monster."
"Avis, no. I can't...I don't want that." She wiped her face. "I've requested my father allow you to serve me after the wedding. He has already given his permission."
"If that is what you wish for me to do, then I will aid you in any way I can, my love." Avis helped her wipe her face off. She kissed her on the cheek.
"Avis, please forgive me." The tears came again. Flora cried into Avis's chest.
"There is nothing to forgive you for." Avis kissed her head. "But Princess, you know...I can be quite selfish too. If that man mistreats you in any way, there will be no command you can give me that will quell my rage."
"Avis, stay with me right now. Hold me. Touch me." Flora pulled Avis down against herself.
"As you wish, my love."
Avis memorized Flora's every feature, for fear she would not be allowed this sort of intimacy again. Flora's rough hands calloused by tending to the garden competed in scarring with Avis's own, battle hardened palms. Underneath her dress, the rest of her olive skin was soft. Avis ran her fingers through Flora's straight, brown hair, wishing she could count the strands. Beautiful green eyes, the same shade as the leaves of the rosebushes, were wet with tears. She could see it in those eyes that Flora was etching out the patterns of her own body.
Five years, beginning and ending in Summer, that was the time they had shared. It seemed so brief in her mind. This was too soon. Avis wanted to stay with Flora for the rest of the day and night, but Flora had to be shuffled around more throughout the day between various servants.
After sunset, Faolán paid Flora a visit in her room. Flora had already changed into her sleepwear and gotten into bed. She covered herself with her sheets.
"What are you doing in here?" Flora reached for her dagger.
"I haven't come to harm you. I need to ask you something." He stayed by the door.
"What is it?" She asked.
"If there comes a time when your conscience is not burdened so, please set her free."
Flora held on to her dagger, though she knew she would not need it. "If such a day could ever be, then I will."
"Thank you, Princess." He left as quickly as he came.
Flora laid back in her bed. 'As if such a day would ever be...'
The three of them left before dawn the next day. The king did not bother saying goodbye to Flora, nor did he intend on attending her wedding. Flora had packed little with her, choosing to leave most of her belongings behind. Avis also traveled light. She never had much to begin with. Underneath her shirt, she had worn the rose Flora created on a necklace, the bloom kept close to her heart. She had wrapped the cloth bandages around the stem when she bound her chest that morning to secure it in place. Avis noticed her father had packed nothing at all.
The journey was quiet. Avis wished to speak with Flora normally to ease her pain, but the words would not come. She hoped her father would somehow lighten the mood. He too kept quiet.
Around midday, her father's behavior changed. He stared out into the woods with suspicion. He muttered, "Again."
"Again? What do you mean again?" Avis asked.
"I heard something strange." Faolán said.
"Couldn't it be an animal?" Flora looked around but saw nothing.
"Perhaps. Keep your guard up." He rode a little ahead of them.
There was another strange noise behind them. Faolán drew his sword. "We're being followed. So, the king does intend to sacrifice us."
"What? Why would he do something like that?" Avis's eyes widened. She moved her horse closer to Flora's and drew her own sword.
"The princess, his most loyal knight, and a freshly knighted man who loyally guarded the princess for years all slain while traveling to a wedding. This will make for the perfect public outrage to start another war." There was almost a laugh in the way he said it.
"Are you saying my father...has been planning this all along?" Flora was not angry or afraid. More than anything, she was disappointed.
"I had my suspicions, but I didn't think he would really do something this low." Faolán spoke softly to Flora. "I'm sorry, Princess. It appears your father values many things more than the lives of those around him."
"I can't say that I am surprised. He has never cared for me. What do we do now?" Flora didn't want to admit it, but a part of her felt relief over this revelation. It took everything in her to convince herself she could go through with this. She hated that so many lives would soon be lost because of her father, but it was now outside her control. Taking Avis away without that guilt weighing on her, she was quickly warming up to the idea.
"I know you two were set on keeping peace, but it is impossible now. I'd wager Mark's sending someone out here to off us too. No one intended for this wedding to really happen. Escaping is the only option." Faolán watched the woods closely.
Flora sighed. "I should have known. What good is peace to kings? Glory and goods are had most easily on the battlefield. I shouldn't have been so naive."
"Don't feel bad, Princess. It's beyond your control." Avis said to comfort her.
"I know, but..." Flora's face filled with terror.
Faolán shared her reaction. Avis didn't understand what they were so afraid of until it was too late for her to react to it. An arrow pierced through her shirt. A bright red glowed from inside her shirt and bounced the arrow back out before it touched her skin. The top of her cloth binding was damaged in the process, unraveling as the arrow hit the ground. Avis looked down at the hole in her shirt. Red petals in perfect condition peaked through.
"Avis! Are you alright?!" Flora held her hand in front of her mouth.
"Yes, it seems your magic is quite powerful." Avis's sword glowed blue as she spoke. "This again...Why now?"
"Ladies, let's go. Stay ahead of me." Faolán pulled his horse behind theirs.
Avis took the front position, keeping Flora in the middle. As they rode through the woods, arrows came at them from behind and ahead. Her father had been right. There was more than one group targeting them. Avis saw some of them amongst the trees. A few were Silvanus's soldiers, some were Mark's, and others were dressed in a way that indicated no affiliation. She assumed those were hired assassins.
An arrow hit her horse. Her horse bucked and knocked her off. She hit her luggage on the way down, taking it with her as she fell. Flora quickly steered her horse out of the way so Avis wouldn't be trampled. Faolán did the same. Avis's horse took off into the woods. Flora got down from her horse to help Avis up.
"Leave her be, Princess. Use your magic." Faolán got down from his horse.
"Right..." Flora stood still and concentrated. She envisioned the archers and commanded the trees to trap them.
With the archers down, the other soldiers came out of the woods to attack. Faolán and Avis fought them off. Avis had no trouble taking down the soldiers. She was a little annoyed that the king had thought so lightly of their strength to send such weak men. When the soldiers were defeated, Avis picked up her things and attached them on top of Flora's. She got on Flora's horse, sitting behind Flora.
"Is that all?" Avis gloated.
"I should think not. They want us dead. There will be more. We need to move again before they find us." Faolán rode up beside them.
They rode on, their horses running fast. This part of the land was not familiar to Avis. She had no idea where her father was directing them. She wondered if he knew himself. When they reached a clearing, he stopped his horse. Avis and Flora stopped right after. Faolán got down from his horse.
"This should be far enough." He stared at the land behind them. "The two of you, go on ahead. I'll stay behind to buy you some time."
"What? Father, we don't know how many men they've sent, and you aren't as young as you used to be. We can surely..." Avis protested immediately.
"Avis, do as I say. This is your chance. Take Flora and go far away from here." He hit the back of his horse to send it running. He looked around for any soldiers as he kept his sword ready.
Avis got down from Flora's horse. She ran up to him. "But...I can't leave you."
"Avis, it's enough. Let me free you." Faolán put his hand on Avis's head. He spoke to Flora next. "Princess, I have a favor to ask you. She won't listen to me. Please, steal my stubborn daughter from me."
Flora took hold of the reins of her horse. "I will gladly do so. Avis, we must go."
"Princess...wait, there must be another way. Father, you can come with us. You have
to come with us." Avis held on to her father's arm.
"Child, go. I know I can't atone for what I've done in my life, but let me give you this small distraction." He put his hand to her face.
"If you stay behind, you'll die..." Avis tightened her grip.
"That is not what I'm afraid of." Faolán caught her in an embrace. He held her tightly and kissed her forehead. "I love you, my little flame. Please, go."
Avis held back her tears as she buried her face into his chest. "I love you too."
"Take this with you. That way, I can always protect you." He sheathed his sword and handed it to her.
Avis took the blade and put it on behind her scabbard. She could barely see him beyond the tears building up in her eyes. "I wish I could free you."
"Oh, Avis, you already have. Now, please, go." He held her again. "Don't ever forget I love you."
"I won't." She forced herself away from him. Her father stood before her, completely at peace. All these years, Avis had been leading him down this path. She knew that. As the mark had almost completely faded from his back, Avis hoped the curse would one day disappear and she wouldn't have to witness his freedom gained in such a way. There was no escaping it. This was how it had to be.
In that moment, his clothes were soaked with blood. He did not collapse in agony nor show any signs of pain in his face. Avis balled her fist and turned away from him. She got onto Flora's horse, sitting behind Flora. Flora hurried the horse along through the woods.
Before she was out of his sight, his skin began to char as fire crept through. The intensity of the pain was nothing like he had ever experienced before. Every moment before then that he had been too afraid to bear could not compare to the intensity of it. As excruciating as it was, he stood his ground and let the flames consume him from the inside out. The pain seared through him so deeply he could not think anymore.
The fire burst through his skin and out across the grass and trees, destroying everything it touched. He kept his gaze forward on his daughter, watching her until she was out of sight. When he could no longer see her, he let go of his will to stay within the world of the living.
The approaching soldiers and assassins were caught in the flames. The fire followed their every step, as if it had a will of its own. The men ran in a panicked mess, completely entrapped by fire.
Avis and Flora were barely ahead of the blaze themselves. Avis kept Flora's head down as they rode towards the end of the forest. The heat made it difficult to breathe. Flora tried to use magic on the plants to keep the fire back, but the fire was moving too fast.
Avis glanced back at the fire. The flames were so great she couldn't see the trees behind the anymore. While she looked back, a branch caught in her hair. Avis fell from the horse, her braid still caught in the flames. She struggled to get free in vain.
Flora jumped down from the horse after her. She took out her dagger and cut off the end of Avis's braid. The fire creeped in all around them. Avis pulled Flora close to her, knowing she could do nothing more for her. There was no way out.
The flames opened up a path before them. A black hound walked in the center of it. Its fur was made of shadow, earth, and water, and its eyes reflected the fire around them in a crimson red. Flora held tightly to Avis. "A hellhound?"
"No, I don't think this beast is from Hell. It belongs to the realm of earth." She helped Flora up from the ground. "But even if it is a beast of Hell, it doesn't matter. I won't refuse the kindness of anyone. Thank you, creature."
She bowed to the beast. Avis calmed her horse and rode with Flora behind the beast. Her braid undid itself, her hair spanning out like the flames as she rode. She pulled out her sword to cut the branches ahead of them. The flames stayed just behind her as they rode. The hound made from the earth escorted them through the raging flames to an open field beside the ocean. In the field were the remnants of an old church and cemetery. The beast wandered off into the graveyard, its gaze on the fire behind them.
Avis looked back. The entire forest was burning down. She could still hear the screams of the soldiers and assassins caught up in it. 'Was this what was raging inside you?'
There was no doubt in her mind that this event would finally bring about the war the kings were wanting. Quietly, she grieved for the inevitable great loss of life that the future would bring, and for all the pain that will be left in those who survived. She took Flora's hand and led her down to the shore.
In front of the old church, there was a small boat. It didn't appear to be as old as the church and the graveyard. Whoever owned it seemed to have abandoned it when they came ashore. Avis inspected the boat for any damage.
"Flora, we can use this." Without thinking about it, Avis didn't bother with calling her by a title.
Flora stepped into the boat and sat down. "Come, Avis. It's time for me to steal you away. Let's leave this place."
"As you wish, my love." She gave a half-hearted bow to Flora, knowing she would never use such a formality toward her ever again.
Avis unloaded their things into it. She pushed the boat into the water and got in. There were two oars inside. She used them to row them out further. Behind her, the shadowy earth creature howled from the center of the graveyard.
Dark clouds overtook the sky and with a clash of thunder, a heavy rain rolled through from just beyond the church. The church, graveyard, and the beast disappeared from her view behind a heavy mist. The storm traveled in the direction of the flames and the wind it brought with it pushed the fire in the direction of the kingdom. It burned everything as far as she could see while the rain quietly drenched what was already gone. She thought for a moment she could hear someone humming a song, but the only noise around them was the rain and the waves. Her sword glowed for a moment. The blue faded again.
Avis thanked the beast again, though she knew her thoughts would not reach the creature. She turned to Flora. "Where do you wish to go, Flora?"
Flora held her hands. "As long as I'm with you, anywhere is more than enough."
There was no returning now. As with her brothers, she had left behind everything. She had freed both of her parents, and for the happiness she felt for alleviating their pain, a vast emptiness existed inside her. There never could be a day when she would have her family together. It was a childish, impossible dream that suited no one's hearts.
Avis stared down at her sword. Luke's work shined beautifully against the gray around them. She touched over the lion and roses on the hilt, remembering the time she had spent with him and Alan. A warmth filled her. As her fingers traced the design, her happiest memories danced in her thoughts. The time she spent with Flora in the garden and the library, listening to her father's stories, her mother's face when she saw the unicorn--those memories would always exist inside her. No matter where she went, no matter what was lost, those times would always stay there.
She sheathed her sword. It sat in a perfect union beside her father's at her side.
For a moment, she allowed herself to shed a tear for all that was lost, but did not let the pain consume her. There was still a dream she could fulfill. She rowed the boat out, uncertain of where the waves would lead her. She didn't care where it took her. Anywhere was more than enough.