Chapter 23 Air

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The camp is bustling with movement and excited voices, waking Ari from her dreamless sleep. Crofton is still asleep, rolling away from the noise. Kemp sits on his bed, waving his hand in front of him with his eyes closed. Occasionally his hands close as though grabbing something and he moves it lower or higher.

Sitting up, Ari watches Kemp in silence. He works quickly and soon lowers his hands as he finishes. Opening his eyes, Ari notices his pupils are thin and as his eyes focus they grow to regular size. He blinks a few times and rubs his eyes.

“What was that?” Ari asked.

Glancing at her, Kemp sighs. “Didn’t know you were awake.”

“What were you doing?”

“I was organizing my weapons. I may not be able to go where they’re being held, but I can still see it if I concentrate. I have to organize my weapons so I don’t grab the wrong one.”

Ari stood and crossed to Kemp’s bed, sitting next to him. “So before you ever get into a fight, you organize your weapons and try to guess what you’ll need? Before you need it?”

“Yes.” Yawn cuts him off.

Smiling, Ari leans in close to Kemp. “You weren’t here when Crofton and I got back. How’s Vesna?”

Raising an eyebrow, Kemp smirks and crosses his arms across his chest. “She’s fine. Vico and I put her to bed and then had a nice chat. He thinks when we reach the coastal cities he and Vesna are going to stay with us.”

“Are they? Why?”

“Well, the caravan they were scouts for is finished and they don’t have a home to go back to, so I offered them to join us. Did I overstep my bounds?”

“Only if having Guto, Link, and Sten join us bothers you.”

Leaning his head to the side, Kemp places a hand on his chin in mock thought. “Gods, I don’t know, would we have to still act like they’re in charge of us?”

“I knew you wouldn’t mind,” Ari says, playfully shoving him. “Radhri has also offered to send some of his men with us, too. Including his daughter Tal.”

“Who can hear you from many steps away,” Tal says as she enters the tent. She spies Crofton still sleeping and kicks his bed.

Snorting awake, Crofton quickly sits up, reaching for his knife. When his eyes focus he relaxes. “What’s going on?”

Tal leans down and smiles at Crofton, her face moving uncomfortably close to his. “You three are coming with me. Get dressed and meet me by the stables.”

“Why?” Ari asks.

Standing, Tal glances at her. “I want to get to know you better before risking my life helping you. Hurry up or I’ll send someone to fetch you.” She walks to the tent entrance, stopping only to add, “You don’t want me to send someone to fetch you.”

As she disappears outside, Crofton falls back on his pillow, rubbing his eyes. “She’s pleasant in the morning.” He catches sight of Ari sitting on Kemp’s bed and his eyes widen. “What’s happening here?”

Climbing off the bed, Kemp grabs his boots and heads for the tent entrance, already dressed for the day. “Updating each other on our new travelling companions. I’m going to check on Vesna and Vico then meet you at the stables.”

Ari watches Kemp leave even as she senses Crofton’s eyes still locked on her face. She releases an audible sigh and stands. She crosses to her bed and opens her bag. She digs out fresh clothes and turns to Crofton. He lowers his eyes, but she saw for a moment the look of jealousy in them.

“We were just talking, Crofton.”

Sitting up, Crofton lowers his legs to the floor. “I know.”

“Do you, though?”

Snapping his eyes to meet hers, Crofton grips the edge of his bed tightly. “Yes, I do. You said you were just talking and I believe you.”

Squeezing her fresh clothes tightly, Ari leans her head to the side. “Good, because that’s all we were doing.”

“Right.” Crofton stands and takes his shirt off. He grabs a new one from his bag and lays it on the bed with a fresh pair of pants.

Ari’s eyes linger on his back, watching his muscles strain as he moves. She turns her back to him and quickly dresses.

“We haven’t really had a moment to ourselves since Kellahn,” Crofton says, softly.

Freezing, Ari resists the urge to turn and look at him. “Without Kemp, you mean.”

An affirming grunt is his response. The sound of clothing being thrown to the floor and belts being buckled fill the silence before Crofton speaks again. “You said we have to be better communicators. We have to trust each other and not keep secrets.”

Ari’s heart quickens. She can’t stop herself from turning to face him. Her eyes fill with slight fear. “Crofton, only secrets that could lead to one of us being killed.”

A flash of anger crosses his face and he quickly closes the distance between them. He raises a hand to touch her, but rethinks it and clenches his fist. “I don’t like it when you trust others over me.”

“It’s not like that,” Ari starts, but Crofton grabs her arm tightly. The pain in her arm silences her.

“I know I’m not as strong as those with magic, but I made the choice to come with you to find your father. Wherever you go I’ll be there by your side, magic or no. But I see how you and the other magic users look at me when you think I don’t notice.”

Pulling her arm roughly from his grasp, Ari takes a step back. “Where is this coming from? You’ve never cared about that before.”

“I’ve always cared about it. I never wanted you to feel like I did, but I always have. It’s also been this thing between us that neither of us ever acknowledged, but if we’re not to keep secrets then here I go.” Crofton takes a deep breath and meets Ari’s eyes. “I hate your magic.”

Eyes widening, Ari stumbles back as though he struck her. Sudden pains in her chest and her back make her wince. She feels tears threaten to form in her eyes, but she’s able to fight them back as rage replaces the shock and heartbreaking, backstabbing sorrow.

“What?” Ari is surprised how soft her voice is, but she sees Crofton waver a little at the venom in her voice. “If you hate my magic, you hate me. My magic is me, Crofton.”

“No, it’s not. It’s something you inherited from your mom and dad, but it isn’t who you are. You choose to use it, but you don’t have to. You could choose to stop and live a normal life.”

Ari raises her hands in front of her in shock and her eyes close as she breathes deeply. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you. I can’t choose to live a normal life. That option isn’t open to me anymore. You realize there are people chasing us who want to kill me, don’t you? Or do you think they’ll back off if I tell them, Oh, never mind, I’ve chosen not to use my magic anymore? They killed my mother for fuck’s sake, Crofton.”

“Because your father couldn’t just let magic disappear.” Crofton tries to comfort her, but Ari glares at him and points a finger at him. Wind slams into him, knocking him back a few steps. He stares at her in shock.

“Don’t come near me right now. I don’t know where this stupid, bullshit came from but you have five seconds to apologize or convince me that you’re joking before I never speak to you again.”

The tent flaps open and Indra steps inside. His eyes shift from Crofton to Ari and understanding fills his face. He steps between them, his back to Ari. “Leave. Tal is waiting.”

Crofton, startled by the command, shakes his head. “What about Ari?”

“I’ll accompany her. Go.”

Hesitating, Crofton curses and leaves the tent, grabbing his shoes as he passes. Ari flinches away from him as he walks by, but he makes no move to speak to her or touch her.

As soon as he’s gone, Indra turns to her. “He’s afraid.”

Ari stares at him incredulous. “Of what? Please, enlighten me.”

“Losing you.”

The rush of blood to Ari’s face is no longer from anger. “So he chose to chase me away by being an idiot?”

Sighing, Indra grabs Ari by the arm and leads her outside. “Magic users are all the same. Come, Tal waits.”

Too confused and angry to argue, Ari allows the raider to drag her towards the stables, but she keeps her eyes peeled for Crofton as her thoughts fill with the idea of losing him. Losing her mother is still painful, if she lost Crofton, too…the pain in her chest aches, but she manages to calm down as they arrive at the stables.

Indra releases her arm and nods his head at Tal. She smiles and nods back, releasing the soft-spoken man to leave. Kemp is sitting on a stool behind her and Ari’s eyes land on Crofton’s arm, the only part of him she can see as he leans against the far side of the stable.

“I told you, you don’t want me sending someone to fetch you. Come on, we’re going for a ride. I think we all could use the fresh air.” Tal leads the three towards four horses ready for riders. She pats the neck of the largest of the animals, a beautiful black horse with a white spot on its rump. “This is Nokt. His name means night in our language.”

The horse nudges Tal with his nose and she scratches behind his ear. She points to each horse as she assigns the other three.

“Kemp, you’ll be riding Hija. Her name means hair and she’s the one with thick fur. Crofton, you’ll be riding Sahn. His name means sun because of the golden sheen to his coat. And Ari, you’ll be riding Sinf. Her name means swift. I don’t think I need to explain why.”

After mounting the horses, Tal teaches them a few commands before they venture off into the canyon.

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