If you follow me on social media, you might have seen mention of a FREE ficlet. Well, the time has come. This is a little something that popped into my head during my recent re-read of Incursion (Book One in my series, for the uninitiated.)
I hope you enjoy. 🙂
Thanks, and stay awesome,
Ganister kept her back straight and her gaze ahead, as sentinel protocol dictated. Her daggers and sword were polished to a sheen, and the hematite inlaid in her cured leather armor was clean enough to eat off of. She stood at attention while her new commanding officer, Captain Jonas, approached.
“Welcome to Starwatch Bastion, Ser Ganister,” he said, his boots crunching in the snow. Fair haired and blue eyed, he was only a few years her senior—around twenty-eight summers—and his sterling reputation had, in part, drawn her to this remote location.
Ganister saluted: crossing her arms before her chest and bowing deeply. “Thank you, Captain.”
When he returned the bow, albeit less deep, Ganister realized that her new posting in Starwatch Province would be less-than-orthodox. In her experience, sentinel officers rarely, if ever, saluted their subordinates. Perhaps he read her surprise, for a small smile crept to his face before he sent it away. “You’ll find we’re not much on protocol up here,” he said, indicating the direction of a large stone building she took to be the mage bastion.
Ganister fell into step beside him as they crossed the walled compound to the bastion. “I didn’t realize, ser. I’d thought…” She trailed off, biting the inside of her cheek before she said something foolish to her new captain.
But he’d caught on. “You thought, because I was once in the High Commander’s elite squad, I’d be a stickler for rules and regulations.”
She flushed, thankful for how her helmet hid most of her face. “Aye, ser.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
Better to assume not. Ganister inwardly scolded herself for her misstep and tried to salvage the situation. She pointed to the stone buildings they were approaching. “That’s the bastion, ser?”
“That’s the garrison,” the captain corrected, adding, “And the bastion.”
It took all her training not to show her surprise. “They’re…”
“In the same structure, yes.” Captain Jonas gestured to the surrounding, snow-capped mountains that loomed over the gray stone walls of the compound. “Livable space is hard to come by this far north. Close quarters with mages are part of life.” He slanted her with a look she could not read. “Is that a problem?”
“No, ser,” she replied immediately. “It’s just… I’ve never heard of mages and sentinels living beside one another in this way.”
“Ah. Well, you get used to it.”
They reached the building, where two sentinels stood guard on either side of the door. Both snapped to attention at the captain’s approach, and his answering nod of response was completely proper. One of the guards unlocked the door and Ganister followed her new captain inside.
There was a large main room with several fireplaces, all burning bright. Ganister half-wondered if the fires were mage-made, for the sheer amount of wood to keep such flames constantly burning would consume a forest, especially now that winter was nearly here. Tapestries covered each wall and lanterns hung from the wooden beams, giving the room a cozy feeling despite its size. Now that she was inside, Ganister could see that the interior housed two levels; the top level had a balcony along the interior perimeter, looking down over the main space.
“The mages sleep up there,” Captain Jonas said, pointing at the upper level. “Our barracks and infirmary are on the ground floor, though we all share the common area.”
Indeed, there were an assortment of tables, chairs, and benches in the main space that made Ganister think someone had mixed a parlor with a mess-hall. A few mages sat at one of the tables, sipping tea or speaking quietly. A single sentinel sat at another table, cleaning her gear. Both groups ignored one another, though the sentinel offered the captain and Ganister a salute and nod of greeting – respectively.
The mages did not so much as glance over.
“There’s our library,” the captain said, pointing to a small bookshelf beside one of the hearths. “And…” He trailed off with a sigh. “Excuse me.” He then strode past Ganister toward the hearth, where she could see a small, stockinged foot sticking out on the bookshelf’s other side. Perhaps it wasn’t protocol, but Ganister needed to observe how the mages were treated here, so she hurried after her new officer. Learn by doing, as the saying went.
Captain Jonas stood before the foot and stared down at the child attached to it. “Young lady, you’re supposed to be with Mage Riyo, practicing healing.”
A little girl, no more than eight summers, peered up at the captain through dark bangs. “But I hate healing. I want to read.”
So she was a mage. Before the captain had spoken, and given how the sentinels and mages lived close together here, Ganister had not been sure this wasn’t a sentinel recruit. The Circle started them so young, after all. But the girl’s handspun clothes and messy braid also labeled her a mage, even if Ganister had not caught sight of the twin crescent moons tattooed on her little wrist.
“Surely you’ve read that book a thousand times,” the captain replied.
A grin split the girl’s face. “Aye, but this is a thousand and one.”
“You must keep up with your lessons.”
She fluttered the book’s pages, then beamed up at the captain again. “If I go to Riyo now, will you teach me the viol later?”
“Not until you’re a little older, remember?”
“But I want to play it now.”
The captain knelt before her and gently pried the book from her hands. “Kali, you must learn to control your magic. Do you understand? The One god has given you great power; you must use it wisely.”
His tone was, to Gan’s thinking, a little too harsh, but the little girl only nodded. No doubt she’d heard this lecture before. “Yes, Jonas.”
Jonas, not Captain, Gan thought. Strange.
“You’re intelligent and strong,” the captain continued. “But you are easily distracted.”
As if to prove his point, Kali looked over at Gan, and her dark eyes widened. “Who are you?”
“Ganister,” she said, adding a small bow. “But you may call me Gan, if you like.”
“I’m Kalinda, but you can call me Kali. I like to read.”
Charmed by the girl’s enthusiasm, Gan smiled. “I can see that. Do you have a favorite story?”
“All of them!” Kali considered the shelf beside her. “But I’ve read these over and over. We need more.”
“I envy you,” Gan replied. “I can’t read proper Aredian like you can. Most sentinels can’t. We only–”
Captain Jonas cleared his throat and Ganister snapped her mouth shut. He then held out his free hand to Kali, who accepted and allowed him to pull her to her feet. Gan hid her surprise at the captain’s willingness to touch a mage, gloves or not. Although hematite granted sentinels an immunity to magic, most would never lay a hand on a mage unless ordered to do so.
“Do you need help getting upstairs to Mage Riyo?” Captain Jonas asked. Kali’s face fell and she shook her head. He seemed to debate something, casting Gan another glance she couldn’t read, then nodded to the little mage. “Run along, now, Kali.”
The girl stepped away from him, and Ganister’s breath caught at the way she limped, as if each step took the greatest effort. “Bye, Jonas,” she said, waving to the captain. “Bye, Gan.”
The captain watched as Kali reached the stairway and began what was surely a laborious process of clambering up each step. Ganister fought to keep still, following the officer’s lead, until she could tolerate it no more. “Ser,” she whispered to him. “Shouldn’t we help her anyway?”
“She usually prefers to walk on her own.” The words were terse, but his gaze did not leave the little mage until she was out of sight. At last, he glanced back at Gan. “Right. Let’s finish our tour.”
Four years into her posting at Starwatch, and Ganister was almost used to the winters here. Almost. The cold, she’d learned to tolerate, but she could not abide being snowed in. This winter, in particular, was the worst yet. Snow drifts piled to the bastion’s second story, effectively trapping mages and sentinels alike in their common building. There was only so much patrolling that Ganister could handle—the compound wasn’t that big—so when Captain Jonas had requested volunteers to drop off letters to the nearest fleet rider station, she’d eagerly volunteered.
Perhaps too eagerly. It’d meant a grueling day of slogging through the snow, but she’d finally mastered the snow-shoes and decided that biting wind was a small price to pay for freedom. Even so, by the time she returned late that night, her heart soared at the sight of the compound’s walls. All thoughts turned to shedding her gear and making use of the hot springs – one of the few amenities that little Starwatch Bastion could boast.
When Gan slipped into the bastion, silence met her. It was late enough that only the two gate-guards outside had been awake—huddling by their fires, poor dears—so she tiptoed to her quarters to drop off her gear before making her way to the side building that housed the springs. Divested of all but her soft clothes, Gan slipped out of her room on silent steps. When she entered the common area proper, she paused in the shadows cast by the blazing hearths. She was not alone.
Kali was curled on one of the larger padded chairs, wrapped in a blanket with a book splayed open on her chest. The soft snores the girl emanated made Gan smile, for Kali always insisted that she didn’t snore, and Gan was a sodding liar for saying otherwise.
Just as Gan was about to rouse the girl to send her to her room, she caught a familiar tread. The sound of Jonas—no, she scolded herself, Captain to you—made her pause. The officer emerged from the kitchens, a mug of tea in his hand, then caught sight of the sleeping mage girl. He glanced around; Gan shrank against the wall so he wouldn’t see her, though she couldn’t have said just why. Satisfied that no witnesses were about, the captain set his mug down and went to Kali.
He knelt beside her. The firelight cast his hair in platinum and painted a look of utter longing the stern planes of his face – longing, and love. Gan’s throat tightened. Carefully, the sentinel captain gathered up the mage girl—including her book and blanket—and rose, presumably to return her to her room upstairs.
But doing so would let him pass right beside Ganister. She couldn’t move without giving herself away, so she merely pretended to fiddle with her tunic, praying he wouldn’t notice and knowing it was a foolish hope.
Indeed, his footsteps paused just paces away. A warmth stronger than any hot spring flooded Gan as she reluctantly met her captain’s gaze. But to her shock, there was no reproach in his face, only a surprise that mirrored her own. Surprise, but also…
He masked the emotion quickly, though, and frowned at her. “Gan. No one told me you were back.”
She saluted and kept her voice to a whisper. “Just returned, ser. All’s well. There weren’t any letters for us.”
Despite her attempt not to look at Kali, her eyes slid to the sleeping child, and Jonas—the captain—straightened. “You should get some rest,” he said, his voice low. “You must be exhausted.”
“I wanted a soak,” Gan admitted. “Does she do this often? Fall asleep with a book on her lap?”
Whatever he’d thought she was going to ask, this was not it. Jonas’ gaze crept down to the girl in his arms, and Ganister swore his grip tightened a fraction. “Too much. But…” He took a shaking breath. “It’s her way. I don’t mind returning her to her room.”
“I’m sure she appreciates it,” Ganister replied.
Jonas’ mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Doubtful.”
Then, because Gan was tired, and thus, foolish, she said, “She obviously cares for you. And I think you–”
“Gan.” There was steel in his voice, and in the words he did not say.
Ganister flushed again, but held his gaze. “I mean no offense, ser. Not that,” she allowed her eyes to flick between him and the sleeping mage in his arms, “there’s anything to be offended at. I see only a mage and sentinel; nothing more. Nothing worth discussing, at any rate.”
He stared at her a moment longer, then, to her amazement, his shoulders relaxed a fraction and he offered her the tiniest smile. She tried to ignore how the sight sent her heart skipping.
“Kali is…very dear to me,” he said quietly, almost too soft for Gan to hear. “I’ve known her since she was a babe.”
It was as much of an admission as Ganister thought she’d get. So she nodded. “She’s a lovely child. You should be proud.”
“I should be.” He shook his head and moved past Gan, heading for the stairwell. “But I can’t.”
Seven years into Ganister’s posting at Starwatch, and she really should have moved on. She’d never stayed in one place more than a few years—she blamed her Sufani mother for her itchy feet—but Starwatch Bastion had come to hold more of her heart than she’d anticipated.
It was two days before the midsummer festival, and the bastion buzzed with preparations. The sentinels didn’t bother much with celebrating the solstice, so the mages more than made up for any lack of enthusiasm in their armored guards. Some of Gan’s sentinel brethren grumbled at the fuss, but she loved flowers, mage-grown or not, so she didn’t complain.
She was not, however, a fan of the dying-cat sounds of Kali’s viol.
Even outside in the compound outside, engrossed in a sparring session with Taras, one of the newer arrivals, the shrieking sounds of Kali’s “music” assaulted Gan’s ears. Taras had not stopped scowling over at the teenage girl seated on the edge of the well, dragging a bow across the long-suffering viol strings.
“Ea’s tits, that racket needs to sodding stop,” Taras muttered, wiping sweat from her brow.
Gan rolled her shoulders, trying not to wince at the wrong notes. Gods above, the girl was either flat or sharp; there was no middle ground with Kali. “She’s gotten much better,” Gan said, adjusting her grip on her weapon and easing into another ready-stance. “Come on. Ignore her and focus on the woman swinging a sword at your head.”
“I can’t think with that noise. Why doesn’t the captain put a stop to it?”
“He’s the one who taught her,” Gan replied. “So I’d watch what I said about the girl’s musical abilities.” Or lack thereof, though, to Kali’s credit, she had improved a great deal since she’d started playing a few years ago.
Taras frowned. “The captain…taught the moon-blood how to play the viol?”
Gan’s heart seized at the slur and she reacted without thinking. She swept her blade at Taras’ boots, causing the younger sentinel to yelp as she jumped to avoid the blow – and promptly landed on her arse in a patch of mud.
Ganister stood over Taras, leveling her sword at the burnie’s throat. “Keep a civil tongue in your head,” she growled. “Or else.”
Taras stared up at her, defiant. “Or else, what?” Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you care so much?”
“What’s going on?”
Both women glanced over to see Jonas striding over in what Gan affectionately called his “captain’s walk.” But there would be no teasing now, not with his expression so steely. Gan stepped back and Taras scrambled upright, trying to swipe the mud off her gear.
“Just sparring, ser,” Gan said, squaring her shoulders and willing Taras to keep her foolish mouth shut.
Alas, no such luck. The burnie scowled at Gan, then jerked her thumb toward Kali. “Ser, how can we be expected to properly train with that din? What’s she even doing out here? Shouldn’t she be hanging flowers with the other moon-bloods?”
Jonas stiffened at the slur and Gan sighed. Sodding burnies. I tried to warn her.
“Mage Halcyon lives here,” Jonas said, adding, “And you will not use that foul term again, in my presence or otherwise. Is that clear, burnie?”
But Taras’ blood still burned from that first big dose of hematite, which Gan supposed accounted for her stupidity. At least, one could hope. “It’s not fair, ser. The moon—the mages—shouldn’t be allowed the same freedoms as us.”
The dying-cat sounds stopped. Gan risked a look over and realized that Kali, along with every other sentinel in the yard, was paying close attention to this conversation. It stung Gan’s heart more than it should have to realize how many of her fellow sentinels wore similarly annoyed expressions as Taras.
Jonas must have realized it too, and Gan watched the familiar conflict play across his stern face. Only because she knew him so well did she recognize the dilemma within him, the one he dared not give voice.
At last, he said, “Life isn’t fair, Taras. Keep your mind where it belongs.” In one fluid motion, he drew his blade and flipped Taras’ sword out of her grip, sending it skittering over the flagstones and into another mud puddle. “On the task at hand. That goes for the rest of you,” he barked, though he did not turn.
His “captain voice” did the trick, and the others hurried to resume their sparring. As Gan waited for Taras to retrieve her sword, she glimpsed Kali by the well. The girl—well, she was nearing womanhood now—clutched her viol and stared at Jonas, then rushed inside as quickly as her bum knee would allow. Jonas watched her go, hands clenching, before he turned back to Gan and a muddy Taras.
“Again,” he said to the burnie, holding up his sword. “This time, make it count.”
“Fifteen years.” Gan skimmed her hand along Jonas’ chest.
One blue eye cracked open to regard her. “Hmm?”
The fire in her hearth had nearly gone out, so she pulled the blankets farther over her back, effectively shielding them both from the winter’s chill. “I’ve been in Starwatch for fifteen years, today.”
Now he opened both eyes; her heart sank at the exhaustion in his gaze, and at how it never seemed to go away these days. “Has it been so long?” he murmured, toying with her hair. “Gods above…it feels like you just got here.”
Gan smiled and leaned up to kiss him. Jonas returned the kiss with his usual enthusiasm…until he broke it off, grimacing, his body wracked with shivers. Every blanket she had was already piled on top of them, so Gan only hugged him close, willing her body heat to mask the incessant chill wrought by hematite.
At last, his shivering eased and he pressed his lips to her forehead, his breath still short. Gan laid her cheek to his chest and half-listened, half-felt his heartbeat slow from its frantic pace. “Are you all right?” she asked when she thought he could answer.
She pushed herself up on her elbow to better regard him. Although there were only a few years’ difference between them, he looked about twenty years older than he should. The lines around his face and mouth had deepened, and no amount of rest ever chased away the shadows beneath his eyes. But his eyes themselves were still a blue so clear it was almost painful, and his smiles, still rare, still surprised her.
“How much longer, do you think?” she asked, her voice hoarse.
He tucked one of her errant curls behind her ears. “I don’t know. Hopefully a few years, at least. It’s just…” He took a deep breath. “Hematite doesn’t burn like it used to. I need more and more to keep going. It’s not sustainable.”
Her eyes burned. “You’re no cinder, Jo. You have time.”
“Not as much as I need.” His hand fell and he stared up into the rafters of her ceiling. “Not as much as she needs.”
“She’s almost twenty-four,” Gan started, but Jonas shook his head.
“She’s just a girl.” He hugged Gan closer but she knew his mind was upstairs, at the bunk perpetually cluttered with books and scrolls. “I’ll be in my next life, one day, sooner than any of us would like. Then who will…” He paused. “Who will take over shadow duty for her?”
Shadow duty; so named because the sentinel tasked with guarding a single mage must stick to that mage closer than any shadow, both to protect the mage from the world, and protect the world from the mage. Whatever the cost to either.
Gan glanced away to swipe at her tears before he saw, silently scolding herself at her lack of control. There would be a time to grieve; but not now. Hopefully not for a long time. She looked back at Jonas. “Here I thought you were smarter than that.”
A blond eyebrow lifted inquiringly.
She smiled; it was better than weeping. “I’ll take over when… When you can’t.”
He stared at her, those blue eyes wide. “Will you?”
“Do you doubt me?”
He relaxed into her. “Never.”
“I never had a daughter,” Gan said. “Not that I could, with the hematite. But I always wanted one. Until I met her. And now…” Flame rose in her cheeks but she pressed on. “Now I feel as though I do have a daughter, in some ways. And glad I am of it, of her. And of you. She’s…”
He shook his head and pressed a kiss to her mouth. “Don’t,” he whispered when they parted.
She made a show of looking around her room. “Aye, because we’re obviously surrounded.”
“Gan.” The blue gaze turned hard, but briefly. “Please.”
“Fine.” She playfully tweaked his chest, startling him into a laugh. “Have it your way, Captain.”
Strong hands wrapped around her waist, skimmed her up her spine to tangle in her hair. He pressed their foreheads together and stared into her eyes, as if he could will her to know his heart and mind. “Thank you, love.”
Fifteen years, five months, two weeks, three days. Gan had lost track of the hours as she’d stood vigil with the others beside their captain as the hematite had finally claimed its sacrifice. Now Jonas was on his way to his next life, his spirit carried on the flames of his pyre. Tongues of fire leaped into the night sky, driving back the dark and the chill air, bathing the sentinels in warmth.
Tears pricked Gan’s eyes again. Even in death, Jonas brought comfort however he could.
Pinion, one of the younger lads, hugged her shoulder and she leaned against him, grateful for the solid press of his armored form. Gray and Taras, too, stood around her, close enough to keep the worst of the wind at bay. All of her fellow sentinels had rallied to her side, for they knew how much Jonas had meant to her.
That was all they knew.
Gan’s gaze crept to the bastion window. Grief struck her anew at the sight of the pale face peering out into the compound yard. The commander had ordered all the mages locked inside the building for the night, to allow the sentinels a chance to properly mourn their fallen brother-in-sacrifice.
Around Gan, the others took up the all-too familiar litany: “Nox bring your spirits safely over the river. Tor guide your steps into the next life. The One keep you in all your days.”
The words would bring comfort to most, but the mention of Tor stuck in Gan’s throat. Tor: the patron god of many sentinels, the god who demanded the utmost adherence to the sentinel oaths of honor, service, and sacrifice.
Only that last one stung.
When Gan could bear it no longer, she extricated herself from her brothers and sisters in service, pleading exhaustion, knowing they would stay to keep the night-long vigil as tradition dictated. But she had an oath all her own.
She slipped inside the bastion. Warmth, light, and laughter met her, the latter jarring after the solemnity outside. The Starwatch mages—though Kali was not among them—had gathered by the hearths and opened several bottles of wine in what Gan tried not to think of as celebration. They did not fall silent when she entered, but the laughter dimmed and she felt their eyes on her as she went to the stairs. Once she was out of their sight, their talk resumed with the same vigor. Bitterness caught in Gan’s throat, but she tried to swallow it down and focus on the task at hand.
Starwatch Bastion was too small for every mage to have their own room, so Gan went to the bunk that Kali shared with a few others, but it was empty. She considered checking the latrine, but Kali’s cloak hung on its peg by her bed, so Gan thought she was still in the building. The absence of Jonas’ viol confirmed her suspicion; Kali would not have taken it outside tonight.
After a moment’s consideration, Gan made her way to a small storeroom upstairs, mostly used for spare linens and other assorted items. She listened at the door, hoping but not to hear any noise from within. But she was disappointed again—and again, not surprised—at the soft sniffles. Steeling herself, Gan rapped her knuckles on the door in the pattern that she’d learned from Jonas.
Kali’s voice emerged somewhat strangled. “Gan?”
Limping footsteps, then the door cracked open. Even the shadows could not conceal Kali’s red-rimmed eyes. How long had she been alone while Jonas succumbed to his chosen fate? None of the other mages knew the truth, either.
“What are you doing here?” Kali asked.
Gan reached past the door to cover the girl’s trembling hand. “Shadow duty.”
Kali stared up at her with that same, astonished look Jonas had worn whenever he met kindness where he’d expected cruelty. Her lips compressed and her eyes brightened, but she stepped back, allowing Gan entry. Gan shut the door behind her and took the girl in her arms, pressed Kali’s cheek to her armored chest. Kali hesitated, but only for an instant, only until Gan whispered, “If you know nothing else, know that he loved you.”
Kali made no reply. Through the small storeroom window, Gan could see the funeral fires climbing higher, though from here they appeared little more than a candle flames. She hugged the weeping girl closer as her own tears formed anew, and they kept their vigil, together.