“Absolutely not,” Annael said upon hearing Ashlyn’s preposterous idea. “We are not going to take him back with us to the Academy.”
She and Ashlyn were standing on an ornate stone balcony. The city streets of Tauros sat three stories below them. The day was still young, sweeping with an early autumn breeze. Leaves were already being caught up in it, swirling as the wind carried them.
Ashlyn folded her youthful hands together. “Please, Annael, he has no one. I think– I think he has been held as a prisoner in Eolnir. He has no living family.”
“He is not even a mage.”
“Being immune to the bazjur has to count for something. Twelve days ago, you expected him to die. Damien is powerful, I can sense it.”
“You blaspheme, Ashlyn. How can you, a child of the Sepheras, speak against your own master’s teachings? The bazjur has no place here in Lorianthil. It is corrupt and it is evil. I would die before I let darkness swallow our lands.”
Ashlyn was unsure of how to reply. “But I can watch out for him,” she said with a gentle tone. “He could be my pupil while I continue to study under you.”
“Oh, Ashlyn.” Annael cupped her face. “You have already saved the boy’s life. Take gratitude in that and move on. The boy will be taken into King Arran’s custody.”
“And what is going to happen to him?”
Annael clamped her arms behind her back. “I assume he will be sent to one of the farming plantations in Nuremas. Many orphans do end up there, working for their provisons under the crown. Your new friend will be safe there.”
“He is to be a farmer?” Ashlyn objected. “The farmlands are the last part of Lorianthil before the scorched lands. He won’t be safe there, he’ll be close enough to Eolnir for them to capture him again. If we take him east to Tyron–“
“Enough,” Annael cut her off. “I have nothing else to say on this matter. The boy has no family, which makes him a ward of the King. And the King is likely to send him west to Nuremas. I am sorry, Ashlyn, it is out of our hands. It is time to pack your things. We make back for Tyron tomorrow.”
She left Ashlyn standing alone on the wide, overlapping balcony. It jutted out like a lip from the King’s palace. With a sigh, Ashlyn stood at the edge and leaned against the railing. She wasn’t one to brood, but this matter had her mind in twists.
Observing the chess-sized people below, she envied their freedom to move about the city unhindered. Ashlyn had hardly been quite so fortunate. Her life was scheduled down to the minute. Her daily routine in Tyron was a masterful ordinance of study and clockwork.
Admittedly, these past two weeks had been a refreshing break from her daily routine. Here in Tauros she had spent much time reading books for pleasure rather than assignment, and dabbling in the entertainments that the palace had to offer. Most of all, she had found satisfaction in staying by Damien’s side until he woke. Nothing would ever replace that experience.
Now she was being asked to forsake the idea of staying by Damien’s side altogether. How could she do that now when she had already poured so much time into him? Damien didn’t just need a place to stay, he needed a home and a family. If Ashlyn could not deliver that to him, then surely all her cares would go to waste.
A resolute feeling swept over her, just as the breeze picked up in a gust. Ashlyn moved, forsaking the balcony and making her way downstairs.
She arrived back at the infirmary in due time, pushing back the doors with a bit too much gusto. She saw Damien lying asleep on his bed. There was a glass of water beside him and a plate with food crumbs. She shook him gently.
When his eyes opened, he startled at the sight of her leaning just inches from his face.
“Ah,” he cowered in defense, “what do you want?”
“I want you to come with me,” she said. Turning to the window beside the aisle, she cracked it open to let the air in. She gestured him forward. “Look,” she pointed into the distance. Though it was difficult to get to his feet, Damien stood beside her, peering from the high view. In truth, he had never looked upon a beautiful city from so high. Directly beneath him now, the city was bustling with tiny figures. Horses were being brushed and wagons were being pulled. The humans of Tauros were hard at work, pushing towards the day’s end. But Ashlyn was pointing to something beyond. Beyond the city lines and into the vast distance. Damien had to squint to take it in. There were trees in the distance, a vast wood that stretched on forever.
“I don’t understand,” he voiced his thoughts.
Ashlyn turned to him with a spark of hope in her eye. “Do you know what happens to the orphans of Tauros? They get sent to work on the farming plantations. But I know some people in Gumber, people who might be able to help you.”
“I don’t understand,” he repeated. “What’s a Gumber?”
“Oh, you poor person. What parts of Lorianthil do you know?”
“Um,” he looked down. “None of it?”
“You’ve been in the scorched lands your whole life?”
He let his silence be an answer. After an uncomfortable moment, Ashlyn reorganized her approach.
“I was born in Gumber,” she said. “The elves have always looked out for me, even while I’m away at the Academy.” She placed her hand on Damien’s bony shoulder, a touch that made him flinch. “I can look out for you there. Even when I’m away, I will see that you are safe.”
“You’re going away?”
“I have to go back eventually,” she admitted. “I’m not yet done with my training. But I can make sure you get settled first. Anywhere but the plantations.”
“What’s so bad about plantations? At least they’ll have food.”
“I don’t know,” she said, giving him a pensive look. “I just feel like you are meant for more than the life of a farmer.”
He scoffed at her notion. “You sound like Baldemar. You just want to keep me where you can always find me?”
“Well,” she took her hand away, “I suppose that is my intention. If you go to the plantations, I won’t be able to see you again. It’s too far a journey. But…if you lived in Gumber, I could always visit you.”
“But why me? Why do you care? No one’s ever cared about me, whether I live or die. I don’t even know you. I don’t even remember your name. Ash— something.”
“It’s Ashlyn,” she said. It was clear that Damien now had his guard up. He was slow to trust, and perhaps it was an effective tool for where he had come from. She let out a sigh. “You don’t have to talk to me like this. You know what the word ‘friend’ means?”
“Of course I know what it means. I’m not stupid. It’s why I don’t have any.”
“If one has no friends, are they truly living?”
“Why do you ask such stupid questions? Of course I’m living, and I want to live for a long time.”
She gave him a snarky grin. “Then you understand that the people who live the longest are the ones who make lots of friends. They have people to lean on, people they can trust.”
“And you want me to trust you,” he folded his arms. “Why?”
“It’s not about you trusting me, it’s about making your own choice. What do you want in life, Damien? If you want to be a farmer, I will not stop you.”
“I don’t want to be a farmer. I want—” His chest was heaving now as stress overtook him. “I don’t know who you are. I only know that I don’t want you to leave me again.”
Ashlyn stared at him, thinking. “You’re saying you want a friend?”
Now Damien was the one who was staring, his mind reeling with doubts. He looked down at the floor to avoid looking Ashlyn in the eye. “I’m scared to let you help me,” he confessed.
Ashlyn’s face grew soft. “You must be very scared. I understand that everything must be bleak to you now. If we take it one day at a time, we will forge the path ahead of you. That I can promise.”
“You keep talking like I have a future. Ever since I woke up, I’ve had this feeling like I’m supposed to be dead.”
“But you’re not dead. Not many people survived the attack on Githal, but you did, Damien. So, what are you going to do with your life now?”
Her question jarred him, upsetting his already unstable emotions. After a long, pitiful silence, he said, “I will go with you. But don’t think that I am your friend. I know better than to trust strangers.”
“Well,” she paused, “let’s hope you stop seeing me as a stranger.”