“Your hands are shaking,” Yirah said.

 

Fiddler curled his tremor-ridden hands around his mug of honey brew. Yirah would never describe her mischievous charge as serene, but shaking hands?

 

They sat in the most relaxing tavern she’d seen this side of Chron. Vines traveled up the fireplace’s sides and drooped over a fine mantel. Dying flames struggled to survive within the confines, feeding on more ashes than wood. Even the tables and chairs amplified the calm atmosphere, their backs carved, sanded, and stained a deep, comforting brown.

 

Fiddler stared at his brew.

 

“Fiddler?” Yirah sat—or hovered—across from him. As a Spirit Guide, she was unaffected by gravity and floated an inch above her chair.

 

Fiddler blinked. “Hmm?”

 

“You’re afraid.” The words sounded strange to her ears. Fiddler had rushed into a number of dangerous situations without the slightest hesitation. Something was wrong. What was she missing?

 

Fiddler leaned his chair back, balancing on two legs. “If you had an army obsessed with beheading you, you’d be a little unsteady yourself.” He grinned like a child who’d stolen a Nymph’s harp. “You’re suddenly very concerned about me.”

 

Yirah frowned. “I don’t see how sitting around a table is going to clear a path through Hark’s forces.”

 

Fiddler sipped his brew. “We can’t fight through them.”

 

“Obviously. But you still have a plan.”

 

“Obviously,” Fiddler said.

 

The tavern door opened, sending a burst of snow into the room and distorting her unnaturally slim, semi-transparent features. A soldier stepped out of the flurry and shut the door. Flakes clung to his brows.

 

Yirah crossed her arms, following him with her eyes. The soldier had probably been pulled from Hark’s army, if his red uniform was any indication. “And that plan is?”

 

“For me to know and you to find out,” Fiddler said.

 

Yirah growled. The soldier joined five other companions. All were dressed in red.

 

Fiddler swirled his brew. “I’m impressed. My passive-aggressive companion managed to find me honey brew during the greatest Plague War since the planet shattered.”

 

Yirah leaned forward, “resting” her forearms on the table. “There’s more where that came from if you—”

 

“I’m still not telling,” he said.

 

Yirah sighed. “You’re insufferable.” The soldiers leaned close, murmuring. Why were they at the tavern, of all places? Were they after Fiddler? If they wanted him, surely they’d at least take some precaution to disguise themselves.

 

“You chose to be my Guide in the first place.” Fiddler shivered.

 

The room must be cold. The sensation was like an old acquaintance, unimportant and long forgotten. “It’s been a long ten years, even for a near immortal.”

 

Snowflakes slipped under the door. Fiddler craned his neck, glancing at them.

 

“You’re stiffer than a corpse. You need to relax.” Yirah had long since stifled reactions to the physical world, but this time she nearly yielded to the urge to grasp Fiddler’s hands and still them.

 

“I can’t,” he said.

 

Yirah sighed. Always so concerned about his people. She shook her head, her light hair floating like tendrils of smoke. “You can’t save them all from death.”

 

Fiddler had foolishly decided to lead not one but a few hundred families to the Flatlands, where they’d be safe from Hark’s maniac genocides. Despite Fiddler’s efforts to evade Hark’s notice, his people were now pinned inside the Woodlands, an army separating them from the freedom and protection the people of the Flatlands offered.

 

“Death tends to avoid those I try to save more than those I don’t.”

 

“You’re making yourself feel guilty,” Yirah said. Fiddler was too young to understand how much damage caring could wreak.

 

“The second their deaths cease to bother me is the moment I strangle my soul with my own hands.”

 

One of the soldiers shifted, and Fiddler jerked.

 

Yirah raised an eyebrow.

 

Fiddler exhaled with an involuntary shudder. “Don’t you find immortality horribly boring?”

 

“Just because I haven’t died—”

 

“For a few thousand years…” Fiddler interrupted.

 

“Doesn’t mean I can’t,” she finished with a customary glare.

 

“You haven’t told me how.” Fiddler leaned forward, bringing his chair to rest on all four legs. His brew rippled in his trembling hands, so he set it down and clasped them under the table.

 

What was wrong? The soldiers? If they were after him, they would have come in larger force and not waited to seize him. Fiddler had once tricked his way out of a legion. “I’ve told you.”

 

“You’ve said, and I quote, ‘When I cease being immortal, I die.’ That’s painfully obvious and terribly vague.”

 

“I become real again, fool,” she said.

 

He shifted. “Ah.”

 

Yirah scanned the room again. The soldiers religiously avoided her gaze.

 

“Why did you do it?” Fiddler asked.

 

“Do what, exactly?” She examined the bar. Barrels of brew covered the wall. A lone bartender cleaned mugs, whistling a merry tune.

 

“Turn spirit. Cut yourself off from the world.”

 

Yirah paused. “You remember Arianna?”

 

Fiddler leaned back, folding his arms behind his head. “She was a nice lady.”

 

“She stabbed you,” Yirah said flatly. She didn’t want to remember that night. She’d worried Fiddler had lost so much blood that he wouldn’t wake up.

 

“I’ll admit, it was a slight error in judgment.” He tapped his mug. “But she was a good kisser.”

 

“But she hurt you,” Yirah said.

 

“I think you’re jealous.”

 

Yirah glared at him. “She controlled you.”

 

“I suppose.”

 

Yirah shook her head. “That’s what people do to other people. Control them.” She raised an arm. “This way, they cannot.” Fiddler was born safe. He didn’t understand being weak, manipulated. Used for some twisted pleasure like shoving a sparrow in a falcon’s cage and watching it try to escape its hunter. Broken memories, stale but far from inconsequential, still lingered in a dark corner of her mind, where they should have turned to dust.

 

“There is good in it too.” Fiddler shrugged. “You can’t deny you miss touching another person. A hug from a mother. A friendly spar with a colleague.”

 

A pang tugged at her heart. “You surrender yourself to those who’d use you. Better to strangle your own soul than let another do it, hmm?”

 

The door opened again, and another man stepped inside.

 

Yirah shot to her feet. The man’s clothes were cut in the same minimal, square fashion of the soldiers, except bleached white. He raised his head, settling back into the posture of a king, and surveyed the room like he owned it.

 

One would expect nothing less from Hark.

 

Chairs scraped across the floor as the soldiers rose.

 

“Fiddler. Go,” she said. “They’ll—”

 

“When I die you’ll be free to pick another master,” Fiddler said.

 

Another master?

 

“Fiddler!” Hark spread his arms wide. “Glad you could make it.”

 

Fiddler fumbled to unbuckle his weapons belt. He placed it on the table. “You need to leave.” He wouldn’t look her in the eye.

 

Yirah watched his shaking hands. She lowered her voice. “You’re letting them capture you.”

 

Hark approached the table.

 

Fiddler swallowed. He wouldn’t meet her eyes.

 

They couldn’t take him. A shadow fell across the table. A soldier motioned for him to stand.

 

“It’s my choice.” Fiddler lifted his empty hands.

 

“Fiddler! What are you—”

 

The soldier bent Fiddler’s hands behind his back and slammed him onto the table.

 

She turned away. Sounds of the scuffle reached her ears, but it didn’t matter. It couldn’t touch her.

 

He was just another master. She’d had many.

 

She flinched all the same.

 

***

 

He was still unconscious.

 

Yirah hovered outside Fiddler’s cell. The stony room held darkness like a cup holds water. A candle a few cells down fought valiantly to stay alight, its wick almost gone.

 

He was an idiot. She understood now. It was an exchange. Fiddler’s life for his people. Hark’s army had already retreated, giving Fiddler’s people a clear route to freedom. She’d checked while he was asleep.

 

A moan struggled out of her charge.

 

“I’ve known mortals for a long time, and yet, you’ve managed to surprise me,” she said.

 

“I surprise myself sometimes.” Fiddler sat up, holding his head.

 

“You stretch the limits of human stupidity.”

 

Fiddler stood and stumbled against the wall. He eased forward, reaching for the cell bars. A little blood leaked down his face from a cut on his scalp. “You’re angry.”

 

Yirah glanced down. Her dark-red dress flickered in a nonexistent breeze like it always did when she got mad. She willed it to still. “Simply surprised.”

 

“This was the only way they would leave them alone,” he said. “They’ve retracted their forces, haven’t they?”

 

Yirah looked down.

 

“They have.” Fiddler gripped the bars.

 

“The moment the axe falls—” It hit her like a weight. They were going to kill Fiddler. Steal him away from her forever.

 

She pushed the thought away. “The moment the axe falls, they’ll be back.”

 

“That’s enough time for them to evacuate.”

 

But Fiddler would be dead.

 

Yirah turned away. Fiddler was so blasted noble. He was reckless, but he didn’t deserve this.

 

A guard entered the hallway, not giving a second glance to Yirah. He could see her, but paid no mind. She couldn’t affect the world where fate played like a schoolboy.

 

Keys jingled by his side. Keys that could free Fiddler.

 

She shook her head. She had vowed never to go back, but something had crept into her heart, staining it with its messy, warm fingers. Compassion?

 

“It’s too late now.” Fiddler sighed. “I had to save them.”

 

Yirah’s throat closed. “You care so much for those who won’t remember your name.”

 

“They don’t have to.”

 

She shook her head again.

 

“This is why you chose me, right? You knew who I was. You knew I’d make the right choice.” A note of pleading threaded his tone, like he needed her to believe in him.

 

Yirah couldn’t watch him die. She lowered herself onto the cobblestone.

 

The guard drew closer. The world blurred like she was stepping out of a waterfall. Gravity glued her feet to the floor, and she swayed under the unfamiliar weight. Her hair, no longer airy, pressed against the back of her neck.

 

She brushed the strands away from her face, feeling them pull through her fingers. She inhaled, and her lungs expanded for the first time in centuries. Her skin reflected the candlelight instead of letting it pass through.

 

It was just like the day she’d found the enchanter and begged him to erase the invisible fingerprints of the man she should have trusted most from her skin.

 

It had been so long.

 

The guard passed her. She reached out, sliding the key ring off his belt. The cold metal bit her palm and she almost dropped it.

 

“Yirah, please, I’m sorry.”

 

She turned. Fiddler eagerly met her gaze, still searching for approval.

 

She inserted the key and twisted it. Fiddler blinked when he heard the click.

 

Her feet went numb. She was fading already. She rested her hand on Fiddler’s. It was warm. Real. Chills pricked her spine.

 

She swung the door open with a loud creak.

 

Fiddler’s face went slack.

 

Yirah wove her fingers between his.

 

“You can’t…” Fiddler started. “You’re—”

 

“I told you.” The world clouded. Her legs had disappeared.

 

This was it.

 

“Will you be back?” He looked her up and down, refusing to blink lest she vanish.

 

Yirah shook her head. “This is my choice.”

 

He’d be safe. He’d return to leading the people he’d rescued.

 

She smiled.

 

And disappeared.

 

For a moment, she could still see. Fiddler stared at his hands, opening and closing them like he’d never realized they worked.

 

They trembled no longer.

 

He studied the place where she’d stood before he walked out of the cell.

 

He was free.

 

The last thing she remembered wasn’t a sight, but a feeling—like someone had removed every stimulation except a warmth she almost recognized as her heart.

A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.

As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.

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