HER heartbeats clattered inside her chest as she crested Pvokri Hill; that giant mound of golden grasses that meant she was almost home.
Ten years had passed, yet it looked almost the same. Her feet ached as if she hadn’t spent years on the march with the Blue Queen’s army crafting and repairing armor for her warriors. Finally, she had been given leave to come home.
The Armorer halted just before the hilltop to adjust her one-handed grip on the large sack she dragged behind her. It would doubtless surprise her husband, but coming home with one fewer arm was better than coming home dead. Besides, it wasn’t insurmountable. For gods’ sakes, she’d made it home on her own well enough. There were some trinkets and treasures she had to leave behind, of course, but she cherished nothing more than the look she’d soon find on her husband’s face when she walked back through their cabin door.
When she came over the hilltop, she stopped. A tiny village sprawled out below. She carried on through her confusion. Last she lived here, Pvokri Village had been razed in a skirmish.
She descended. At least this meant things were looking up again. Despite the Red Queen’s inability to protect her subjects in years past, Zoldoni folk always found a way to rise from the ashes and thrive. Even if she fought against Rosehearts, she respected their resilience.
The Armorer dragged her sack through the village toward the stand of trees where her cabin stood. Each footstep fell to the beat of splitting logs.
The woodcutter stopped her as she passed.
“What’re you doin’ round here, warrior?” the woodcutter asked. A woman—his wife, the Armorer assumed—came away from what she was doing near their log stack to stand by him.
The Armorer dropped the sack and gestured at the stand. “My husband and I have lived down yonder since we were children. I went away for…” she paused. Ten years, but the words wouldn’t come out. “For longer than I wanted. But I’m back now, and I want to see him desperately.”
The woodcutter’s wife’s voice was high and reserved. “What’s he called?”
She paled. The woodcutter studied the ground, one hand on his hip and the other weighing on the handle of his axe. “Best go with her, Vralya?”
Her stomach sank to her feet. “Why? Is he alive?”
Vralya nodded, gathering the Armorer’s bag. “Just…best you both have someone you know when you see each other again. A decade’s near long enough to raise a child.”
At the mouth of the stand, she broke into a run. Her face was hot and her breaths ragged. Odzerhei. After all this time. When she saw their little cabin, she sobbed. A man sat on the porch, whittling.
“Odzerhei!” she yelled. “Odzerhei, it’s me! It’s—”
The cabin door opened and shut for a little boy no older than five. He climbed into Odzerhei’s lap.
She stopped as if her feet had turned to stone. The breath evaporated from her lungs.
Vralya followed behind her, shouting, “Wait!”
The Armorer watched her husband stand through blurry eyes. His mouth moved, but no words came out. The little boy in his arms watched her with wide eyes, so innocent and curious.
“Who is that?” she croaked. “Who is he, Odzerhei?”
“Oddi? Are you alright? Who is that?” A woman, heavily pregnant, stepped outside. An older girl, near nine or ten, peeked out the window.
When the woman saw the Armorer, her expression soured. “This ain’t an almshouse. Try Losevka.” Exasperation laced every word.
“Almshouse?” The Armorer stepped forward. “I am his wife.”
The woman looked at her belly, then back at the Armorer. “Mhm. And this isn’t his child, it’s the goat’s.”
“Evchala, go back in the house, please,” Odzerhei croaked.
Evchala cackled. “This disheveled lunatic tomps up to our cabin, calls you her husband, and you try to send your pregnant wife inside?” She slammed the door hard enough to rattle the timbers. “Oh no. No no. I think she needs to leave, and you need to explain what in Leladya’s name is going on.”
The Armorer looked at Odzerhei. Only Odzerhei. The years had been kind to him. He looked well-fed, well-groomed, well…happy.
Vralya put a hand on her shoulder. “C’mon. Just c’mon, darlin’. I’ll get my husband and see if we can’t all sit down to—”
The Armorer wrenched her arm away and marched up to the patio to look at the man she once called her husband. “I loved you,” she sobbed.
“You left,” he cried. “You’ve up and left ten years ago! No notes. No pay. No nothing. I thought you were dead!”
“I had to!” she screamed.
“You never had to! You could have stayed here. We could have grown old together, but you left and you expected me to never move on?”
“I told you.” She tried to force her voice to quiet. Waves of rage and anguish broke through. “I told you when I returned—”
He scoffed, shaking his head. “I never thought you would.”
She looked him in the eye. Glassy, green as sea glass, scribbled with gold and grey. She’d loved those eyes. Every move they made, every skirmish won, every battle fought, every ring in every chain of every piece of mail she’d ever wrought, in all of them she had seen him and survived to look into those eyes one more time.
But she could feel it. They’d stopped seeing her long ago.
One more time was all she got.
She turned and ran past Vralya into the woods, muffling her sobs inside her elbow so his bitch wife wouldn’t hear. Every step clipped a string in her heart until its music no longer played. A thousand paces blazed through her soul, burning them down shard by blackened shard for the shrikes and peregrines to warm their wings. Each footfall taunted her with memories of their life, their home, the things they’d built and the love they shared, all turned to ashes in a long-abandoned hearth.
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