The fire raged, then flickered, then burned in ash and ember until the early morning. Throughout all of those long hours, the Iskia stayed faithfully by her side.
Finally, Broc was no more. He was gone.
Breanna turned to her new quiet friend, and he stared back at her with his endless black eyes.
But a tiny hope stirred within her.
Broc was gone. Cassian and Koax were too far to be reached. Mim was- she daren’t think where Mim was.
Leasha had survived. She must have survived.
If Breanna wandered around aimlessly on these hills for years, she might never find her… but the Iskia? The Iskia could fly. The Iskia could see for miles and miles all around. The Iskia would find Leasha in a moment.
She just had to ask.
“Do you…” she started, unsure how to phrase her question to a bird, “do you know where my friend is?”
The Iskia cocked its head and stared back at her. For a moment Breanna wondered if it could even understand her. Had she been mistaken when it spoke to her earlier? Had it simply mimicked her voice?
“My friend,” she said again. Her stomach tightened at the thought of never seeing Leasha again, of never finding her, of being so close to a way of searching for her but never being able to, “… an Elf?” The Iskia stared blankly, but something about the incline of the bird’s head told her he was listening even if he didn’t yet understand. Breanna pushed, “with bronze hair and-and,” she looked desperately at her hands then mimicked the archery of the Elves, “and arrows!”
The Iskia cawed, fluttering its feathers. “Stingers!” The bird’s sudden cry was so buried within the cawing of a crow it took her a second to realise it had spoken.
“Yes!” Breanna said, relieved to be breaking through, “Stingers. Did you see her? Did you see my friend?”
“ThudFoot? ThudFoot with stingers?” The bird’s words were strange but his voice was strangely familiar to her.
“Yes.” Breanna nodded. Holding back a sob. It was so strange and so comforting to be talking to the Iskia. She felt foolish and thankful all at once.
“ShortThorn does not like stingers.”
“No… well,” Breanna thought of the dull ache in her side from the sycorax scar. “Breanna does not like claws.”
The Iskia seemed to like that. There was a great fluttering of wings and much scratching against the ground. Breanna laughed despite herself; she liked this little, ShortThorn. “Can you take me to her? To the ThudFoot?”
ShortThorn cawed, fluttering his wings so much he almost took off from the ground. “ThudFoot went Deepers,” he said.
“Deepers? Is she still down there?” Breanna pointed to the gorge, “can you show me?” If she walked along the top of the cliff she might see her down within it. Perhaps Mim was with her. No doubt they would be wondering where she had got to. They would be searching for her, hoping she was well.
She refused to imagine anything else.
But as she went to head toward the gorge, ShortThorn grabbed her. His strong beak yanked at her leathers pulling her back as he cawed and flapped.
“Don’t go Deepers!” ShortThorn explained once Breanna had turned, “Don’t go Deepers.”
“I have to,” Breanna said calmly, “I have to find my friends.”
“Iskie go Deepers. All Iskie go Deepers. Iskie need to fly. Not go down. Breanna not go Deepers.”
There was such desperation in the bird’s cries and flutters that Breanna wanted do as he asked, and stay on the hills. But she glanced back at the gorge. If Mim and Leasha were still down there, then that was where she had to go. “I have to find my friends.”
“Breanna not find ThudFoot. ThudFoot down Deepers.”
“I have to find them.” Breanna shook her head and turned to march off toward the gorge. The silly bird was just frightened. But if he wanted to fly, he could fly. He didn’t have to come with her into the gorge, she would just have to find Leasha on her own.
But ShortThorn fluttered over her head and landed in her path. “Breanna not go. Breanna not go Deepers.”
Now he was starting to annoy her. “I have to go.” Breanna’s hand twitched and she almost reached for her new axe. But she quickly decided against it. She didn’t want to draw a weapon against her new little friend. Not just because he had a strong beak and sharp claws but because he was clearly frightened more than aggressive. Whatever it was down in that gorge, ShortThorn clearly did not like it.
But she furrowed her brow. It only made her more determined to find the others. If they were in danger she couldn’t stand aside.
She had failed Broc. Would she fail Leasha now, too?
The heat from the embers of the pyre still warmed her back.
She had her brother’s axe, she had her duty to everyone, and she had nowhere else to go.
Breanna closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “I’m going.”
She skirted around the bird. But he bristled and cawed, fluttering into her path again. “Breanna not go.” His soft voice had become hard, he cawed as he panicked. “Breanna never come up.”
“I will,” Breanna spoke softly, she didn’t fully understand why but the creatures fear tugged at her chest and her promise was firmer than she fully believed, “I’ll come back up. When I find my friends, I will come back up.”
ShortThorn cocked his head. “Breanna find Iskie?”
The question surprised her and pulled at her heart all at once. “Yes.” The firm assent had slid from her lips before she had even considered it. But she knew it was true. At least she knew she wanted it to be true. If there were Iskia down in the gorge, somehow stuck, or worse, then she would bring them back up. Or she would at least let ShortThorn know the fate that had befallen his friends. Suddenly, bright eyes of the bird hopping and fluttering before her, she saw the same pain and loss she felt. She knelt down, facing the bird head-on and more determined than she had ever felt. She saw his hopelessness, she saw his loss, she saw in him everything she had felt herself.
But rather than swallowing her, his hopelessness somehow strengthened her. She would help. If she could. She wanted nothing more than to take ShortThorn’s pain and loss away.
“Yes,” she said again, promising him more firmly and with more determination than she had ever promised anything in her life. “I’ll find your Iskia and I will find my friends, and I will come back up again. I will promise you that.”
ShortThorn fluttered and bounced, but didn’t move from her path. “Breanna find Iskie,” he said, then suddenly rose up in the air in a flourish of wings, “ShortThorn show Breanna a way. An old way to the Deepers.”
ShortThorn took off heading north, calling to her, but Breanna hesitated. She should enter the gorge where she had last seen Leasha and track her from there. But something about ShortThorn’s fear, trust, and unexpected kindness made Breanna turn away from the gorge and instead, follow the stranger across the hills.