A couple of months had passed since Rowan’s birthday and the summer solstice was fast approaching. Now officially an adolescent, Rowan was embracing her newfound freedoms, namely being allowed to go further afield on her own. Thus, when she was left to her own devices and the twins weren’t able to play, she found herself venturing to the nearby forests west of Næmyris. Thanks to the hunters and rangers, the edge of the forest where Rowan spent a lot of her time was relatively safe, though she had startled them on occasion. At first, Hæra was rightfully concerned, especially as Rowan had almost been shot by one of the hunters after startling them accidentally when she first encountered them. It was the rangers that eventually eased her mother’s trepidations by promising her that they would keep their eyes on Rowan after the first few times. They even promised to keep it a secret from Rowan so as to not intrude on her freedom to explore.
Rowan would venture into the forest at least once a week, drawn to the large oak trees that were perfect for climbing. She was determined to become stronger, and in and around the forest, she had found the perfect playground to do so. There was plenty of space to run around and she could jump from tree to tree for hours, taking full advantage of all that the canopy had to offer. And the delectable treat to top it all off? The fact that there was seemingly no one around to see if she embarrassed herself, but were always close enough if she was in danger. The rangers had given her a whistle that she could use if such an occasion did arise.
What really sold Rowan on the idea of playing out in the trees was how much progress she had made in such a short amount of time. Already her legs were significantly stronger, reaffirming what Hæra had said about her being a match for any full Ferran. But that was a given. The improvements to her core and upper body strength were also highly impressive. She was still petite and her muscles were more toned than they were big, but she was much happier with her size now and she didn’t want bulging muscles. She was destined to be lithe and agile and she was starting to realise that that was what she wanted to be.
This particular summer’s day, Rowan was partaking in her favourite exercise at the time. She was high up in the trees, high enough that many would consider it dangerous, not that she cared too much. That’s not to say she didn’t try to be careful, but she felt like she did a lot better and made better progress when there was a notable risk factor involved. Most of the time at least and soon; soon she would be strong enough to stand up for herself, she was confident of that.
The wind brushed through her hair as she leapt from branch to branch with tremendous speed and an impressive sense of balance. There was a strange grace to her movements that was difficult to place. It was so unlike her usual fluid steps that had oft times been described to be akin to the dancing of leaves on a gentle breeze. This was more focused, like a river determined on finding the most natural path to its final destination. Except, Rowan had no particular final destination. She was finding her path in the moment until it was time to stop.
The ranger on watch duty was completely awestruck by the display and it was only through his expertise that he was able to keep up without potentially alerting her. He was scared he might accidentally startle her if he wasn’t careful. To distract her focus could be catastrophic.
What the ranger hadn’t realised, was that Rowan’s mind had begun to wonder. Only slightly, not enough to be noticeable to an outside observer, but that small slither of distraction was dangerous. Her confidence brought that small part of her mind to think about Bragi, one of the main reasons she wanted to get stronger. Thinking about him hurt right down to her core. Remembering all the times he had bullied her was like tearing open an old wound. She didn’t understand. How could he hate her so much? Why? Because of her heritage? That made no sense, even if he had almost managed to convince her. It wasn’t like he hated Ferran and he certainly didn’t hate humans, yet he seemed to think that together, they were worth less than the sum of their parts.
Each moment, more and more of her mind was being devoted to thinking about Bragi and each moment, she remembered a different time he had bullied her. With each memory, her confidence slipped away until finally, she arrived at the memory of just a few months ago. It was the last time she had seen him, as he and his friends had been sent to assist the farmers with planting that spring. It was also his first time getting so violent as to draw blood. Sure, she had been bruised every so often, but never this. It was as if he wanted to break her down before she reached adolescence. They failed, but the cracks were starting to show again.
Almost unconsciously, Rowan reached towards her scarred brow. At this point, very little of her mind was being devoted to the task at hand. Snap! Rowan landed on a branch far too narrow to support her and she found herself plummeting to the ground.
Rowan cried out as clarity came rushing back. There was no hindsight. Rowan didn’t have time for hindsight. She managed to find her feet just as she hit the ground. Instinct took over as she used her forward momentum to collapse into a roll. Thanks to that, she was able to save herself from a significantly worse fate. Thankfully, due to the soft undergrowth, she didn’t seem to be too badly injured barring a graze down one leg and what would likely end up to be a fair bit of bruising. She sighed in relief before noticing the ranger rushing towards her.
“Little Miss! Are you okay, little Miss? Are you hurt?” There was an uneasiness to his voice, as if he wasn’t used to speaking with people and it was further marred with panic as he reached into his pack.
Rowan felt like she must have injured herself more than she had realised because she could swear that the ranger was upside down. “I’m not sure,” she responded hesitantly.
“It’s okay, I have some bandages and medicine.” His voice started to calm down as he started to take control of the situation. No longer filled with unease, he sounded kindly and he had a deep aged tone weathered by experience fitting his years, though it was clear from his expression that no amount of experience had prepared him for this. He gave Rowan what he hoped was a comforting smile. “Let’s get you upright.”
Rowan found herself being gently adjusted into a sitting position. She had rolled between the roots of a tree and ended upside down with her back against it. The ranger started tending to the cut on Rowan’s leg. He was old, much older than Rowan would expect from one of the rangers. The local rangers tended to be younger folk, still in their prime, but this man was a veteran of the wilds with his leathery sun-touched skin and callused hands.
“Thank you,” Rowan stammered awkwardly
“It’s okay, my dear,” the ranger responded calmly as he cleaned Rowan’s leg. He was notably less nervous now that he was on task.
“I don’t mean to… Ow!” Rowan whimpered as the ranger touched a damp cloth to her leg. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but who are you?”
“Me? You can call me Sen’a. I live out here in the woods as a caretaker of sorts.”
“Hello. I’m Rowan.”
“So I’ve heard.” That surprised Rowan, but before she could say anything, the old man continued. “The youngins asked me to keep an eye on you in case you hurt yourself or one of the animals or something.”
Rowan pouted. “You can’t just explain why like that without giving me the chance to ask!” she complained.
“I can’t?” Sen’a responded with a confused expression.
“Of course not!” Caught in the moment, Rowan had seemingly forgotten what had led her to this point and was instead swept up into her own flow. “How else am I supposed to feel satisfied from the answer to my question if I never get to ask the question?” Sen’a didn’t really know how to respond to that. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before Rowan came to some kind of realisation. “Hang on a second! What do you mean you were asked to watch out for me?”
“The youngins, they said a little girl called Rowan might come to play in the forests and that it was my turn to watch her if she did. To be honest, I don’t know why I said yes, but I’m glad I did. The youngins are never prepared for emergencies like this.”
“This was nothing. Just a wee little fall. Honest.” Rowan tried to sound earnest as she failed to downplay her fall. She was lucky it had been as minor as it had been considering how significant a fall it actually was.
“Nonsense!” he scolded her before his tone turned melancholy. “You could have been gravely injured or worse. Please keep better care of yourself.”
It seemed weird for a complete stranger to show such concern but he did and Rowan didn’t want to respond in bad faith. “I’ll do my best,” she said sincerely.
“Good. Now I think it’s about time you go home, don’t you?”
The old man helped Rowan up and guided her back to the edge of the forest. As Rowan walked back to the town, he mumbled. “I wonder if my little girl would have grown up to be like her,” to himself with a tear in his eyes.
Rowan wasn’t sure what to feel after her strange encounter with the old ranger. Yes, she was disappointed in herself for messing up and she still hurt from the memories of Bragi. Yet the conversation itself had been pleasant, even if slightly awkward. So her mind, unsure of what to settle on, drifted from emotion to emotion. Maybe she’d be able to see the twins. They had been especially busy that week studying for tests, but they usually had some free time to play before dinner. That thought tinted her emotions with excitement for the rest of the way back into town.
In what felt like no time, Rowan found herself firmly in the Field District on the South-Western side of the town. She took a second to catch a breath or two. In her moment of rest, she felt a chill run down her spine. She was being followed, she was sure of it. Instead of bolting, she stepped behind a wall, praying that it was just her imagination.
The longer she spent thinking about it and praying, the harder it was to deny the truth of the matter. In her hopes of seeing the twins, Rowan had taken the faster path that went by way of the Farmers’ Road which ran right past the fields where Bragi and his friends had been working. Now she heard three sets of lumbering footsteps coming in fast behind her. If she was right, she knew she could easily outrun Bragi and his two human friends for sure, but about the Ferran? Rowan had absolutely no idea and that terrified her. Should she hide? Or run? Confront them maybe? Not knowing what to do, she froze, leaning against the wall in panic.
“What am I doing?” she muttered to herself in terror. Feeling weak in the legs, she slid down the wall into a ball, trying to make herself as small as possible.
I’m a coward.
No! No, I’m not!
Or am I?
Go away! I’m not ready.
I have to be ready,
Has it all been for nothing, this training? This empty resolve?
But I’m so weak.
I want to be strong.
I hate this.
Who am I?
I am me!
Who is that?
For what seemed like an eternity, Rowan’s subconscious battled with itself. She slapped her face with both hands and warily stood up. She was still afraid, her thoughts were a mess. She wanted to run away. But more than that, she wanted to be free of Bragi and his violent torment. Rowan steeled herself for what was to come, her heart racing and adrenaline rushing through her veins.
Rowan stepped out and instead of running away, she turned down the street and approached her dreaded foe. Bragi and his friends had bulked up notably since last time, their skin weathered and tanned from working the fields and lumber yards. The Ferran friend was still out of sight, though now Rowan could hear the sound of footsteps fast approaching from just ahead of where she had been hiding.
It took a moment for Bragi to notice Rowan. He had been too busy in his predatory pursuit of her to consider that she would willingly approach them. At first he seemed surprised and then disappointed, as if Rowan had robbed him of the thrill of the hunt.
“So the half-breed chooses to reveal herself,” he growled, “and without her lackeys no less. She must be feeling confident. Right, boys?” The irony of Bragi referring to Kiriin and Kyr as ‘lackeys’ when he was surrounded by cronies was momentarily lost on Rowan as she was somewhat cowed by them jeering at her.
The moment of fear passed; Bragi was the only one who was truly dangerous. She put her foot down and spat at him through clenched teeth. “That’s rich, considering your friends seem incapable of any autonomous action or thinking,” she retorted bitterly
Bragi’s lips flickered momentarily into a snarl before he composed himself again. His friends took a little longer to do the same. Rowan had always been so meek, an easy target, and typically only responding in an extremely quiet or self-deprecating manner. “What a joke,” Bragi almost spat, “the brat thinks she can talk back now does she? Because what? She’s got a little more freedom?”
The three of them had started closing in on her when the Ferran arrived. Her chance to run away had vanished, not that she dared even think of trying, lest her tentative resolve crumble. They soon surrounded her. Not really thinking it through, Rowan tried to punch Bragi in the gut. Unsurprisingly, he was able to grab her by the wrist mid swing and wrench it aside with his vastly superior arm strength. Then with the other hand, he grabbed her by her hair and lifted her off the ground. “That scar isn’t nearly ugly enough for vermin,” he growled, “perhaps we should add to it.” He punctuated his remark by driving his fist into Rowan’s stomach, forcing the air out of her lungs. Tears started to pool in her violet eyes.
Bragi punched Rowan again, this time accompanied by the sound of cracking ribs. She winced and cried out in agony as pain shot through her. She struggled and then struggled some more in a futile attempt to wriggle free. She soon regretted the action as her broken ribs shifted and her hair felt like it was being ripped from her head. When she relaxed, Rowan felt one of Bragi’s lackeys, the Ferran, touch her, sending an uncomfortable shiver down her spine as he seemed to caress her lower leg. “Look here boss!” he snickered, “she’s got a midget knife strapped to her little leg.”
Bragi looked down to Rowan’s thigh where the dagger from Tyris was peaking just past the hem of her tunic. “So she has,” he smiled and reached towards the dagger. Rowan tried to kick his hand away, but she couldn’t get a good angle. “Now what can we do with this?”
The dagger was now in Bragi’s free hand, the one that had twisted her arm, while the other was still holding Rowan up by her hair. All of the colour drained from Rowan’s face, fear gripping her wavering heart.
This is bad! This is really bad!
Rowan’s thoughts were racing, mostly in terror. However, in the depths of her soul, one quiet thought Resonated within her.
Fight back, Rowan!
If she did nothing, Bragi would use her own knife against her. She had to fight back In the blink of an eye, adrenaline coursed through her body and she pulled her leg back and kicked with all of her might. Bragi had made the mistake of holding her in a way that directed her foot right between his legs. The kick landed with an audible popping sound. In an instant, Bragi let go of Rowan and the dagger as he collapsed to the floor, face white with pain and hands going straight to his crotch.
Rowan flailed about as she fell and landed on her backside. Pain was starting to well up in her ankle from the strain of kicking Bragi so hard. Just across from her, Bragi’s friends were horrified to see a bloody patch forming on his pants near his crotch. “What did you do?” one of them cried to Rowan.
“He was going to attack me again,” Rowan responded in the levelest tone she could manage, “so I kicked him first.” It was all she could do to contain all the emotions she was feeling as clambered up and limped towards her dagger. A dark pit in her heart was tempted to go further, that the kick wasn’t enough to satiate her anger or drive away her fear. Rowan felt sick as she tried to rid herself of such dark thoughts. She turned away, hoping that not looking at them would help. “I would go find a doctor if I were you.”
As she turned away, she noticed someone running towards her. It was Kiriin. “Are you okay?” she asked, visibly concerned for Rowan.
“I’m okay,” Rowan wheezed. “It’s just a little bit of bruising.”
“You don’t need to push yourself in front of me. It’s obvious you’re hurt. What happened?”
“Bragi was going to ambush me with his friends. Instead of letting him get the drop on me, I confronted him first. He didn’t like that, so he started attacking me. Then he got my dagger.”
“That bastard!” Kiriin interrupted.
“I kicked him before he could do anything with it and well um then… then you appeared out of nowhere. Hang on a second! Why are you here?”
“Well I may have bribed the younger kids with sweets and cakes to be my personal spy network just in case something like this happened. I came running as soon as word got to me.”
Rowan was quite surprised at that. She was almost speechless when she considered the full scope of Kiriin’s plan to help keep her safe from Bragi. “Well look at you, Miss Spymaster,” she said with no small amount of strain.
“I said don’t push yourself,” Kiriin scolded her. “Come on, Let’s get you home. Can you walk?”
“Probably not,” Rowan answered honestly.
“Well at least it looks like you won’t need to worry about Bragi hurting you ever again. That kick looks like it left a mark.”
Rowan giggled slightly in response and then she coughed. Her body hurt all over, but at least this time she wasn’t on the verge of fainting. She considered that to be a win at the very least. After some fussing, Kiriin offered her shoulder so that they could get to one of the main thoroughfares. There was no way that Rowan could make it all of the way home on a sprained ankle and a couple of broken ribs. Thankfully, the height difference between them wasn’t so great as to make it too awkward.
They eventually were able to get help from a wagoner carrying pelts that had likely come in from the hunters. Rowan had hoped that the wagoner would drop them off at the edge of the River District. Then they would be able to walk the rest of the short distance back to Rowan’s home. Unfortunately, the wagoner somehow recognised Rowan as her father’s daughter. Apparently she worked for one of his suppliers and had seen Rowan at the store a couple of times, so she insisted on bringing her there.
As they pulled up, Rowan glanced into the store, hoping that Gyren hadn’t noticed them. She took a sigh of relief when she noticed that he was engaged in conversation with a customer. She then soon realised the folly of her hope while Kiriin as the wagoner rushed straight in to tell him that something was wrong. Rowan palmed her face in mock despair as her father left his customer in the dust. He was always so protective when it came to his daughters. Still, it was enough to convince the wagoner that the situation was being dealt with and she took her leave.
“Rowan! What happened to you?” he called out in an overly loud voice.
“Da! I’m right here!” Rowan complained. “You don’t need to shout”
“Oh, yes, sorry.” he said after calming down a little bit. “Can you tell me what happened?”
Meanwhile, Rowan took in a deep breath to respond, which wasn’t her smartest idea considering her ribs. “I kinda sprained my ankle aaand — I cracked a couple of ribs,” she answered quickly, not wanting to dwell on the subject. Then, looking to divert her father’s attention she spoke up again. “Shouldn’t you finish serving your customer, Da? He’s not looking too happy.”
“No, you’re hurt. I can’t just leave you, If only I hadn’t sent Mana and Beren off on errands.” Gyren’s face was creased in worry and hesitation as he considered what to do. He relaxed after a moment or two when he finally relented, “You’re right, I can’t leave him unattended; not while I have my pride as a merchant, at least. Wait here, I’ll be right back. Make sure she doesn’t run away, Kiriin.”
“I’m not running anywhere, Da!” Rowan exclaimed in a somewhat exasperated fashion as her father hurried back into the store.
After five or so minutes, the customer had finished his business and left the store with Gyren following suit not long after. Before he had the chance to ask what had happened again, Rowan asked that they went home first. She didn’t want to explain things twice and she was still experiencing a fair bit of pain and discomfort. Understanding his daughter’s reasoning, Gyren closed up the shop, leaving a note for his employees to continue business as usual when they returned. Then, somewhat understandably, he picked Rowan up so that she wouldn’t need to walk the rest of the way home.
“Da, my ribs!”
“Oh, sorry.” Gyren adjusted his hold and carried her home as gently as he could manage. In hindsight, Rowan realised that not letting her father take in the nature of her injury wasn’t exactly her smartest decision. Then again, she could say the same for much of the events that led her to be in such an injured state. As he started to walk away, he turned to Kiriin and asked her to go find Hæra.
In response, Kiriin rushed off in the opposite direction to The Crimson Drakiir Inn where Hæra had been performing over lunch. Shortly after, Gyren arrived home with Rowan. He fumbled with the door, trying to open it whilst still holding onto Rowan. His efforts went completely unneeded as Tyris opened the door, joined by a distant looking Tehri peeking through from behind him with mild disinterest. Seeing Rowan, Tyris quickly moved out of the way to allow Gyren past, who made his way in so that he could lay Rowan down on the divan in the living room. Rowan couldn’t help but feel like everyone was making too much of a big deal out of a probably minor injury.
After twenty or so minutes of Gyren pacing frantically, Tyris watching confused, and Tehri sitting about listlessly, Hæra strode in with Kiriin in tow. Hæra sat herself on the edge of the divan next to Rowan, her stern expression a sign that Rowan would need to start explaining what had happened soon. If she’d had it her way, she wouldn’t be explaining anything at all. Instead she would rather have been resting in her room and forgetting it had happened, but she knew that wasn’t going to work, especially when Tyris broke the silence.
“So my dear little Rowan, what happened?”
Rowan sighed deeply before explaining how Bragi and his friends had sought her out on her way home, seeking to ambush her; how they surrounded her and punched her to the point of cracking her ribs; and finally, how she kicked him. For a reason Rowan didn’t quite understand, both her father and Tyris winced in pain as she described the popping sound that resulted from her kick. While they were wincing Hæra sensed that Rowan was hiding something, namely the part about Bragi having taken her dagger. It didn’t take long for Hæra to get the information out of her and when Rowan finished explaining she, much to Rowan’s surprise, held her in a soft embrace, taking care not to cause her any pain.
The two men of the house soon recovered and Tyris suddenly burst out laughing. “It would seem that our little Rowan acted like a champion, conquering a most dread foe,” he stated with what seemed like a flourish. For a soldier, he was awfully dramatic.
Hæra released Rowan and turned to Tyris. “She may have done, but it should never have come to this. Had Sværig listened, he would know to keep his child on a leash. I have no choice but to get the Town Council involved before Sværig pleads his own case.” Hæra spoke in a serious tone, her accent getting stronger as it tended to do when she was angry.
Tyris was just about to respond when Rowan started complaining that they were talking about her when she was right there.
“Sorry, Rowan,” Tyris apologised, “we didn’t mean to. I must clarify, however, that the dread foe I was referring to was fear, not Bragi.”
“I wouldnae say that. I’m still practically shaking in my boots.”
“Don’t say that, Rowan,” Kiriin interjected, “I think you were really brave to stand up to them.”
“That’s because I didn’ have a choice.”
“You didn’t? I’m sure you could have easily gotten away from them once you knew that they were coming.”
“Well yes. Maybe? I didn’t know where they all were so they may have ambushed me or something. And even if I did get away, all it would’ve been doing would be delaying the inevitable. I just wanted it to stop and I knew it wasn’t going to if I just did nothing. I guess maybe wanting and knowing that outweighed the fear? I cannae say more than that.”
“And so it should be!” said Gyren from across the room. “Conquering emotion isn’t about making emotions go away, assuming you aren’t a Stoic, it’s about acknowledging your emotions and not letting them defeat or overwhelm you. I’m sure that’s what Tyris meant.”
“Aye, Father, I did indeed. I must say though, dear Rowan, the way you described that kick, it reminds me of the strength I’ve heard fledgling Ardents are capable of.” The statement from Tyris seemed innocent enough, but Rowan couldn’t help but notice how her mother shot him a glance when he mentioned Ardents.