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"Initially, it started twenty years ago as a bitter argument between rulers," Mathilda started, her voice making the story ominous. "The messenger came first, traveling back and forth two or three times a day. One day, after a few months, he came with a five guard escort. Some threats had been exchanged and the Garbonian leader, Malaki Fitzger, thought it best he was protected.
"But your father, Richard, believed killing the messenger sent its own message. So he waited until the messenger came alone, nearly a year later. The soldiers came then." She choked on her next words. “That's when Raelyn got attacked. We fought off those guards easily enough, though it was too late for my Rae. There were only twenty-five. All was calm then, the calm before the storm. A month later, the army surged the city.
"Your mother, Elizabeth, had been speaking with me for a few months. You had had infections repeatedly and she asked me for ailments, which I offered. I was surprised when she came to me that day, your brother in tow. I don't know—"
"Wait," Emmalyn interrupted. "My brother?"
"Charles, yes. As I was saying: I don't know why I accepted to care for you. Your father was the reason my daughter was dead, after all. I guess I thought it was a second chance at being a mother, which, in a way, it was. In other ways, it was torture. Little things you did would remind me of Raelyn." She smiled now. "Your spirits are so alike it scared me. It still does."
The room was silent aside from the crackling fire. Then, "Where is my family now?" Emmalyn asked quietly.
Mathilda shook her head. "I do not know. But knowing your mother's nature, I assume they went east."
"It's the way most people went. Garbonia is to the west so it's most fitting. Elizabeth wouldn't travel into colder climate with a young child. I know because you're the reason I went south."
Emmalyn's head swam from all the new information. She had a family—a father, a mother, and a brother. All this time, she had thought Mathilda was her mother, never knowing her father, which explained why she was an only child. The news was like a blow to the gut and she found herself gasping for breath. "Why...?"
"Why didn't I tell you sooner?" Mathilda finished for her. "Because I told Elizabeth you couldn't know for your own safety, but I believed my own lie. You're old enough now, you have the right to know, and there's been no threats since the day Garbonia invaded."
A feeling she couldn't describe slammed into her and Emmalyn knew what she had to do. "I need to find them. My family." The word was foreign to her but it sounded right. She had a brother. A sibling. She wondered if they looked alike, if people would know they were related, like Ceylon and Madeliene.
Mathilda fingered the book she had set down. "I knew you would say that. I've been dreaming you'd leave for a while now, dreams of being alone. I hoped it would be on happier terms."
Emmalyn remained silent, unsure what to say. She felt deep in her gut she needed to find her family, and Mathilda had been training her on survival skills since before she could walk, but she hated seeing her mother sad. No, she thought. Not my mother. Just the woman who raised me as her own for my mother.
After an extended moment of silence, she stood and rubbed her sweaty palms on her skirt. "I should go pack a bag if I wish to travel at dawn."
Mathilda was shocked. "So soon? Why not stay a week to finish your training. I will teach you other things, like evasion."
"I know how to fight," she insisted.
"What if there are too many of them?"
"I will run."
"They're faster than you."
The woman scowled at her elder. "Then I will die."
"You will evade," Mathilda corrected smugly.
Emmalyn crossed her arms. "You're just trying to keep me here longer so I might forget."
"I promise you, you will not. I am insuring your safety by finishing your education. You can strike, block, shoot, and run, but sometimes all of it isn't enough. Evasion could be the difference between life and death."
She thought a while. "Very well. I will stay a week. It will allow me to gather extra provisions I may need as well."
Mathilda smiled at her even though she wasn't sure a week would be enough. She hoped it would.
Emmalyn awoke in her bed a week later. Her packed bag lay against the wall, her traveling clothes folded on the chair next to it. Nervousness flooded through her, the excitement getting muted. A week ago she had been beyond ready to see faces that resembled hers. While growing up, she had remarked to her mother how they didn't look alike, and her response had always been, "That is because you take after your father."
Now, her curiosity spiked more than ever. She was going to meet him to see for herself. She wondered if she looked equally like both of her parents. She could only imagine what her brother looked like. Only one thought was powerful enough to keep her tucked in her bed: What if they don't recognize me?
Mathilda, too, lay in her bed, loneliness already setting in. She hadn't slept at all that night, her uneasy thoughts having kept her awake. A traveling child is better than a deceased child, she kept repeating.
But if she died, you'd never know, the voice in her head argued, not for the first time.
Dawn broke through the covered window when she heard Emmalyn rouse from her bed. She continued to lay there and listen to her daughter shuffle around. Emmalyn was nearly done making breakfast by the time Mathilda padded into the tiny room. Her brown curls bounced against her back as she glided around, picking things up and putting them away. Watching her made Mathilda's heart ache and she recalled a memory of Raelyn smiling as she served morning tea.
The young woman gasped, nearly dropping the plate in her hands. "Mother! Why must you always be so silent?"
Mathilda's smile was sad. "On the contrary, I was quite loud. You were so engrossed you took no notice."
She set the plate down. "Still, it was enough to make my heart pause its beating for a short while."
The bag by the door slumped over, making both women look over. Some of the contents spilled out and Emmalyn rushed to secure them again.
"So you're all set then," Mathilda stated. The ache deepened in her heart and her eyes began to sting but she refused to cry. "When do you expect to be leaving?"
"Just as soon as I finish breakfast."
"And would you have woken me, if I had been sleeping, to say goodbye?"
The young woman bowed her head in shame. "No, I would not have. Best to make the goodbye as easy as possible." She returned to the table and began to eat. "Don't look so sad. Even birds leave their mother's nests."
"When did you get so wise?" Mathilda wondered aloud. "Why couldn't you just stay the young child forever looking up to her mother?" But, she reminded herself, losing a child to travel is better than losing a child to death.
Emmalyn swallowed the bread in her mouth before replying. "It is past time I make my own way. You've said countless times I should be getting married already. Instead, I am off to find my family."
They fell silent as Emmalyn ate, neither knowing what else to say. Time seemed to move faster to Mathilda, who was dreading the separation. Emmalyn tried not to be too hasty but her excitement of the upcoming journey spurred her on. When she finished, she set her plate in the basin and went to sling her bag over her shoulder. Mathilda followed her and hesitated, suddenly not sure what to do.
Emmalyn opened the door before turning back to the woman she had called mother for so long. "Goodbye, Mother. I shall miss you fiercely. I will send a letter when I arrive to assure you I am safe."
Mathilda's smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. "Come here." She opened her arms and Emmalyn walked to her, welcoming the embrace. Tears pricked her eyes and she pulled away before they fell. Emmalyn grabbed her bow and strung it across her chest. She exclaimed and rushed to her room, grabbing her dagger and sheathing it in her boot. She snatched her sword off the bed and belted it around her waist. Finally, she grabbed her cloak and pinned it together around her neck. As she walked out the door, she paused a moment to press a kiss on Mathilda's cheek. "I love you."
Promptly, she left, her cloak dragging slightly on the ground behind her. Mathilda watched her go, the tears returning. She walked down the gravel path, her bag bouncing against her hip as her curls surrounded her shoulders. When she got to the end, she turned around. Upon seeing her mother in the doorway, she smiled and waved.
Emmalyn had felt her mother's eyes on her the whole time she was walking, which had made her turn around. Sure enough, there she stood. After Mathilda had waved back, she returned inside. Emmalyn shook her head but she couldn't deny the ache in her chest and nervousness in her gut. All she needed to do was head north until she came to a vacant town, then head east. Mathilda had said the way was easy enough, and she had taught her how to decipher direction based on tree moss and the sun.
"I can do this," she told herself. "It's just walking." She heaved a breath and continued walking. As she approached the town she grew up going to, it settled in she may never see this place again. She took in the brown buildings, the animal skins hanging against the butcher's wall, for sale, and the flowers in full bloom even though winter was nearly upon them. They were beautiful but she knew better than to pick one. Once, she had and then she had witnessed just how angry Ms. Wickers could be, threatening to flay her alive if she caught her again.
She smiled at the memory and briefly wondered if she should test her luck for old-time's sake. She wisely chose to walk on without disturbing the blooms. When she passed the store, she glanced inside to see Sarah, the woman she had grown up playing with. When she had turned ten, Mathilda had told her no more friends, to focus on training alone. Emmalyn had rebelled, of course, but it turned out Sarah, too, had to prepare for taking over the store one day. She had been running it for two years now, although she married Clark Lewis, who was by no means poor, and had two children with him already. But she loved it, she had told Emmalyn one day upon questioning. She couldn't see herself doing anything but running her mother's store, which had been her grandmother's before. Emmalyn could respect that.
When she reached the outer gate, she stopped. If she took the next step, she would be taking her first step into a world she had never been introduced to. She could turn around and return home as if nothing was amiss. She started to turn around—
What are you doing? her inner voice demanded. Your family is out there! You've been obsessing this whole week about what your brother looks like and how your birth mother is. You really want to go back and train? And for what? Test your training and venture out into the world. Use your bow, your sword, your dagger, and find what you've known all along was missing.
Emmalyn glanced around, wondering if anyone had noticed her long pause. No one was there, however, and she stepped through the gate and into the world.
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