“Oh, for La Luna’s sake,” Brynn Atanasov complained. Her arms ached unbearably from hanging on so long. She swung her legs over the crook of her right arm, letting go with her left, relieving the straining muscles. “I wish I was built like my mother right now.”

“Ha!” shrieked her mother, Isa, who was way ahead of Brynn on the strenuous climb. She grabbed the bar just over her head and pulled herself up easily. She straddled the bar and beamed down at her daughter.

Brynn looked at her incredulously. Isa’s large, round face was streaked with dirt and blood and her silk dress was in tatters, but she somehow looked as radiant as a moonbeam. Her curly black hair hung around her shoulders, but it did not disguise the smallness of her frame. Flashing an encouraging smile at Brynn, the fairylike woman darted upwards through the network of bars, gracefully managing her paltry weight.

Brynn was exhausted when she reached the top. Isa pulled her up onto solid ground and cradled her head in her lap as she waited for Brynn’s overexerted limbs to stop twitching. Brynn peered out under her mother’s arm at their surroundings. A dull, dank, dungeon-like place lit only by the hellish red glow coming from the bar-webbed pit they had just exited.

Brynn sat up abruptly as she heard footsteps on the stone floor. Isa turned her head sharply in the direction of the sound, her arms raised level with her waist. Her pose conjured images of a mother bird.

A heavy door heaved open in the wall and a four people in battle gear advanced. The first man stepped into the red glow. He was an older, battle-scarred male version of Brynn. Same lean muscled build, same straight black hair, same striking gold eyes. When he saw them, his stolid face softened with relief. “You made it.”

Isa dropped her defensive stance immediately, gliding to his side where she buried her face in his shoulder. The man clasped her delicate shoulders with his large, rough hands, holding her close.

Brynn staggered to her feet. “Father, thank goodness.” she croaked. Her smile widened as she recognized the young man on her father’s right. He too was her exact male replica, but younger. “Jethro!”

Jethro grinned and tossed her a loaded pistol. “Hey, Brynn. We could use some defense on the bridge.”

Brynn nodded enthusiastically. “Anything but climbing. Who are we shooting?”

Brynn’s father, Arden, resumed his hard expression. “Lasata’s men are overwhelming us. It’s been almost two days.”

Isa drew away from him. Her gentle demeanor vanished along with the sky-blue colour of her eyes. She hissed like an infuriated snake. “Lasata! That two-faced little..!” she trailed off, her eyes blazing an alarming shade of red.

“Slimeball?” offered Jethro.

“Heap of gryphon dung.” said Brynn promptly.

Isa De Lang glared at them in clear disapproval.

“Sorry, mother.” they said in unison.

Their father went on like he hadn’t noticed. “There are a lot of wounded, and our healers are too few to cope. You are needed, Lady De Lang.”

“Take me to them.” Isa ordered.

Arden led the way out of the underground room and up into the fortress’s aboveground facilities.

Brynn walked with vigor, but she felt sticky and grimy from their long climb. She looked at her mother again, shaking her head in admiration and disbelief.

Isa De Lang’s clothes, torn and burnt as they were, did not affect her regal bearing any more than her diminutive size. Despite dozens of bruises and scratches, Isa’s skin glowed like a winter moon. And as usual, her long and voluminous curls looked like heaven.

Arden kept close to her side, Jethro and the two other soldiers falling into an escorting formation.

Brynn walked beside her brother to talk to him. “So, Jethro,” her pleasant tone made him glance at her warily, as if she was about to say something scandalous.

Sure enough, she loudly blurted, “Have you told Gwenolyn you’re in love with her yet?”

“Brynn!” hissed Jethro.

Brynn’s eyes widened innocently. “I’m only asking!” she smiled at him sweetly. “Your face is red.”

Jethro looked away, his cheeks ablaze.

Brynn put both her hands behind her back and walked along silently, making it clear that she was done teasing.

“I miss my sister, you know,” Jethro remarked absently after some time.

“I missed you too.” Brynn returned.

Jethro smiled with a sadistic glint in his azure eyes. “I actually meant Valentina.”

Brynn winced. “You’re too cruel.”

Jethro tried not to release the ardent apology that fought to escape his lips. It was important to project a hard, blasé facade when conversing with the impish, wicked Brynn. Brushing off the pain it caused him to even marginally hurt his beloved sister, he said, “Seriously, how is she?”

Brynn’s golden eyes were unusually soft as she remembered her gentle adoptive sister, sweet Valentina De Lang. So far away. “I’ve not seen her in person.”

Jethro sighed. “It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen her last. Father too. It’s really taking a toll on him.”

Brynn looked startled. She was so clearly shocked that anything could take a toll on her stalwart father, that Jethro added in gentle tones, “He never shows it though. I’d probably never guess if I didn’t know him so well.”

Brynn looked only partly reassured. She knew that her family did not cope well under the strain of separation. What was that song that Mother used to sing? Separation tears us far apart — But when you leave you always take my heart.

And it was hard, she concluded, to function without your heart.


from Untitled upcoming novel by Helen Cryestira Viorel

edited by Francois Chalon

proofread by Vladia

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