In the Palm of the Hand
Chris woke to moss, and grass, and quiet green.
Dimly, she became aware of a voice, too, and hesitant hands on her shoulders, but her mind was sluggish in sifting through these things. Distant, inconsequential things, really, compared to the warm dark behind her eyelids and the rich, unhurried smell of the woods. For all the pleas of that thin human voice, it seemed that the forest itself was rousing her, sunlight filtering slowly through the trees to find her eyes, verdant shadows dappling her hands.
"My lady, please wake up!"
Groggily she blinked, and there was a familiar face hovering anxiously over her. Louis. Her stomach lurched when she tried to bring him into focus, small and pallid against the broad expanse of trees above their heads. For a long moment she could not find her tongue, wanting to apologize without quite knowing why. Had she slipped unconscious, fallen from her horse? Forgive me, Louis, I did not mean to give you a start. I was just faint, for a moment, lost my balance--
Wait. Shivering, confused, she felt time swirling around her, like so many motes catching the slanted sunshine. This was not the Zexen forest, young and yellow, sandy soil and silver aspen trees. The Council and its pettiness were a world away. Not home, then, but-- she struggled for names-- the Kuput Forest?
And then she remembered.
The urgent summons, and riding worried across the plains, afraid of what she might find. The trap, so deftly laid, and herself helpless and stumbling neatly into it. Her right hand ached with a terrible, icy emptiness, and she couldn't quite close her hand around her sword hilt, to lever herself upright. "Thank you, Louis," she tried to say, but her head was spinning and she couldn't quite stand, her armor unexpectedly heavy. With so much lost, how could she find her feet again?
"Oh no," she heard Louis whisper, just as she heard the forest rustling with approaching movement. He spun around with his arms spread wide-- to shelter her, however futilely, against another attack. But as she squinted beyond him into the woods, she could discern the outlines of swift-moving figures, pale-faced shadows against the darker trees.
Perhaps her eyes had grown accustomed to the green and shaded forest, or perhaps it was an older magic still that gave her the power to see that which does not wish to be seen. (The half-understood ritual in the ancient forest, with only the iridescent blue fireflies bearing witness...) Silently they passed over the forest floor, their bows at the ready, their eyes unwavering: the women of Alma Kinan.
Almost too late, Chris found her voice. "Yuiri!"
Instantly all motion stopped, the forest gone quiet as if it had only been a fevered vision. Even the leaves of the trees were unmoving. Chris had to swallow before she could call again, "Yuiri, please, it's me--"
From between two great oak trees, a woman stepped towards them; like all her people, she seemed to materialize from the very heart of the forest. Louis trembled but stood his ground, guarding his lady-- but the woman stopped short, closer now, mottled sun shadows dancing across her suddenly still face. Her dark eyes were wide and suspicious, as the fox who does not expect the hare it pursues to turn and call it by name.
"By the goddess. Chris." Soundlessly Yuiri dropped to one knee at Chris' side, with a brief smile for Louis, who sagged, relieved. "What has happened to you?"
Chris tried to tell her that she would be quite fine, that it was nothing, really; but looking into Yuiri's earnest face, the lies wouldn't come. She felt the fool, stumbling upright in her gear, all noisy and out of balance in the silent listening forest... Until the archer caught her gauntleted hand, steadying her, unlaughing. Gratefully the Zexen knight found her feet, leaning on the touch she could not feel.
"Yumi sensed trouble in the heart of the forest," Yuiri said, not letting go her hand. "We set out from our village with intent to fight. Are you and your women all right?"
Chris was shaking her head, feeling more awake but no less surreal. From her feet, now, she could see the shapes of her companions, downed in the moss. Vaguely, in answer, she gestured at her team: Ayame and Landis, unconscious and ungraceful, sprawled across the forest path behind her; her horse, some yards away, limping towards them.
Yuiri followed her glance, her lip twitching as her gaze fell on Borus. She dipped her head. "Chris, forgive us. I did not recognize you at first-- We might have greeted you properly, if we had known."
"We?" she should not have been surprised, she knew, to see the other women emerging from the dimness between trees, bows shouldered at a gesture from Yuiri, their faces yet alert and cautious. She shook herself, her throat tight. "How could you have known? We were lured into this forest. We were told you were in need--"
"Lured." Yuiri's eyes narrowed. "It was your battle we must have heard."
"Battle," Chris said dryly. "That implies that we had a fighting chance." Uselessly she clenched her right fist, wondering about the depths of what she had lost. A true rune was miracle enough, but to try to claim it twice? When she had sworn herself into the service of Zexen and the goddess, she had not expected much mercy from either. She asked only the chance to hold her own in a fair fight-- and it burned, to be denied even that much.
"The forces we fight are beyond human," Yuiri said, definitive but quiet. "You ought not blame yourself." Chris' futile gesture was cut short by a hand at her shoulder. "What were you told?"
"That Alma Kinan was in trouble," Chris said, her lips twitching into a rueful smile, not meeting the other woman's eyes. "I might have known your village would be all right." Some of the feeling was coming back into her fingertips; she shook her hand gingerly. "We were the ones who needed aid."
Yuiri shook her head. "We would have come faster, had we known it was you. The woods have been uneasy for days." She cocked her head, curious. "But it seems the danger has passed."
"They got what they wanted," Chris whispered, already pulling off her right gauntlet to rub her aching hand. Wordlessly she showed Yuiri the scar, curling her fingers around it when the other woman winced. "I doubt they'll be back."
"Let us join you," said a voice beside them, unexpectedly.
"Yumi?" Surprised, Yuiri turned towards the smaller woman.
"Please, Chris." Yumi put her own hands around Chris', gently, but without faltering. Her hands were deft and cool, slightly rough across the ball of the thumb with an archer's callous. "You have an army-- you... have the Flame Champion. This is bigger than Alma Kinan. Let us join you."
Pride struggled in Yuiri's eyes, for a moment, then she too, held out her hand, threading her fingers through both Yumi's and Chris'. "Yumi," she said sternly-- but with the beginnings of a smile as the other archer squared her shoulders, prepared to argue her case-- "...speaks for all of us."
And with their warmth in her hand, Chris thought she felt the blood begin to move again in her veins, rune or no. "Yes," she heard herself saying. "Please, yes."