Armin winced and whined in his sleep. She shifted him closer on the hard cot, but the lean winter had left her body with too many sharp angles. He buried his tear stained face in her hair, where scent and proximity unwound the tight knot of his nightmares so that he relaxed against her. She envied him that unconscious peace.
She stroked a soothing hand down his back and stared through the bars of their cell. Her unfocused gaze snapped to attention as Elder Prast strode toward them.
“Armin, wake up,” she whispered, her voice scraped raw. The taste of ash still lingered in her mouth. Her brother stirred and startled against her as Prast slammed an open palm against the bars. He glared down at them, his expression one of vitriol and venom.
“You’ve been claimed,” he sneered.
Azzy shared her brother’s wild-eyed bewilderment.
“But he—” Armin began. She silenced him with a squeeze of his arm and shook her head. It didn’t matter the how or the why, they couldn’t afford to question it. Not when a single wall separated them from the burning room.
They followed the begrudging Elder through the streets. Azzy kept her gaze on the ground, unwilling to look the others in the eye. She knew they had turned out, despite the hour, the streetlamps still dim against the dark. None of Haven’s noble citizens stood for the two of them as their mother burned. The woman who birthed their babes and treated their wounds of body and mind was now ash. Prast deposited on the old Apothecary’s doorstep. Azzy licked her lips, puzzled but unwilling to speak in front of the surly Elder. The office had been abandoned for some time since the previous one succumbed to the Rot.
Azzy held her breath as the door opened.
“Thank you for bringing them. That will be all Prast.” He stood there, streaked with dirt, with a rag tossed over his shoulder.
Azzy looked up at him, unable to process the churning emotions in her gut.
Their mother had one true friend in Haven. He’d stood by the siblings during the awful blaze, and then he left, mute as stone. He’d only stayed for their mother and Azzy assumed he’d moved on. Oswin Brixby was a nomad, who hovered at the fringes like their mother, but where she’d proved useful and valuable, Brixby had remained a stray. She knew he was skilled with tonics and tinctures, he worked with their mother enough, but what had he offered to Prast to lift the noose from their necks?
Azzy had her answer as they followed him inside. Brixby traded his freedom.
The shop stretched before them, freshly cleaned, the supply cabins scantly stocked. Azzy wasn’t sure how or where he’d had procured as much as he did. There was so much she didn’t know about the man who’d stayed by their mother’s side in her final hours. She stood, exhausted and guarded, unable to relax though her legs trembled from the effort of standing.
Her brother didn’t have such reservations. Armin threw himself into Brixby’s arms with a sob. The man froze for a moment, his expression stark, before he wrapped his arms around the boy.
“You came back,” said Armin. “You came back.” He repeated the words, a whispered prayer that had been answered. Azzy couldn’t swallow through the tightness in her throat. She sank on one of the stools at the work bench and let her brother drink in the relief.
“There’s bone broth on the stove,” said Brixby. “I’ve prepared a room for each of you upstairs.”
The broth soothed the ache in her burned throat and the bed looked soft as home. The thought brought the sting of unshed tears to her eyes. It was what waited on her dresser that truly did her in. Her fingers roamed over the brush and brooch, the small trinkets he’d left for her to find.
“I saved what I could,” Brixby murmured from the doorway. Azzy said nothing. There was nothing to say, nothing that could bring back the woman who owned those precious pieces. She knew he would have left her there to mourn for days, let the walls drink in her bitterness and anger, but Azzy didn’t allow herself to succumb to her grief. She waited until she was sure Armin was finally asleep, before she crept down to find Brixby at the work bench, sawing away at a handful of roots with knives far too dull for such a task.
She would have to procure him new blades somehow.
He kept working as she slid onto the bench across from him, treating her like a wary animal who had to get used to him before he acknowledged her presence. In a way, he was right.
Azzy hugged her elbows. “I haven’t slept since.” The root shifted on the pocked and pitted board. The blade cut into his fingers.
Brixby set the knife down and braced himself on the counter. He ignored the blood that oozed from the shallow cut. Sadness was etched in each line of his face, so many more lines than the last time she saw him only days ago. It gave Azzy the courage to cover his hand with hers.
“I’m sorry I took so long to come for you,” whispered Brixby.
Azzy’s jaw tightened. She wanted to rail at him for leaving them to Prast’s mercy. She wanted to beg him never to leave again. She wanted to thank him for being here now, to fall against him, like Armin and cry until she ran dry. Instead, she fished through the drawers and cubbies until she found what she needed. Brixby didn’t resist as she cleaned and dressed his hand.
“I know you lost her too,” said Azzy.
Brixby stopped her movements with a gentle hand. “We both have to learn to live without her.”
Azzy met his dark green gaze, trying to unravel the mystery in their cool depths. It didn’t matter what she did and didn’t know about Brixby. He’d chosen them. Accepted the pain and the burden of their loss aside his own. Azzy let the anger, and the bitterness go; the knot of tension a cut string that let her shoulders sag with weariness. Her leaned forward and pressed her forehead to his.
“We will,” she said, “as a family.”
This short is based on the world of Marrow Charm by Kristin Jacques. Marrow Charm released with The Parliament Press on June 4th, 2019, and is available now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Parliament Press website! Into the Gate Cycle, if you dare... Add it to your TBR here on Goodreads!