[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]
Thordin crossed his arms, his brow furrowing. Something about his stance and expression reminded Phelan of the sky before a storm—an irony that was not lost on him at all. “Has anyone seen Cariocecus lately?”
“No,” Matt said. “But if you’re thinking he’s responsible, I’d probably reconsider.” His gaze flicked toward Phelan as he continued. “Hecate and I talked about it, partially about the fact that they were here long before Cariocecus ever showed up and aimed them at us. I don’t know how anyone controls them or how it’s decided when someone does or doesn’t—we’ve seen their strings pulled by a few people over the years—but I don’t think he’s got anything to do with this.”
“That’s not what I’m getting at,” Thordin said, reaching for the bellows. “I’m just wondering.”
“Why?” Jacqueline set down her basket on one of the benches and sat down slowly, watching Thordin intently. “What’re you thinking?”
“Maybe he has insights on this,” Thordin said, then shrugged slightly with one shoulder. “I don’t know, Jac, but that’s just it. None of us know anything right now. We’re grasping at straws and groping around in the dark.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” she said.
“No,” he agreed. “It wouldn’t. I think all of us would rather not, though, all things considered.”
“Things are happening too fast,” Phelan said, leaning against the doorframe. Matt was still staring at the embers, even as Thordin started to pump the bellows slowly, adding more fuel to the coals. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had to deal with a pile-on like this.”
“A long time,” Matt echoed, nodding. “Not since they left.”
Phelan winced, the bottom dropping out of his stomach. “Matt—”
“The peace they brokered is breaking down,” he said again, then sighed. “Just like we all knew it would someday. Just like she—like both of them wanted to prevent. I guess they didn’t find a way.”
What he let unsaid was something none of them quite wanted to face, a question that had long gone unanswered—because none of them were really willing to give voice to it. So far as almost everyone was concerned, Marin and Thom were dead and had been for years. There was an empty grave that bore their names out in the burial grounds north of the village.
That grave was empty, but none of them could be sure of what had happened to Thom and Marin Ambrose after they’d left the Valley. There had been no word, no sign—nothing. Every time Cameron rode out, he looked for signs of them, listened for word of them.
For years, there had been nothing.
Phelan closed his eyes, exhaling a breath as pain tightened in his chest and throat.
“Then we know what we have to do,” Jacqueline said. “They left us the tools we need to make it all work. All four of us know that—the whole council knows that. We’ll make it work and we’ll win—we’ll win because there’s no other choice.” She sighed, picking up her basket as she stood. “We made them a promise and I, for one, intend to keep it as long as I’ve got breath in my body.” She headed for the door, pausing to peck Phelan on the cheek. “I’m going to go make sure Lin’s eaten something.”
“Okay,” Phelan murmured, squeezing her arm for a second before letting go. “Tell him I’ll come down and see him in a little while.”
Jacqueline nodded, offering him a reassuring smile as she turned and headed back down the path. Phelan’s gaze drifted after her, though only for a few seconds. He swallowed past the tightness in his throat.
“She’s right,” he said quietly. “We do know what we have to do.”
“It’s just the matter of doing it that’s hard.” Matt rubbed at a spot on his forehead between his eyes, as if his head was starting to ache. “But it was never easy, was it? Even when they were here. Hell. I guess it was harder then, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Phelan said. “Yeah, it was.” He turned back toward them. “So. Who do we send hunting?”