The ground was wet under Dev's boots; the moisture spraying his hands as he lunged forward in the grass during drills. He landed on his palms, surged back up to his feet, then repeated the process over again. Beside him, Pile cursed at the mud splattering their faces.
"Remind me again why we need to get up close and personal with the ground?" The red-haired elf panted, wiping his hands on his grays.
"You'll do whatever I tell you to do," their old friend Calan said in a tone that brooked no argument, his blue eyes flinty, "or else you won't become a Lightkeeper."
Dev raised his eyebrows meaningfully, urging Pile not to challenge a superior, even a pretentious blowhard like Calan. Pile, of course, ignored him.
"All I'm saying is use a little creativity. We could do sprints up the hill, climb a rock, I don't know? Literally anything else until the ground's dry."
"You want to climb wet rocks, be my guest." Calan extended his gauntleted arm in a sweeping gesture toward the distant cliffside, awash with early morning sunlight. "It would save me the hassle of having to keep track of your demerits."
"Come on, Cal. It's been, what, two years since you were in the juniors tent goofing off with us? Are you really going to act like you'd welcome my untimely demise over a few asinine drills? What happened that's got you so murderous, mate? Did Rana shut you down last night?"
"It's not me you're disrespecting with your insolence, Pile. It's the clan. Keep it up and I'll have no choice but to remove you from consideration. If you truly want to become a Lightkeeper, pull yourself together. Know your place."
Dev took a step closer to Pile, laying a hand on his hot-tempered friend's sweaty back. "He'll be fine," he said to Calan, ignoring Pile's tense deltoid. "Fiery redheads and all, you know? How about I take him to grab something to drink, give him a moment to cool off?"
Calan scrutinized them for a long moment, as if deciding whether Dev was lying. As if Dev would risk it.
"Fine. Meet me at the cliff face in ten minutes."
"You really want me dead, huh?" Pile grumbled.
Dev dragged his mouthy friend away from the looming confrontation by his elbow. They ended up in front of the healers’ tent. Their boots, grays, and faces were caked in mud and sweat, but Dev had a plan. He ran a hand through his damp hair, pushing it out of his eyes, then opened the door and pulled Pile in after him.
"This seems a little premature, don't you think?"
"Shut up Pile." Dev cocked his head toward the back of the tent, where Healer Mell kept a cluttered office. Most of the doorways they passed in the narrow hallway were closed off, but a few were open, revealing patients inside small but comfortable exam rooms.
Dev tugged on Pile's arm whenever he suspected the other's gaze had invaded someone's privacy.
Goddess, but this would take some effort, wouldn't it?
He hoped Mell could help his friend. She'd given Liss a calming draught yesterday. Maybe she had something that would keep Pile's mouth shut, so he wouldn't lose his chance at becoming a Lightkeeper. Dev didn't want to be the only guy in their age bracket to get inducted. Len had already been discharged for similar antics, and there were only three other trainees, all of them older and imperious.
Was it selfish to want a friend among his ranks? Whatever that said about him, so be it.
Dev froze in the open doorway to Mell's office. He hadn't expected to find Liss with the old healer, but there she was, standing right in front of Mell, hands planted on her hips. Her long white hair streamed loose down her back. Her green eyes were darkened in thought. She looked upset, and Dev suddenly remembered that she had been angry with Mell last night. Because the old woman had told him about the details of the announcement instead of Liss.
He had thought it odd, too. And it probably didn't help that he'd just shown up with Pile following him like a lost dog.
"Dev." There was a note of surprise in the healer's aged, cracking voice. "You came just in the nick of time."
"No, he didn't," Liss retorted. She was standing so rigidly, her fingers digging into her waist through her grays. Dev was pretty sure she'd have welts later on. Not that he was thinking too hard about it or anything.
"Oh, calm down." Mell waved one bony hand at Liss and the other at Dev and Pile, beckoning them forward with a surreptitious wink. "I was just congratulating Liss on making good decisions, and here you are."
"Are you sure it's by coincidence?" Liss caught Dev's gaze, her glare softening. But not by much. "Did my dear old great-grandmother have you summoned to argue her side of the story?"
Dev shook his head, thoroughly confused. "I have no idea what's going on. I came by to ask if we can get some of that calming draught for Pile. He's about to get himself kicked out of the Lightkeepers before he's earned his spot."
Pile flushed crimson. "Guilty," he muttered, eyes cast down to the dusty floor.
"Nerves got you, son? I'm sure I can find something for that." Mell smiled warmly, already shuffling through her crates and drawers of storage.
Now that he knew Liss was related to the old healer, he could sort of see the resemblance. They were both tiny things with pale complexions and arresting gazes that could nail a man to the wall if he wasn't careful.
"Not nerves exactly," Dev explained, shaking off the unsettling feeling, "more like Pile can't keep his mouth shut."
Mell chuckled, coming up from a deep drawer with a phial in hand. "Here we go." She held out the offering, and Pile cautiously accepted. "Our clan has always had a healthy dose of smart mouths and dreamers. It might have something to do with what got us stuck out here in the first place."
"Out here?" Pile's thick eyebrows drew together, reminiscent of a fox's bushy tail.
"Yes. Out here, as opposed to elsewhere." Mell shrugged, wiping her hands on the front of her healer greens. She'd said it like it was nothing, but Dev was pretty sure Pile had never thought about the possibility of an elsewhere. He was nothing like Liss, with her convictions and her dreams about Before.
Mell pointed at the phial. "Might want to rinse that off before you open it. The glass is filmy."
"Uh, ok. Th-thanks, ma'am."
Dev could see the gears in Pile's mind still turning. His friend was probably thinking, What is this elsewhere she speaks of?
Dev decided they should leave before Pile continued asking questions. He got the impression Liss wanted to continue her conversation with her great-grandmother alone. Plus, they had agreed to meet Calan at the cliff face in ten minutes and had already wasted over five. He and Pile would have to run to make it in time.
"We'll get out of your hair, ladies."
Dev focused his attention on Liss, willing her not to be mad at him for this later. She smiled as they turned to leave, but the conflicting emotions in her eyes would have been obvious to anyone. A lot had happened in the past day, and although they had parted on good terms last night, he knew she wasn't comfortable choosing him as her Seed, whether theirs was a true Engagement or not. Not that he blamed her. If their roles were reversed, Dev would want someone different from himself, too. Someone bolder, with dreams as big as his own. Not a towering oaf who, like Pile, could barely wrap his head around the idea of elsewhere.
This wasn't Dev putting himself down. He understood his strengths and didn't lack confidence, but like any man who might claim to know himself, he knew when he was outmatched. If Liss was a shooting star burning through the clear night sky, then he was a tree firmly rooted in the earth, even as the spectacle overhead drew his curious eyes.
Despite his unheeded warnings, Dev would be surprised if Liss never bent the future to her will. The girl was tenacious with a vexing stubborn streak. But whatever happened, and whenever she needed him, he would always be there, a backbone she could trust with her life. Even if the storms over Cradelow never ended, and there was nothing beyond the valley but darkness.