Chapter NINE – Liss
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Liss paced the back room of the healers’ tent, waiting until Dev's and Pile's footsteps faded before rounding on Mell. The old elf ignored her accusing stare and set off about the room, dusting inside drawers and crates, weaving around Liss when their paths crossed.

"Do you think I orchestrated that little encounter?" 

"No." Liss sighed, leaning against the nearest wall and out of Mell's way. "Dev wouldn't lie. He'd never risk it."

"Now you're seeing reason. And as to why you came to see me, you yourself admitted you wouldn't have gone to the ceremony had you known what was coming in the announcement. I was the one who told Dev what might have happened in that scenario."

"Why did you talk to him at all?" Liss threw up her hands, then thought better. It was inappropriate to yell at an elder, even if the elder probably deserved it.

"I didn't plan on it. He stopped here yesterday morning after you, and we got to chatting. I wanted to get my feel for the boy, although I suppose he's a young man now, and a handsome one, isn't he?" Mell chuckled and went back to dusting, somewhat less dexterously. "I like him, dearie, and it's obvious he's smitten with you. It’s a good thing he didn’t let you do anything drastic last night, like run away or yell at the Council."

"He's not smitten with me, he's just protective because we grew up together." 

It was the least topical thread of the conversation to unravel, but Liss hadn't been able to stop herself.

"If you say so." Mell shrugged, the wrinkles around her mouth darkening as they creased. "Either way, he's a good one to have at your side. Someday your feelings about him might change, and you won't mind the other side of things."

Liss tried and failed to avoid grimacing. "There won't be any other side of things. I'm going to find a way out of here, and Dev's agreed to help me do it. Once we figure things out, we'll come back for you and anyone else who wants to leave."

"Oh, Liss, you don't really believe it will be so simple, do you? How do you plan on escaping? The mountains are impassable. Hona herself cast the magical barrier over the valley."

Liss frowned. "I don't know yet, but I'm certain there's a way out. There has to be. Tomorrow I'm scouting the edges of the valley for clues."

"Goddess bless you, child, if you aren't of my blood. I was so like you when I was young. I swore I could feel the magic calling to me, thought I was the only one who could save the clan. It took many years before I realized I had a savior complex from reading too many fairy tales from Before."

"I don't have a savior complex." Liss unbuttoned her jacket and opened the front panel, revealing her secret pocket to Mell. "I have runes, and I'm going to look for weak spots in the barrier."

Mell's eyes widened. Before she could reply, one of the younger healers–a female with curly green hair and round brown eyes–knocked on the wall near Liss' head. "Sorry, Mell, but we need you down in room three."

"Be right there," Mell called to the other woman who had already started back down the hallway. She tossed her feather duster into a crate, wiped her hands on her greens and turned to Liss, pointing an arthritic finger. "Wherever did you find runes? The Tome of Runic Ethos has been missing for a century!"

"I... found them in a book."

"Does it have a green cover, about this thick?" She held up her thumb and first finger spaced a considerable distance apart.

Liss shook her head and held up her own two fingers, about half as far apart. "No, red, and more like this."

"Then it's not the missing tome, maybe an incomplete copy. But where on earth did you find it? Not that runes will do you any good, mind. They're powerless anymore."

"It was in a crate behind the juniors tent. I've been sketching the runes for years. If there's a weak spot anywhere in this valley, I'll find it."

Mell took a long, dragging breath. "I know you will, but will you do me a favor?"


Liss took a step toward the hall, wary of what was coming, what the old elf might convince her into agreeing to. 

"First of all, I wish you'd have waited to find out if five girls were ready to throw in for their choosing before you signed yourself and Dev up for Engagement this morning, but I think I can understand why you did it." Mell ran her fingers along her forehead, kneading the lined skin between her eyebrows. "And since what's done is done, you need to take it seriously. During the quiet moments, when your mind isn't racing with wild ideas of escape and magic runes, will you think about the future you've agreed to? Don't make the same mistake I did. Don't let it sneak up on you."

Liss rolled her eyes. "Nothing is sneaking up on me, great-grandma. I know what I'm doing."

"It's nice to hear you call me that." The old elf laid a hand over her heart, drawing Liss to her chest for a quick and engulfing hug. "Just be careful. And if you do find a way out of here, I want to hear all about it."

Liss grinned. "Deal."


The next day she brought up her scouting idea to Dev. Over breakfast that morning, she had asked him to meet her briefly during rounds, under a copse of trees just outside the village, away from prying eyes and ears. She arrived a few minutes early and waited, resting against a pretty tree with white bark and red-veined leaves, watching dappled sunlight dance across the patchy grass. 

When Dev showed up, he was even dirtier and sweatier than usual. 

"What have you been doing, rolling around in the mud with the hogwis?" She took a step back to relieve herself of the aroma of wet earth and body odor emanating from him. 

"Calan grabbed me and Pile from rounds and made us do drills as punishment for being late yesterday. Also, for Pile's attitude. He's on a thin string."

"Did Mell's draught help? The stuff works, but I wouldn't say it's strong." 

Dev shrugged. "A little? But by that point it didn't really matter. The damage was already done." 

Liss had mostly gotten over the fact that nearly all the males her age had been eligible to train with the Lightkeepers, but it still irked her that smart-mouth Pile had made it so far.

Of course, Dev was a shoo-in. Her best friend excelled at everything he put his mind to, particularly athletics. 

He tugged at the wet fabric sticking to his chest, shaking air into his tunic. Liss wasn't the type to gawk at muscles, but she had to admit that training had honed his physique in recent months. It was no great shock that Dev’s name had been on almost every new Engagement application, a fact she'd learned when she'd dropped hers off with the Council earlier. But it made no difference. Dev had already accepted her application, hers and hers alone. Their plan was in motion.

"Tomorrow evening after dinner, I'd like to go scouting around the valley for traces of magic or weak areas in Hona’s barrier." They were pressed for time and got little privacy in their daily lives, so she'd cut right to the chase. "I'll bring my runes and test them out. Will you come with me?"

Dev's eyebrows shot up into the stray hairs falling over his forehead. "Your plan is to break us out with runes? If that worked, don't you think someone would have figured it out by now?"

"Not necessarily." Liss straightened her back, ready to defend her plan. Their plan. She was doing this for both of them. "Everyone in this valley has become so complacent. For all we know, it may have been hundreds of years since anyone's checked."

Dev pursed his lips, eying her dubiously. Finally, he sighed. "Fair enough. I guess it's worth a shot."

"Exactly." Liss could have hugged him, but he was disgusting. "Do you think you can draw a route for us? You're more familiar with the topography of the valley than I am, since you're always out doing drills."

"Really? You're assigning me homework?" Though he was pretending to be put out, Liss didn't miss the slight twitch of his lips.

"Hey, don't start." She poked his chest with the tip of her fingernail. "I went and got myself Engaged to you, so you owe me one." 

Just like that, the humor left his face. 

"Can we not joke about it? I know you don't want this, but it's our reality now. I'll help you, but you need to understand that I'm not expecting a miracle."

Liss grumbled. "You sound like Mell. Does no one believe this might actually be possible?"

"You know I can only give you an honest answer."

"Of course." Liss turned her back on him, leaning against the papery bark of the tree. She counted her breaths–one, two, three, four–before daring to speak again. "If you don't believe in me, then you may as well not come. And if I fail and I'm stuck here, don't worry, I'll keep my oath. I'm getting pretty good at doing things I don't want to."

Even as the words fell out, Liss knew they had cut too deep. She wished she could take them back, but what good was an apology after the fact? 

She heard Dev breathing heavily behind her but didn't dare turn and face the hurt she knew she would find on his face. This wasn't the first time she'd wondered if she deserved his stolid kindness, and now she was certain that she didn't.

"I believe in you," he whispered. Liss jumped at the feeling of his warm, callused palm on her shoulder. "If anyone in this clan can make a difference, it's you. Whether that's by getting us out of here or changing things from the inside. I know I'm not as passionate as you... about some things," he added, a hint of amusement returning. "But I'll always be here for you."

Liss let him turn her toward his hands, against his chest. His big arms wrapped around her back, and it was impossible not to cry. "I'm sorry, Dev. Why are you so nice to me?" The words muffled against his damp tunic. He stilled smelled like a dirty boot, but she no longer cared. "I don't deserve you."

"Sure you do." He cradled her head, his long fingers smoothing down the wayward wisps of her hair. "You can't get rid of me, so don't bother trying."

Liss sniffled, standing back. Dev was so much taller, it strained her neck to meet his warm brown gaze. 

"Never,” she said. “We're family."

"Yeah." He broke eye contact, looking into the distance over her head. "You realize I don't know much about family, right?"

"In the old days–Before–men and women who bore children together, stayed together. Usually, though not always. That's probably an important distinction. But most times, parents raised their children as their own, and they were called families. That's how I feel about you, Dev. You're my family."

He leaned against the tree next to her, his distant stare glazing over. "That sounds nice. I wonder why we don't do it that way anymore."

"I don't know," Liss confessed. "I've often wondered that myself. Maybe we'll find out when we get out of here."

"All right." He grinned, apparently finding it endearing that she would twist the topic back to her liking. "So we're decided? I'll draw up a map tonight, then tomorrow evening we'll set out."

"Yes." Liss nodded resolutely. Excitement vibrated through her like bottled lightning, the good kind. Like possibility. "Thank you, Dev. You don't know how much this means to me."

“Oh,” he chuckled softly, "you'd be surprised."