Mae knew that Athene Barclay was beautiful. Quite frankly she couldn't imagine anyone who didn’t think so. Athene was a legend, a myth clad in leather and chain mail. She was a large figure, like a walking statue lunging straight out of a storybook, with fierce emerald eyes shadowed under fiercer dark eyebrows. But Athene was a legend, and legends weren’t a part of the real world. They were fantastic, but distant, like glittering starlight. And that, Mae had decided, was all that such a woman would ever be.
By this point most folks had come to the silent conclusion that the old world has ended and whatever nonsense going on at the moment must surely encompass the ‘new’ one. The people of Bree hadn’t accepted that, and Mae found it absolutely infuriating. Once upon a time things had been much easier, but the future runs its own course like a river, and trying to insist that things will only get better is like trying to push water uphill with a rake.
The people of Bree were good folk, but rigid in their ways. They preferred things to go well, and chose to ignore it when it didn’t. So when word rose of disaster in the North East, they comfortably ignored it.
Mae couldn't. She had seen what was happening up in Andostin, and an account so personal was not easily forgotten. Her neighbors certainly wished it could be.
“Oh dear me Miss Abbington, you really haven’t been yourself lately!” Missus Norrington exclaimed.
Mae offered a forced smile. “On the contrary, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like myself in my life.” She explained, clenching her fists behind her back.
“You don’t know what you’re saying, dear! After that dreadful adventure you got roped into, you haven't been acting like an Abbington at all!” The older woman fretted.
“It was a quest, Missus Norrington, it had a purpose.” She insisted. “And I’m the only Abbington in Bree, therefore I think that makes me perfectly able to define myself however I want.” She snapped.
The rest of the Norringtons were watching her warily, as if she were a spring coiled trap waiting to snap. She was probably going to regret abandoning her manners like that. Mae cleared her throat.
“Have a nice day.” She turned sharply and marched towards her house.
It was about two weeks into the quest that Mae cut off all her hair. Or rather, she had asked Gunnar to cut it off for her. He had shoulder-length hair that he always managed to keep nicely braided, and he happened to be the best bet in the company for an impromptu barber. Mae just didn’t know how to handle her sandy locks, let alone a quest.
Athene didn’t have a problem with her hair. It always…. It always looked like it was meant to appear just the way it was. Gods, Athene herself always looked perfect. Mae had seen her soaked in rain and mud with dried blood plastered to her hairline and a scowl stuck even firmer in place, but even then she was so beautiful and Mae had to bite her tongue to stop herself from giggling because people weren’t supposed to look like that.
Mae had nearly yelped in surprise when Athene hugged her for the first time. It was like being enveloped by a big wall. A really nice and strong and warm wall with thick hair and a firm heartbeat and she smelled like dirt and blood and beautiful hints of smoke and metal and leather and foreign spices--
‘Oh no’ She thought.
Mae shut her front door behind her. After a brief pause she decisively slid the chain lock into place. With a self-- satisfied nod she went to sit down at her kitchen table. There wasn’t any company with her today, she wouldn’t let anyone from Bree have a ‘nice chat’ with her and they wouldn’t be so bold as to invite themselves in without asking.
Mae’s face twitched into a smile. Athene’s company was probably that bold. She frowned, tapping her fingernails against the wood.
“Well, the Norringtons haven’t been the worst to deal with, but they’re certainly the most persistent.” She snorted to herself. “I wish I could just tell them all the things I’ve seen since last year,” She laughed. “That’s bound to give those nosy homebodies some nightmares!”
There was no answer. Mae had a habit of talking to herself ever since she was young, and had learned to not expect an answer. She nibbled on her lip distantly. It was awfully quiet.
Good gods Mae had never heard people being so loud in her life. The fire was surrounded by at least three different conversations in full swing, filled with stories and jokes and no small amount of yelling.
Most of the company had accents that were sharp and bold, like the jagged mountains they proudly called their home. The twins, Elenora and Ryker, had flat and level accents like their sprawling fields of wheat and barley. And Mae spoke with a voice like the rolling green hills of Bree. They were an odd bunch, twelve in total, but it was impossible to come by a better company in times like these.
They were called the Fifth Company, because they wanted to deceive their enemies into believing that there were at least four others. They were completely on their own.
Athene was quiet compared to her companions, but she was looking at all of them with a fond twinkle in her eye that further softened the rest of her pleasant expression. Mae was getting better at seeing past that woman’s scowls and grimaces, yet as soon as they were trained on her Mae would wither like a husk of corn in winter.
Even in the firelight Mae could see every outline in Athene’s face. Every cut and nick, like the pale curving scar under her jaw, and the elegant divot across the bridge of her nose. Athene didn’t look so intimidating now.
The others were busy completely reveling in the joy of embarrassing one another through their tales of past memories.
‘They’re being so rude…’ Mae thought to herself. And yet… They were smiling. And crazily enough, she was too.
Mae got up from the table. She had changed things when she got back from the quest. She had pushed a lot of things out of sight, a lot of trinkets and decorations and things that could get in the way. It was a bit funny. She would have never acted like that before the quest.
Of course, she wouldn’t be wearing leggings and a tunic in favor of a dress and apron either. She kept the apron, at least. Gunnar wasn’t around anymore to cut her hair, but she didn’t want help from anyone in Bree. She could do it just fine herself.
Mae subconsciously ran her fingers through the short wavy strands. She hoped it looked alright. She could never manage it when it was longer, not like Athene. Her hair was a wild curling mane the color of deep overturned soil.
Mae shook her head, and walked toward her back window. Most of the space in her house had been cleared out. Well, it certainly looked that way compared to the appearance that most other folks kept their houses in.
She had never thought her house to be so hollow.
Athene. What a beautiful name. The kind that rolled off your tongue like the sound of crinkling forest leaves. It was a proper name for her character. It meant fire, burning, sparking flame that lights up the whole sky with it’s crimson glow.
Mae narrowed her eyes at some indistinguishable space in front of her. “Athene…” she murmured.
Mae jolted upright. “Oh!” She gasped. “Uhm, hello!”
Athene blinked. “Hello.”
“I um, I was just er- thinking about your name.” She stuttered.
“What about it?”
“It’s nice. It means, you know,” She tried, flicking her hand around aimlessly. “Fire.” She managed.
Athene nodded. “I take it you got that from your language studies.” She mused. “Bree is an interesting name. What does it mean?”
Mae stammered awkwardly. “I-- well, it… it just means ‘hill’.”
Athene blinked at her.
“Because…. It's on a hill.” Mae supplied.
Athene smiled suddenly, a crashing laugh bursting from her lips. “I have no idea why I didn’t just think of something straightforward to begin with!”
Mae blinked at her. “You’re from Ichoria, right? What does that mean?”
“It’s a synonym for ‘dawn’,” She shrugged. “The direct translation means something like ‘liquid sunlight’.”
“Woah.” Mae breathed.
Athene chuckled, as Mae succeeded in turning a brighter shade of red. “You’re name, what does Mae mean?”
“I, it, well… um. My name is actually Daisy--Mae..” She trailed off, watching Athene’s difficult expression. “So it’s a flower I suppose. A um… a flower of spring. You know...” she murmured. “Fragile little things…”
“That’s not true.” Athene said. Mae jumped at her voice.
“It’s not true,” Athene repeated. “Spring flowers aren’t fragile. They only exist for a brief period of time, but it takes strength to be the first growth after winter. Beauty like that is hard to come by.”
Mae choked, coughing awkwardly into her sleeve. “Oh,” She squeaked.
Mae looked out at her garden. It was well kept, but not very attractive, and only grew some vegetables at this point. She checked over the leafy green vines. They probably wouldn’t produce anything new. The days had been getting shorter.
Mae shook her head to clear any doubt. Of course the days were getting shorter, it was autumn! It wasn’t because the Eastern skies were slowly filling with ash and the darkness was dripping back towards Bree. It wouldn’t last forever. And if it did, then she would find a way to keep going.
“If you can’t find a way, bloody make one!” She chuckled.
That was something Athene would say.
Mae turned away from the window and paced the floor a couple of times. She missed them. She missed trading snarky comments around the fire. She missed laughing at the twins’ good natured bickering. She missed trying to act competent with a weapon as Gunnar shook his head at her for her effort.
Well, she still had that dagger he gave her. She kept it sharpened and clean as well. The only thing preventing her from wearing it hidden in her coat like usual was she didn’t know what she would say if the neighbors found out about it.
Mae paused. Oh what the hell. She went to her room to fish it out from under her pillow.
He sighed. “She’s not on watch.”
Mae turned to face him more directly. “She’s… not?”
“Well, she is, but she should have let one of us take her place nearly an hour ago. She’s keeping watch alright, and storming about her thoughts at the same time.”
“So she’s in a bad mood.”
He nodded. “Our leader is many things, and subtle really isn’t one of them.”
Mae stared at the lone figure. “Is she mad at us? Because of the horses?”
“No. She’s probably mad about the horses, but she wouldn’t blame us for it. If we had gone back for them we would have probably lost our lives. She made the right choice.”
Mae hummed in thought. Standing up, she picked her way around the pitiful makeshift camp. Athene was glaring at the world like she was about to challenge it in hand to hand combat. Mae sighed around a smile, Athene probably would if she ever figured out how. Athene seemed to tense up even more when she heard Mae’s quiet footsteps approach.
“Sometimes bad things happen without any input from us.” Mae announced.
Athene only seemed more peeved. “What do you want, Miss Abbington?”
Mae tossed her hands towards the view. “Look, no matter how long you stand here gazing off into the horizon, those horses aren’t coming back.”
Athene glared her down, but Mae didn’t so much as flinch. “That means that right now we need you a lot more than we need those supplies.” She insisted. “You’re our leader, Athene. Keep your strength.” She encouraged, retreating back to the fire.
She didn’t see the way that Athene’s stunned gaze trailed after her long after she had left.
For the eighth time that day, Mae checked the sky for wyverns. She didn’t know why she kept looking. They never came this far south, and Bree and its surrounding provinces had been left completely alone by the raids. These folks didn’t get out much, and they were famously neutral in most large conflicts.
The worst thing they had to worry about was the refugees who were no doubt already on their way. Bree wouldn’t turn away a desperate family. Most refugees would receive food and have their wounds tended to.
Mae self consciously rubbed the shoulder that had been dislocated by that hellhound back in March. Her skin still bore the scars where it’s teeth had gripped onto her. She wrinkled her nose. That injury wasn’t even the worst thing on that quest.
No, the worst things were keeping watch when you couldn't tell if that noise was a bird or a starving goblin. It was trying to fall asleep to the howls of feasting hellhounds. It was watching the pestilence and drought and violence firsthand. It was seeing people flee their cities, no longer safe in their own homes. It was hearing the leathery flap of dragon wings, and seeing their twisted shadows on the ground.
Mae froze, unnoticed tears springing to her eyes. No, the worst thing of that quest wasn’t getting separated from the company after the surprise attack in Andostin. It wasn’t seeing Athene’s blood splattered on the cobblestones around them. The worst thing was when Athene tried to say goodbye. The worst thing was that Athene didn’t think she was going to make it. Mae wiped her eyes angrily.
Athene watched her sit down. “Isn’t it a bit cold here?”
“I suppose it is.” Mae shrugged, leaning into the tree. The sparking fire flashed beckoningly, but the two women sat at a distance. “It was kind of loud.” Mae explained halfheartedly, indicating their boisterous teammates.
Athene chucked. “That’s fair.” After a few moments of silence she looked over at Mae. “Why did you choose to come on this quest?”
Mae looked at the ground. “I… I think I wanted to be able to control something. But we both know I really had no idea what I was getting into.”
“Does it scare you?”
“Yes… quite a lot, actually.” She fidgeted.
Athene nodded. “It scares me too.”
Mae glanced at her. “It does?”
“Yes. Everyone fears something, Miss Abbington.”
Mae blushed. “I-- well, I know that, it just-- yeah.”
Athene watched her calmly. “I’m scared of being the leader.” She admitted. “I’m scared because if I make the wrong move, they will suffer the consequence.” She said, nodding her head towards the group chatting about the fire.
Mae hummed thoughtfully. “You’re probably the best leader I could have asked for.” She said quietly.
Mae nodded. “You’re calm in the face of danger and you put everyone else’s safety above your own. That’s pretty admirable.”
A comfortable silence settled between them as Mae looked at the snapping fire. Athene watched her with a curious expression. “Thank you.” She finished softly.
Mae chuckled. “Thank me by getting us to Andostin in one piece.”
Athene watched her seriously. “I will.”
She wondered if they even wanted her back. She had left them, hadn’t she? Yes, she’d fulfilled the task she promised she would --she translated and decoded every document they could salvage from Andostin-- but they chose to stay and she… left. She ran away.
Mae didn’t know how to handle it. She needed space, she wanted to go home. Athene had nearly died, and the only thing that prevented it was Mae’s trembling hands pressed over the gushing wounds.
Mae shook her head. Athene lived. But then the most disorienting thing had happened. Athene had confessed. Mae laughed dryly. A confession. It sounded like a crime had been committed.
Lady Athene Barclay had lifted Mae’s hand and kissed her fingers. Athene’s rough, calloused hands had been warm and strong. But every time Mae had looked at that beautiful, stubbornly infuriating woman…. All she could see was red. All she could hear was the wheezing gasps, not the words ‘I love you’.
At first Mae had denied it easily. Athene was… Athene was a legend, not Mae. Athene had never told her that she loved her. She never said it. ‘I love you’. … she… she said ...
“Have you eaten anything yet?”
“I’ll take the next watch.”
“Get some rest.”
Mae didn’t listen. Oh gods she knew it had been so obvious. The glances, the curious smiles. The rest of the company saw it.
“Athene is many things, and subtle really isn’t one of them.”
Mae sighed shakily. She hadn’t known what to do, so she ran away. Athene stayed. Well of course she would, Athene’s place was on the front lines and Mae’s….. She stopped, and looked around at where she was standing. Where was it? Here? Not likely.
Once upon a time that had been the case, but the world had changed, and so had Mae. Bree hadn’t. Yet Mae still sat alone in a hollow structure, watching the sky for threats that weren’t there and listening for voices that were half a world away. Mae took a shaky breath, closing her hands into fists. She felt so tired.
Mae looked at the painting hung above the mantelpiece. It held her late parents, her family. But maybe, she decided, family wasn’t always bound to blood. Her hand reached to grasp onto her dagger. She was going back to the Fifth Company.