It had been twenty four years since she had last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. The houses and the streets, and the change in architecture from the North Warren, to the Eastern Groves, to the center of the hills. The fields of food and the plows and donkeys; the market streets, the wood smoke, the laughter. The cool wet soil, dark as pale obsidian, the clear water of the running streams. The towering oaks and the elegant branches of the draping willow trees that brushed against the cool water, and waving blossoms of wildflowers dancing around the humming of colorful insects.
Mae knew this place by heart, as if every fold and turn in the hills were as familiar as the creases in her own palm. Bree hadn’t changed one bit. Of course, she had only ever left Bree once, and that adventure only lasted a little under two years, but when she returned Home, she knew that she was seeing it in a way she hadn't in decades.
Mae had realized that the last time she had truly seen Bree was when she was thirteen, when she had still basked in that neverending flawlessness of Home. It proceeded to be her Home for many years after that, but in those years Mae had grown up, and without realizing it, Bree had become stagnant. It was something so familiar that she had stopped finding her heartbeat quicken in amazement, just as she had stopped finding amazement in herself as a person. But after twenty four years, after running off across the length of the world a thousand times over (since of course Bree had been the only world she knew), Mae returned to the green hills, and she Saw them. In a roundabout way, it was all exactly the same, although everything and everyone had been altered with time.
Mae knew then that Bree would always be her Home, which was of course one of the reasons why it was completely insane that she had abandoned it again.
The sun was on its way to the end of the horizon. The plains were always beautiful, even as scrappy trees jutted out from the wavering earth with great jagged rocks splintering against the sky. Mae had never seen so much sky before, it should have been utterly impossible! And yet, there it lay suspended above her in that breathtaking watercolor mess of scattered clouds. The great northern plains were nothing like Bree, and yet Mae knew she could never deny how much she loved it.
Mae had impressed herself by how quickly and quietly she had made the trip to the never ending carpet of golden wild grasses. She wouldn’t have been able to do much for herself if a pack of goblins or hellhounds, or even ill tempered humans had come across her path. Her best weapon had been her invisibility. Traveling alone seemed to have its own benefits, but thankfully for Mae’s sanity, she hadn't gone by herself.
An impatient snort from her back reminded her of the fact. The Shaggy Dewsbury pony nudged her big nose into the small of Mae’s back roughly. Mae tutted at the creature, shifting her grip on the reigns to pull the resilient creature up to her side. Peony was a good companion. Remarkably, she still found ways to complain to Mae about anything within sight of her big brown eyes. The Breemaid had no idea a pony could be so outspoken without ever uttering a comprehensible word. But of course, Peony was a good companion. She carried the bulk of the weight, and often alerted Mae to danger long before it was upon them.
Shaggy Dewsbury ponies were not praised nearly as much as grand war horses, especially not the swift riders of the northern plains, but Mae had decided that she preferred Peony much more than the sleek equines. She was bad tempered and small and looked very much like a fuzzy barrel on legs, but she was also quite fast and quiet and so very warm on cold nights. With a name like Dewsbury one would imagine a happy little fair pony, but these creatures were bred and trained for adventure, and they showed it. Peony tossed her mane proudly.
The grasses suited Peony just fine, but Mae was running out of food for herself. She was too scared to light a fire in this place, and she did not know how to forage in this land. The plains weren’t the best traveling space for either of them, they got along their way best through the forests, and the plains left them visible like sitting ducks. Then again, the open terrain would leave their enemies visible too, though Mae had heard tales on her way up that the numerous caves have been taken over by goblins and tazelwyrms, and travelers going by the frequent openings had been dragged down…
Mae looked over at Peony’s ears, seeing with comfort that they were relaxed. She hoped that they would stay that way.
The travelers eyed the upcoming town with hopeful trepidation. They had left Andostin behind three days ago, and Mae had been relieved that she would not have to stay there, but disquieted that it had become so utterly abandoned. With the directions of a few fleeing refugees making a mad dash for the south, Mae had turned westward towards Thornton.
They had passed the remains of a few ruined camps along the way, and they refused to stay there for very long. Thornton had a similar look about it’s walls, ruined and thrown together from fragments of what used to be. Mae could see flickers of life within the town, huddled and shy, seeking refuge within the structures. Peony’s ears were tipped forward in curiosity, or maybe attentiveness.
The people in Thornton surely could see her coming. But with these rock formations Mae observed that she could just as easily be sneaking up on them. Surely they would have people on the lookout for danger. She froze as a booming voice leapt upon her.
“Traveller! What business do you have here?”
Mae smiled. She knew that voice. “Perhaps I’ll save your incompetent skin from your absolute lack of cooking expertise.” She replied smugly. “Or maybe I’ll hand you a ladle and say “good luck”!” She crowed, poking fun at the time the not-stranger had told her the same thing after tossing a sword in her direction.
She heard a muffled exclamation followed by rapidly approaching footsteps. A person jumped into her vision, a long dark plait bouncing over her shoulder haphazardly, and her pinkish lips opened in a startled ‘O’.
Mae smiled winningly “How observant of you.” she commented.
The woman tackled Mae with an incredulous laugh, mirrored faintly by a very undignified squeak. “Hey, I missed you too, can you maybe not strangle me please thank you.”
The woman shifted her grip to wrap around Mae’s shoulders, and ruffled her hair sharply, as if intentionally trying to tangle the short strands. Mae squirmed, trapped in the vice-like hold while her old friend was going on about something to do with happiness and relief and anger.
“Juno!” She wailed. “Let me go!”
“I will do no such thing!” Juno laughed. “Batheor! Look who we found!”
Mae twisted in an attempt to see the giant Ichorian again, but all she could do was listen to the near silent padding of approaching footsteps.
“Batheor? Help?” She asked desperately. A deep throated chuckle preceded Juno finally letting Mae go with a grumble. Mae grinned, looking up at the quiet giant of a man in front of her.
His eyes twinkled, not the least of which was due to unshed tears.
“Go easy on the hug, buddy.” She laughed breathily.
“Don’t panic, I’m not that muddy!” He shot back, scooping up the small woman in a much bigger but arguably gentler hug.
“It's good to see you, Bear.” She mumbled into his shoulder.
“It's good to see you too, Flea.” He replied fondly, not bothering to try and rhyme their conversation.
Juno gasped suddenly. “You have to come see the others!” She exclaimed brighty.
Mae’s heart leapt. The company. Batheor set her back down on the ground and Mae picked up Peony’s reins. She imagined the impatient pony had a look as if she were raising an eyebrow at Mae. ‘Well, are you going to stand there all day?’
No, Mae decided she wouldn't. The Ichorian scouts hurried her along the pathway towards Thornton, asking about her well being and how she got back to them. Mae told her friends all about her travels, and about the wonderful little pony that had made it possible (yes, she usually pushes at me like that, dont touch her ears, she’ll kick you).
Likewise, Juno and Batheor informed her that the others were well, save for a twisted ankle and some cuts and bruises. They had been acting in leadership and advisory roles to the “forts” as the modified towns had been named. The sporadic goblin raids of the northern plains had gotten too organized to be dealt with alone, and many feared that something more sinister was at play, hence the Fifth Company had been sent to figure it out. They hadn’t made any leads in Mae’s absence, though anything of the sort would have been difficult while still helping the displaced plainsfolk.
The people inside Thornton looked at Mae curiously, noting her fair skin and light hair. Perhaps she was a woman from Galdeo? Few of the northern plainsfolk had heard of the small provinces that made up Bree. Neutral parties were not often recognized in the world far beyond their borders.
Word was sent out through anyone near to gather the Fifth Company and tell them that Mae had shown up. Peony’s reigns were handed off to a stranger with instruction on who to trust with Mae’s companion and their belongings. Juno and Batheor led her to something resembling a town hall, evidently converted into a medical ward.
Afternoon shadows danced across the interior, and Mae was relieved to find that few people lay on the straw cots. A distinctive pair of accented voices sprang up from across the room at the trio’s entry.
“Mae is it you?”
Mae smiled. “It’s me, friends!” She assured the twins as they rushed into a forceful hug. Bit by bit, more and more familiar faces trickled into the hall, all looking at Mae with the shock of witnessing a ghost. They raised a cacophony of noise at her return, but no one else seemed to mind. Mae laughed heartily with her friends as tears threatened to spill down her face. They were all here, they were all okay. Well, not quite. There was one missing.
Mae swallowed dryly as she remembered the person she deaded and wanted to see the most. She was about to ask about the other’s whereabouts as the rest of the company suddenly fell quiet, looking behind Mae towards the doorway. Mae turned around.
It had been six months, three weeks, and five days since Mae Abbington had last seen Athene Barclay, and the Ichorian noble looked almost nearly the same. Long curling brown hair, dark like the soil of Home, and brilliant emerald eyes like the fierce shoots of green leaves. A brilliant angular face with the same elegant divot cut across her nose, and the pale curving scar that rested beneath her jaw. Tall and broad shouldered, with a muscular frame and firm stance, like a grand oak tree with its roots buried deep into the earth. Muddied worn boots, with a silver buckled belt and a warm gray tunic beneath a vest of dark leather armor and matching bracers.
Her injuries had healed. But something was off in her face, something tense rested upon her dark eyebrows and the thin line of her lips.
“Hello Athene.” Mae said timidly.
“Hello.” She replied gruffly, almost inaudibly. With a characteristic tight nod, she turned and left the room without looking back. That should be normal for Athene Barclay. Mae was convinced that this time that was not the case.
Someone from the company coughed behind her. “That could have definitely gone worse.”
“Shut up, Gunnar.” Juno told him.
Mae whirled around. “Okay, what was that?”
Gunnar shrugged. “We didn’t know we were ever going to see you again.”
“You could have sent a letter.” Someone piped up helpfully.
Mae shook her head. “Ichorians may have a very effective message system with their birds but Breefolk don’t.” She reminded them. “I wouldn’t have even been sure of where to send the message!”
The others nodded their heads in acceptance.
Mae sighed hesitantly. “Does… does anyone know where I can find her?” She asked timidly. One of them gave them directions for where she would probably find Athene, standing guard by the wall as part of her “duty”. Knowing Athene, she probably needed an excuse to sulk while still looking useful and majestic as always.
Mae walked by the plainsfolk, smiling warmly as her best shot at an introduction. She had caused a small commotion at the place, and not everyone was keen to return her disarming smile. It was always safer to have one’s guard up. Mae climbed up the thin stairwell to the patchwork wall. There had already been one in place at the time of Thornton’s construction, but the new one had been subject to dramatic impromptu repairs.
Athene watched the descending sun scornfully, standing proud and tall like a marble statue. The cold breeze threw her dark hair back dramatically. Mae wrapped her arms around herself. Her warmest layer was a blanket she had been using as a cloak, but that was somewhere with Peony.
“I didn’t expect you to come back.”
Mae watched Athene calmly. “So I figured.” She shrugged, moving to stand beside the taller woman. Behind them, the plainsfolk had set up an iron bound fire pit in the center of the plaza, gathering around to prepare something to eat. The murmuring voices and crackling wood brushed at them from behind, but they stood by as a few meager torches were lit on the wall.
“Why would you?” Athene asked her.
“Come back?” Mae blinked. She considered the darkening sky. “I missed Bree. But I missed you more.” She said truthfully.
“And that’s why you left the first time? For Bree?”
Mae bit her lip, brows furrowed in emotion. “Not just that,” She admitted. “I was… scared. There was too much happening for me to make sense of, and you got badly injured, and I just cared about you so much and then you said that you loved me and I mean I didn’t think it was possible.” She rambled, face turning pink.
Athene turned to look at her. “So I wasn’t the one who scared you away?”
Mae gaped. “No! Of course not! I just- maybe? It wasn't you.” She said confidently.
Athene’s brow furrowed. “Why would it be impossible?” She asked softly. “For me to love you?”
Mae turned red. “I- I don't know? It just- you um…” She tossed her hands in the air, quickly regretting it and moving them to wrap around her shoulders again. “You're Athene Barclay, and I’m... well, me.”
Athene stared at her, her mouth parted slightly. Mae turned away, wondering in a panic over what she had said wrong.
“And would that someone be an incredible woman who slapped some sense into me when the rest of the company was too loyalty-bound to do it?”
Mae blinked at her. “I… what?”
“Would that someone be so kind as to fight for strangers she never met, and brave enough to never back down from what she fears?” Athene asked her firmly.
“I don’t know what you mean.” She whispered, shaking her head.
“Really? Because I do.” Athene said, stepping closer to her. “Daisy- Mae Abbington was the scholar who went on a warriors quest. She spoke with reason and kindness, and held more loyalty to the foreigners she worked with than some servants display in their whole career.” Athene placed her hands on Mae’s shoulders comfortingly. “I am Athene Barclay, and you are you. I would not ask for it any other way.”
Mae stared, words of contradiction bubbling up in her throat, but none came to her lips. She opened her mouth in an attempt to find them, but she was suddenly pulled into Athene’s arms. She shivered, burying herself into Athene’s shoulder.
Athene sighed tiredly. “It’s dangerous here.” She mumbled.
“I don't care.” Mae informed her.
“I know.” She said, tightening her grip around the Breemaid’s shoulders. “I’m glad that you’re here.” she added, so quietly that Mae wondered if she had ever really heard it.
Darkness had swallowed the northern plains, and kaleidoscopic starlight hung above them like beautiful jewels flowing between the dark nightly clouds. Athene loosened her hug, parting after leaving a soft kiss on Mae’s cheekbone. She wondered briefly why she had ever felt cold to begin with.
Athene did not let go of her hand, even as they walked through chattering crowds of the fur-bundled plainsfolk. It was an uncommon display of affection, but it was also an uncommon thing to appear completely unannounced at the doorstep.
The old group of the company laughed together in their scattered group, with a few new faces of the plainsfolk joining the conversation. They cheered as Mae re-appeared in their circle, handing her a serving of her own food proudly, as if they had never offered her anything so grand in her life.
Mae could not have asked for a more memorable meal, she felt lighter than she had in a long time. Athene sat beside her, draping one of her cloaks over Mae’s shoulders as she did so. That was when Mae knew that this too, was her Home, and that was all that mattered.