NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
Layna wasn’t sure when the baby had stopped crying.
Looking down, hardly daring to breathe, Layna struggled with frostbitten fingers to untie the thin shawl which she had wrapped around her sister’s tiny body, in a doomed effort to keep her warm. The baby’s eyes were closed, and her lips were blue. She was not moving.
Layna pressed her fingertips to the baby’s forehead, and she felt only cold.
She pinched the baby’s cheek, hoping to draw a reaction, any reaction. But the child lay still.
So Layna pinched her sister again. Harder, this time – as hard as she dared. She could feel herself holding her breath.
With a thin, rattling cry, the baby started, and began to stir. The child’s eyes did not open, but her lips parted slightly, and she convulsed in Layna’s arms.
Layna closed her eyes, said a silent prayer to the Gods, and allowed herself to exhale. Her breath turned to ice in the freezing air. She wrapped the shawl back around her sister, and she clutched the dying girl as tightly to her chest as she could, desperate to keep her small body warm.
Then Layna put her head down against the chill wind, she put one snow-caked foot in front of the other, and she walked.
She had been walking for three days. She had been walking ever since her mother had roused her from sleep, had dressed her in haste, and had hurried her down to the little wooded lane that ran past their farmhouse.
Although it was the dark of night, the horizon had been lit by the glow of fires and dancing smoke from just beyond the hills to the east.
“Go,” Layna’s mother had told her, as she had pressed her baby daughter into Layna’s shaking hands. “Take your sister, and go. Go west, into the rising sun. Follow the river road, until you reach Raven's Hollow – you should make the village in two days’ time. Find the man there named Olam, and tell him you are mine. He will look after you.”
In the distance, Layna could hear shouting, and the thunder of hootbeats. Even as tears streaked her own vision, she could see the fear in her mother’s eyes.
“Go!” her mother had said one last time, and had pushed Layna onto the path that led to the river. “Go! And don’t look back. Whatever happens next – whatever you may hear – don’t look back.”
Her mother might have said something else, then, but, if she did, Layna could not hear it over the sound of her own crying.
So Layna had started to walk, and she had not looked back.
That had been three days ago. Layna had stuck to the river road, as instructed, but there was still no village in sight.
Granted, the going had been slow. The road was deeply-rutted, and icy, and, more than once, Layna had tripped over some root or dead branch, half-hidden in the snow. Her knees were swollen and black with bruises, and Layna was afraid that one of her wrists was broken, but, somehow, when she had fallen, she had managed to protect her sister, and to take the brunt of the blow herself.
Getting back up was the hard part. It got harder each and every time.
So Layna walked more carefully now. She moved slowly, taking care to find her footing on the snow-slick ground with each hesitant step. It was manageable, but it was slow.
She hugged the treeline close, in hope that it might protect her from the worst of the winter wind. But it did little good. The breeze that blew in off the frozen, glassy river cut through her like a knife, until she was so cold that her teeth no longer chattered, and her wind-numbed fingertips no longer hurt. All the while she clutched her sister to her chest, tried to keep the baby warm, tried to keep both of them alive.
She knew she did not have much time. She needed to reach Raven's Hollow soon, or the frost would take them.
No one had come from the same way as they had, and the smell of smoke had faded away the day before.
Layna did not know what that meant. She had not looked back.
They had met almost no one on the road. On the first day, they had passed a cart which lay on its side in a ditch, one wheel turning forlornly in the wind. There was a body next to the cart, half-buried in the snow, and Layna had peeled-back the cloak which covered it, to look at the corpse beneath. But the frost-blackened face which peered back at her belonged to no one she knew, and, after she had lingered for a moment to say a short prayer, Layna had replaced the cloak, and had moved on.
The second day, she had come across a man, still alive, standing stone-still in the center of the road. At first, Layna had hidden among the pines, and had waited in vain for the man to pass by. But the man did not move. He simply stood there, in the center of the road, as though his feet were rooted in place, as he stared, silently, off into the distance.
Eventually, Layna had gathered the courage to approach the man. She had stood right in front of him – had spoken to him, even, had asked his name – but he had not spoken back. He just looked right through Layna, as though she were not there.
His face was a blank, and his eyes were a ghost’s. So Layna had left him there, in the center of the road.
She had kept on walking, and she had not looked back.
It was near dusk now, on her third day of walking. The sun was setting quickly below the treeline, and the sky was growing dark. Layna could hardly feel the cold anymore, which she knew to be bad. In her arms, her sister was stiff, and still.
There was a part of Layna that wanted nothing more than to sleep. To curl up beneath the shelter of one of the snow-laden pines, to dig herself a little hollow in one of the wind-blown drifts, and to sleep. Layna had not slept in days. Her body was tired, as was her spirit.
But there was another part of Layna that knew that she could not rest. Partly because she needed to keep walking, needed to reach the village. But mostly because she knew that, if she lay down now, if she closed her eyes, she would never open them again.
So Layna kept walking, and she was still walking when she saw a flickering light in the distance, and two hooded figures on the road.
Feeling panic rising in her throat, Layna scrambled off the road and into the bushes as she saw the figures approach. She was vaguely aware that she must have left footsteps behind in the snow, which would alert anyone who stopped to look to her presence, but she did not dare to go back to try to wipe her tracks clean. So, instead, she tried to hide herself as best she could among the evergreens, and she silently begged her sister to remain quiet as the strangers drew close.
The two red-hooded figures came to a stop in the road, just where Layna had stood, and Layna felt her heart catch in her throat. They were bathed in the glow from a strange, white light that seemed to hover above one of them, as the other dropped to its knees, and seemed to point a hand at something in the snow.
Layna felt frozen in place, too scared to cry. She knew she should run, but she knew she would not get far.
The kneeling figure stood, and pulled back its hood, and what Layna saw in the flickering fairy light made her start: She saw a black-haired woman, pale and ghostlike, with mismatched eyes – one green, one milky white – and a terrible scar that covered half of her face.
The scarred woman said something to her companion, who then pulled back her own hood, revealing a pink-cheeked face, with bright, blue eyes, and soft golden hair.
“It’s okay,” the golden-haired woman said, with a voice that sounded kind, and made Layna feel warm. “You can come out.”
The woman was facing towards the woods, and Layna felt as though she were looking right at her.
When Layna still didn’t dare to move, the other woman spoke.
“It’s okay,” the scarred woman repeated. “We won’t hurt you. We just want to help.”
Layna could feel the warmth radiating out from the two women and their light. In her arms, she could feel her infant sister stir.
The choice was simple, Layna knew. She could go into the light, and take her chance with the strangers. Or she could remain in the darkness, and freeze.
Slowly, carefully, Layna stood up from her hiding place in the bushes, and she picked her way back to the road.
Looks of concern blossomed on both women’s faces as Layna came into view. The light hovering above the golden-haired woman seemed to grow larger and brighter, until it bathed the snow-covered landscape in a soft, flickering glow. And the woman with the scar walked over to Layna and wrapped the shivering girl in her arms, until Layna found herself surrounded by a comforting warmth, as though she were lying next to the fireplace in her old home.
In her arms, Layna’s sister began to cry. And, as the heat that seemed to radiate out from the scarred woman’s body worked its way into Layna’s tired bones, Layna felt herself begin to cry, too.
“It’s alright,” the golden-haired woman said, as she dried Layna’s tears with the sleeve of her robe, and knelt down, so that her forehead touched Layna’s. “It’s all alright.”
Layna closed her eyes, and she cried.
“It’s all alright,” the woman said again.
And, in that moment, as she found herself surrounded by light and warmth, Layna believed her.
Aloise Hartley is an original character created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.