It took the length of Lorin’s story for Jatan, Antian and Namiss to recover from their shock. Ileniel still insisted on muttering to himself from time to time, but Lorin pointedly ignored him.
“I should’ve pressed her more. I should’ve gotten to know her better,” Namiss said to her hands, sounding disconsolate.
She jerked her head up with suprrise when Lorin snorted a dry laugh, though it was Jatan who put voice to what he was thinking. “Pressed her? Namiss, you know Sifani was never one to respond to pressure, especially in respect to personal matters. She is —”
“Self-reliant?” Lorin supplied dryly. “Excellent at deceiving herself? Or perhaps the phrase you’re looking for is ‘infuriatingly slow to trust others.’”
“I suppose she can be all of those things,” Jatan conceded slowly, completely missing the humor.
Not that Lorin himself found any of this truly funny. The fire in the center of the room was yet burning, and the only thing that kept him from going mad with the inability to act was knowing that as long as the flames roared, Sifani was probably still alive inside them. “She was planning to tell you all, you know, but only after she had asked her questions of Ileniel. Unfortunately, her temper got the better of her, as it often does.”
“She’s not the only one who had information that needed sharing,” mild-mannered Antian asserted as he glared at Ileniel, more fiercely than Lorin knew him capable of. Of course. Antian would’ve expected the other scholar to share any information about the epheria with him, at the very least. “Your direct experience with a Reehler like Nume would’ve put much more meat on our research. Perhaps this crisis could’ve been averted if we’d had the information you chose to keep secret.”
The words, bordering on pugnacious, seemed to rouse Ileniel from his blubbering stupor. His back straightened suddenly, expression only barely under control. “You weren’t there!” he spat. “You don’t know the terror of it – the burden of an experience not many could comprehend and even fewer would believe. What was I to do with what I had seen, hm? Besides, you signed me on to study the epheria, not the Deities. I knew the roads had to cross again someday, but until then…”
“The roads are one and the same, Ileniel.” Lorin had only been half-listening to the scholars’ exchange, but Ileniel’s last sentence had caught his ear and he had replied idly. But now that he was considering it, just how closely _were_ the epheria and the Deities interconnected?
He was following the path of that thought when the steady crackling of the fire ring died suddenly. Lorin spun, frozen for the briefest moment, then bolted to the space where the flames had been burning. He was there before any of the others had time to do more than stand. Was Sifani still alive?
Lorin was supporting Sifani’s hunched body by the time he was able to process that she was standing somewhat on her own, blessedly living.
“Ow, Lorin. OW. Could you be a little more careful, please?” Sifani flinched, and Lorin eased his grip with the closest thing to embarassement he had felt in years. “I didn’t draw these cuts on myself, you know!”
“Ever the sweet and demure damsel,” he mumbled, mildly vexed. “I’m keeping you from falling onto your face right now, and this is the thanks I get?”
“I thought the familiarity of my actions might reassure you of my good health,” Sifani retorted, wincing as she clutched a particularly large gash on her shoulder. “Ho, Jatan! Think you could fix me up?”
Discordant voices began calling for bandages, crying out in concern, and swearing as Lorin turned, putting Sifani in full view. Finally, Ileniel ran for the medical supplies while the rest gathered around Sifani, trying not to crowd her with their bodies or their multitude of barely-restrained questions.
“She let you live!” Namiss exclaimed, sounding near to tears.
Sifani reached out and squeezed the girl’s hand. “That she did. At least, for now.”
Jatan had come up on Sifani’s other side to help hold her up, nodding across her drooping body to Lorin. “Your partner has been telling us very interesting stories about you, Sifani.” His smile was a mixture of warmth, relief and solicitude. “By all things holy, it is good to see you – more than I can properly express.”
Lorin waited for the older man to finish his salutation before he addressed Sifani again. “You said Nume let you live ‘for now.’” He wanted to stop and look her in the eye, but he and Jatan brought her to the bench by the wall and seated her, first. Silence hung heavy in the air as they did. “What do you mean, ‘for now?’”
Sifani inhaled deeply, taking in the face of each member of the band in turn. Finally, her gaze lighted on Lorin, and he saw distress behind it. “I made a bargain with my mother.” Another deep breath. “I am to meet her in the garden two days from now, to put myself into her power. And…I am to bring you with me, Lorin.”
He could not have been more surprised. “Me?”
She nodded, looking away as if ashamed.
“I — why?” Lorin forced his mind to stillness, though it resisted. “I’m a little too young for her, don’t you think?”
Sifani shot him a routine look of annoyance, but she didn’t answer. Before the pause had time to become uncomfortable, Ileniel trundled into the room with an armful of bandages and the small pouch that contained the needle and gut. It wasn’t hard for Lorin to detect that Sifani was relieved by the distraction, as she made a show of summoning Ileniel loudly and setting Jatan to the task of stitching her up at once.
Fortunately, Jatan wasn’t going to have it. “We’ll clean you up, Sifani, but then no more secrets,” he told her gently but firmly. “You must explain what happened between you and your mother just now, and why she has demanded that both you and Lorin come to her.”
Sifani nodded, looking sick. For some reason, Lorin felt the slightest bit sick, too, but he forced himself to grin.
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