Heat wiggled in waved lines through heavy air as Hylin strode across the courtyard toward the senior dormitories, dripping sweat after a grueling class with Master Chai. A small shadow passed over her foot. Stopping, she glanced up expecting a hawk but heard a sound like a distant trumpet – a lone dragon, far, far above. She continued on her way. Her boots kicked up dust that rode currents past the old, tan stone buildings with their green, shingled roofs trimmed in curled wooden eaves. Under them sprawled broad porches with labyrinth-like woodwork that decorated the overhangs and tops of support columns. Still wind chimes hung silent. The sun blazed like fire in a kiln, and she felt sweat trickling down her arms, legs, chest, and back. Though the weather on the Plains had become much less extreme in the centuries since Reanna had cracked open the earth and released the water Molek stole from their people and though green plants now grew, summers still sweltered. And summer had reached its equinox. Images of water occupied her – its sight, sound, and taste. But as she passed the first dormitory grouping, something seemed amiss. Halting, she turned back.
The door of dormitory five stood wide open.
Foolish, she thought. Who would do such a thing? An overheated animal could stroll right in. So despite her immediate desire for a dip in the pool, she hopped the steps and entered number five.
Inside, the unit looked like all the others, sparsely furnished and plain, two bedrooms and a common area, where he stood. His back was toward her, but she instantly realized he was new. Running through the information at hand, she knew that he was an advanced student because of the dormitory in which he now resided and that he must be a transfer because she did not recognize him. It fit. Theron had been granted the rank of Master and moved on, and Baelin had been living alone for about two months. Not anymore.
The young man turned, apparently caught off guard by her sudden presence. For a moment, the silence proved exceedingly awkward, as she waited for him to speak and he cut his eyes around the room and squeezed his lips together.
“I’m sorry.” Her eventual interjection was even more awkward than the silence. “The door was open. I was afraid an animal would walk in.”
Like you? She could hear Master Chai’s laughing voice in her head, but the young man made no such remark. Again, the pause felt awkward, but his facial features finally relaxed a bit.
“Yeah, Baelin must’ve left it open.”
She immediately found herself wondering about his course of study. He was much smaller than Theron had been, so she felt certain that he had never trained with heavy weapons. But he did not appear weak, and his hairless face was attractive – not boxed or overly angular, but slim with fine features. Dark brown, almost black, hair curled over his head, a little shaggy, and his eyes were dark as well. His skin deep brown, he was certainly Hodelin like she. From what region she could not guess. He was toned but not bulked with muscle, and she was too far away to get a good look at his hands. Nervously, though she could not tell why, she shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted again. “Can I start over?”
He looked a bit puzzled.
“If you want.” His voice betrayed to her that he had no idea what to do with this girl who just burst into his dormitory. It made her squirm a little.
“Hi. I’m Hylin. I’m from the Maica region and study hand-to-hand combat and letters.”
And for the first time, he smiled.
“I’m Eron. From the Alta region. Wilderness survival and letters.”
Hylin’s smile opened up her whole face.
As the summer waned, she would rap on the door of number five. He would unlock it, and they would walk to class or dinner together. She would smile, punctuated with the occasional giggle. And he would smile back, making eye contact then looking away when their gaze locked. They would talk about everything and nothing and finish each other’s sentences. He would bump into her, and she would start and pray to Arin that he did not notice. When she looked up, his attention would be elsewhere, and she would turn her attention also. Sometimes, on the threshold of speaking, she would stop as she felt something locked inside would bust through her chest. It frightened her. In the moment, she would withdraw.
Then, “You’re my best friend,” she would say.
And he would grin. “You’re mine too.”
When fall arrived in a parade of warm colors, she called between knocks for Eron to hurry so they would not be late to Master Chai’s class in the combat house. She had acquired him a pass for the day, despite it not being part of his curriculum. Finally arriving, they approached the door, stopped on the mat, and paid respect, pressing their hands together over their hearts and lowering their heads. She introduced him to Master Chai, whose long white beard, weathered face, and dark, sharp, narrow eyes always terrified, hawk-like, comparable to his strikes. Eron paid respect to the Master awkwardly, as it was not a convention in his classes, but the appreciative teacher smiled and returned the gesture. Watching Eron’s pained grimacing as she led warm-ups and stretches, Hylin did her best to hide her smiles behind seriousness. He was not good at it, but he gave good effort. Most would have abandoned the exercise in the first quarter hour. He proved no better with the forms. Even though Master Chai spent considerable time with him personally, Eron barely completed one of the most basic.
But he smiled.
And he tried.
So he had her respect and admiration.
Then Master Chai decided to show her off, singling her out for sparring and pitting her against himself. Hylin swelled with pride, for Master Chai had the uncanny ability to challenge her while making her look and feel brilliant. And for some reason, today, she wanted that more than anything else. Facing off, they began, she on the defensive. Flying through the blocks, evasions, and strikes, the opponents negotiated the fight, give and take, high and low. Master Chai’s style not only intimidated but also captivated, using grace, speed, and technique that propelled fighters through the air, achieving dazzling heights. He had taught her well.
Grounded again, panting from the exercise, Hylin basked in the approval of her master, the cheers of her comrades, and the applause of her friend.
They paid respect and departed the class, Eron taking the lead and trekking across the campus and beyond the boundaries of it. Soon, they were on a broad, rolling, grassy plain, which joined a dense stretch of forest in the northwest. Eron’s pace quickened, and Hylin found herself concentrating on keeping up with him. He moved through the waist-high grass with ease, as if he knew what it covered and could negotiate the plain blinded. The forest hung with vines, whose leaves and diameters varied, creating a living tapestry that cloaked the branches. Eron waited for Hylin to catch him, and when she did, he pushed some vines aside, opening the way for her, “Come in.”
She stepped through into a glen in which sat eight students and a teacher that Hylin did not know. Sunrays pierced the canopy forming pools of yellow light like rain puddles on the forest floor. The glen smelled of wood and life. The teacher greeted Eron, saying they had been waiting, and Hylin wondered how often he was late. For the first part of the class, the teacher presented them with an array of plants and their uses. To Hylin’s surprise, no student wrote anything down, but simply touched, smelled, and examined as the specimens passed one to another. The class was then sent out to gather examples of each. An individual exercise, Hylin was the last to return with only two of the required twelve. She fared no better building a shelter, even though the teacher took her through the process step by step. At first, it would not stand. Then, it failed the water test, and Hylin was soaked. Disappointed as she knew her eyes revealed her to be when she looked up at Eron, the water trickling down her skin washed away the grime and exertion of her dual with Master Chai before her shelter fell into a final, hopeless heap.
But she tried.
And she smiled.
So she had his respect and admiration.
And then the teacher called for Eron to run from a predator. Within the glen, he made himself scarce as all the students and the teacher descended upon him, dragging with them the sound of wind gusting across dunes. It resonated in Hylin’s ears as he rolled, leaped, and disappeared into the trees, the only noise of his departure being that of birds’ wings or beetles scurrying over tile floors. Hylin turned this way and that, trying to pin her eyes or ears on him. But he was gone. The students and their teacher burst through branches, vines, and brush – some with stealth, some with power. And within the confined space, she knew he moved as if engaged in dance – back and forth, give and take, moving with the advances, leading, always just one step ahead. And then, the teacher called the end and for Eron to emerge.
He did, far from where Hylin had determined he was, smiling, accepting the accolades of his teacher, and resting in the admiration of his friend.
One year later, they moved into number seven. Her roommate had been granted the rank of Master and moved on. Baelin transferred to another school. The Masters agreed, and it was done with surprising ease despite them being male and female. Number seven was an old dormitory and had been occupied by some particularly destructive students – students who were, in the end, expelled. As Hylin and Eron brought their belongings inside, they noticed damages to the walls and even the floor, but the mess was repairable, and they would do the work themselves, together.
Hylin had finished moving into her room, and deciding to change, she reached to close her bedroom door.
Her exclamation brought Eron instantly around the corner.
“No door! Look at this! I have no door! How did they—? Why would they tear off a door?”
Eron shook his head and rolled his eyes, opening his hands as if he had nothing to offer.
She looked at him, and he looked at her. With pursed lips and wrinkled faces, they floundered in silence.
“We’ll get it fixed, and until then, we’ll make do. You know I won’t watch.”
Her irked expression relaxed slowly, and she breathed easier though she felt an odd pricking sensation in her chest, which she barred inside as she looked into his eyes.
“I know. I trust you.” And looked away.
The chirps of birds and crickets overlapped as Hylin rolled out of bed. Her eyes still closed, she reached for the curtains and brushed them aside. The pale purple light did little to illuminate her room, but it did become just bright enough she would not stumble into walls or trip over the minimal furniture. She fumbled into her clothes, brushed out her hair, and pushed open her new door. The dormitory was quiet and shadowed as she sat on the couch and pulled on her boots. Eron’s door was closed, and no light emerged from under it. Now, she heard more birdcalls outside than crickets. She tiptoed out the front door, lifting up on the handle so it would not squawk. Down the steps she bounded and across the school grounds, through misty air that would dry out with the midday sun. Her boots pounded out the rhythm of her morning routine.
She returned to the dormitory, having finished her run and eaten breakfast in the dining hall. Orange light now bathed the common room. Eron’s door stood wide open, and she walked into his room.
“Morning.” She smiled.
And from his relaxed position on the bed, he returned her smile. “Morning.”
“Studying?” A book lay open before him, and his writing utensils, except the ink well, were strewn over his bed, though he was staring vacantly out the window when she entered. She flopped down on the bed by him.
“Yeah. They’ll be wanting something soon.” He ruffled some of the parchment mindlessly. “How’s yours coming?”
“It’s coming. Come to the common room. I’ll get my stuff and make coffee.” With fluid motion, he shifted closer to her so their shoulders touched and smiled as he held her gaze. “Okay.”
Another year passed. Hylin was stronger, faster, and with nothing in her hands, deadlier than a viper. Eron was wiser, quicker, and could survive in the desert with merely the clothes on his back. Often, he was sent out with minimal clothing. In letters, they remained equals as they studied the words of ancient gurus and old bards, young philosophers and storytellers. They read together, wrote together, and criticized each other’s work. The two continued to be practically inseparable.
By candlelight, Hylin was huddled underneath a blanket, for the sun had long set, night’s chill permeated the dormitory, and stubbornly, she refused to start a fire. Writing on parchment, her fingers were losing their dexterity. She returned the quill to the well and, cupping her hands together, exhaled into them, summoning air from the deepest recess of her body. The front door screeched, and Eron tromped in.
“Get lost?” She grinned.
An explosion of air escaped through his lips, and his eyes rolled back a little. “You know my thing. Think it through and practice every possible scenario…which also includes nights.” He dropped his bag in the floor and crossed to his locker where he rummaged. “It got cold quick.”
“Yeah it did.”
He rose with some biscuits in his left hand, already chewing one. Ducking briefly into his room, he emerged with parchment and his writing utensils. Beside her, he settled down and spread out his work. He offered her a biscuit, and she accepted it, nibbling at its sweetness while she worked. For some time, the scratch of their quills seemed the only sound on earth.
“Do you have anything going on tomorrow night?” Eron asked.
After finishing her scrawl, Hylin glanced up. “Not particularly.”
“Hmmm…” He looked as though he was trying to solve a puzzle. “Would you mind letting me have the dormitory for a couple hours? I’d like to have Tyne over.”
And for only a moment, Hylin thought and felt nothing. Then suspended in the next instant, the deepest part of herself seemed ajar. A brief sensation of falling followed, but almost immediately, she recovered. “Sure. I’ll find something to do. It’s not a problem.”
He looked relieved and almost sighed.
They returned to their writing.
Hylin let the door groan on its hinges as she pushed it open. Long shadows cast by the band of light under Eron’s door fell out of the common room and spilled into the night behind her, becoming one with the dark. She stepped in and pulled the door shut. Treading lightly, she stopped in the center of the room. Tyne’s voice and giggles tumbled out with the warm light and Eron’s low mumbling while Hylin stood, wrapped in silhouettes for several moments. She entered her room, and closed the door, without lighting a candle.
Yet another year came and went, and that spring in a tournament, Hylin took a poorly aimed leg kick to the side of her knee. She collapsed. The other competitor was disqualified, but she could not walk out of the ring.
Back in number seven and her room, the doctor was not optimistic. Her leg supported no real weight. When he asked her to stand evenly, she cried out as she fell, her knee buckling to the inside. They put her back in the bed, and Master Chai shook his head as Hylin rolled over to face the wall. Then, everyone left her alone.
Eron stood in the doorway when she eventually turned back. She felt her eyes stinging and blinked hard.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
The first two weeks, she sunk into a deep melancholy. At last, Eron brought books from the library, carried her into the common room, plopped her down on the couch, and placed a quill in her hands. She frowned and scowled, but he stood over her, staring down until she dipped the nib in ink and scrawled words on her parchment.
Eron carried her for two months. He brought her food from the cafeteria and took her to the combat house where she first watched, then later did conditioning for her arms and core. She read, she wrote, and her letters became better formed and cleaner than ever. Not only were her letters beautiful to look at, they were beautiful to read. Eron read, commented, and smiled.
In Master Chai’s classes, she learned to roll over on her stomach and pop up using one leg. Eventually, she started putting a little weight on her bad one – first for only a moment, then longer, then finally a limping step clinging to her Master’s shoulder. It took nine grueling months and Eron’s arm, but against all expectations, Hylin walked, then ran, then fought.
Her bedroom door yawned at them as Eron came and went.
Hylin lay in bed late the following summer, almost asleep. Moonlight diffused through the curtains, casting a dim glow and pale shadows on the floor. As if their lives depended on a decent chorus, crickets chirped their shrill vibrato, somehow lulling despite its pitch. She heard Eron’s footsteps through the door, though she expended no further mental energy other than to realize he was home.
Later, she would say she thought she heard his door close.
An urgent knock roused her from a dream she could not remember.
She bolted up and out from under the covers. She had never heard his voice sound so – weak, strained, sick, dying. By the time she had crossed the room and flung the door open, he was collapsed against the wall. His arms were drawn in close to his body, his fingers curled the like the legs of a spider, misfortunate enough to scamper through a Potion Master’s compound.
He could barely whisper. “It wasn’t what I thought.”
“What?” she shrieked.
“Come on.” Hylin scooped him up. Throwing his right arm over her left shoulder, she seized him around the waist and hauled him from the dormitory, partly carrying him, mostly dragging him. They nearly fell as they stumbled down the steps.
She lugged him across the shadowed school grounds to the infirmary where windows were dark. And she beat on the door, calling “Doctor Orin” until the old gentleman finally unbolted it and, carrying a torch, padded out onto the porch in his slippers.
For the next several hours, the doctor worked, and Hylin stayed watchful nearby, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing just out of reach and out of mind. Finally, in the hours just before sunrise when the crickets fell asleep, Eron breathed easy again, his arms and legs relaxed out of their contortions, and he slept soundly. Hylin willed herself awake, until the doctor admonished her to go get some rest. He was, after all, and Eron would be fine. Still uneasy, Hylin did not return to number seven but rather sank down in a corner and fell asleep with her head thrown back against the wall.
Noon approached when she woke again. Eron stirred, and she moved to the edge of the bed. His eyes, at last, flittered open. They darted around the room, finally resting on Hylin.
“Hi,” she whispered.
“Hey,” he muttered.
He looked like death with dark circles hanging underneath his eyes, new moons in crescents. As if breathing were taxing, his chest rose and fell – rhythmic but slight movement.
“Thanks,” he exhaled.
Hylin smiled. “What? Did you really think I’d let you die?”
Over the next few weeks, Hylin passed in and out of Eron’s room taking care of him as the toxins of the misidentified plant worked out of his system through many tonics and teas and a few fevers.
She moved back and forth through the frame unobstructed.
Dolir would enter Hylin’s life one year later. A heavy weapons student from the Maica region, he would transfer just before she was injured. Though she did not know him before meeting him at the school, they would have a great deal in common – heritage, physical prowess, even the same preferences for food and schedule. At first, they would do some training together since Master Chai’s classes were a requirement for him. Then, they would stay after class was finished to run through their forms again. They would eat lunch together. Dolir would teach her to wield an axe.
She stomped into the dormitory one drizzly, fall evening. The air was crisp enough Eron had started a fire in the hearth. The welcoming warmth made her toasty deep in her stomach, and she smiled. Bringing some water, she made coffee for the two of them, and they gathered their writing materials, finally settling onto the couch.
Hylin drew her quill through ink and moved to the page. Half a letter flowed onto the parchment, curling and swooping. She picked up her cup and blew the cloud off the top. It dissipated into the air before her as she took a sip. And, her heart thumped on the other side of the tranquility she strove to maintain.
“So what are you doing tomorrow night?”
He looked up from his lettering.
“Don’t have plans.”
Dipping the quill back in the ink, she finished her letter. She reached for the coffee again, inhaling this time just before she sipped. Almost imperceptibly, even to herself, she winced and could not tell if it was from the scald.
“Would you mind letting me have the dormitory for a bit? I wanted to have Dolir over.” She stared into her cup as she said it.
He did not answer right away, and Hylin could barely keep herself from squirming. But by the time she looked over, he said, “Sure. It’s fine.”
He went back to work.
And she watched him for a moment, then went back to work too.
Hylin and Dolir moved from the common area into her room.
She closed the door behind them.
Another year passed. Hylin and Eron had advanced through their programs. In ceremony before the whole school and Grand Masters from other schools, they were granted the rank of Master. When the pomp and grandeur passed, they continued their studies and began to teach students themselves.
It was morning. Hylin made breakfast for the two of them because he never rose early enough to do so and she believed one should not go without it. She had dipped oatmeal into bowls and was garnishing it with blueberries when his door swung open and he stepped into the common room.
“So,” he began.
She held the bowl out to him, and he took it.
“I was in a meeting yesterday with the Masters from Erat.”
“Really?” she asked, the question muffled by blueberries and grains. She swallowed. “I wasn’t. What did they want?”
He stirred the concoction in his bowl together.
“They want me to come teach wilderness survival.”
Hylin sputtered. Coughing a couple times, she regained her composure. “Teach in Erat? That’s about as far away from here as you can get.”
He nodded, watching her carefully.
She stirred her oatmeal, making spirals in the food. “Well,” she said at length. “You have wanted to travel. It’s a great opportunity.”
“Don’t know. Could be a year. Could be permanent.”
She nodded and studied the floor.
She looked up. “Decided yet?”
“I’m probably going.”
She smiled and hoped it did not look forced. “Don’t blame you. I would if it were me.”
He smiled and dug into his breakfast.
Number seven stood wide open one week later as Eron moved his few bags out onto the porch in the yet cool, morning air. The sun had just barely passed the eastern rim. Hylin helped him load the Master’s wagon. Neither of them had spoken all morning, and finally finished, they stood facing one another.
“Well…” he began.
They shifted awkwardly, looking into each other’s eyes, looking away.
“I’ve enjoyed it.”
“Me too,” she replied. “Thanks for being my best friend.”
He smiled weakly. She looked away.
The birds sang.
Then in a rush of motion, she threw her arms around his neck and pulled him close and tight.
And he hugged her back until, “I’m going to cry.”
She shoved him away quickly, almost roughly.
“Go,” she ordered.
He moved toward her.
She ran for the steps, scaling them in two bounds. Slamming the door behind her, she fell back against it, slid down to the floor, and wept.
The Masters said she could move into their quarters. She had obtained enough rank. Hylin would no longer have a roommate at all, and the Masters’ dormitories were more comfortable, though she had to wait a couple months for her new home to be prepared.
The thought of moving elated her. Eron permeated every corner and crevice of number seven. One step to the right meant a different memory. To the left – a different face, gesture, or phrase. She was forever finding belongings he left behind and finally made a box for him. She began to avoid the common room. When she was there, his room gaped open. Her eyes would drift over to it then dart away. As if something was continually peering around the frame, she was uncomfortable.
Following an advanced class with Master Chai, they drank tea on his porch.
“I need to put something in that room.”
“Pack,” he replied. “Put boxes in there.”
“That could work.” She paused to take several sips before she continued. “It really bothers me. The room.” She looked up at him. “It’s so empty. Like a big hole.”
“Shut the door,” her Master replied.
“I can’t. I tried. He used to shut the door when he slept. When I do, I feel like he’s still there.”
Hylin moved into the Masters’ quarters – number thirteen, and her reputation grew. Not only did she win tournaments, but her students did as well. Her writings became well renowned, and life passed day after day, moment after moment, while seasons came and went. She wrote Eron once but knew that it would take months to reach him – if it ever did. She told him she missed him and asked about his school and described her new living arrangement. Knowing it was unlikely the letter would ever be delivered, she never looked for a reply.
It was hot, and the sun baked down, as Hylin strode across the courtyard in the Masters’ quarters. She had just finished teaching a class and a grueling workout with Master Chai. Dust swirled up as exhaustion drug her boots through the dirt, scuffing. Wind chimes tinkled in the light breeze.
And she is halting. Her chest is rising as her heart opens. She is holding her breath.
The door of number thirteen stands open.