A cold, late autumn breeze blew in from the bay and whistled in through my partially open window. My skin prickled, but I made no move to cover myself up with my bedding that I had tossed aside in the middle of the night. Every inch of me felt like dead weight and I had no motivation to fight against it. My eyes ached from lack of sleep and I wanted desperately to give them rest, but every time I closed them, I saw their faces and I heard their voices. I couldn’t escape the reminders of my mistakes. They were everywhere.
I heard a scratch and a soft thud at the window sill, accompanied by a quick, little heartbeat that echoed softly in my ears. I ventured a guess as to what it was and then I turned my gaze from the rough boards of my ceiling, to my window. Seeing that I was correct in my assumption, I uttered a grumble and rubbed at my weary eyes. Liliana’s owl companion, Athena, stretched out her white-feathered wings in the open space and fluttered them before settling down. Then, folding her wings to her sides, the owl sat as still as a statue and scrutinized me stoically with her bright, yellow eyes.
“What do you want?” I weakly murmured. Athena had made a point of sticking around ever since Liliana’s death, despite my efforts of shooing her away. She was just another item in the ever-growing list of my failures.
The owl blinked and turned her head slightly, as if contemplating my question.
“To torment me no doubt,” I answered for her.
Grunting, I pushed myself up and leaned against my bed’s dark-stained headboard. Athena and I locked into a staring duel for I don’t know how long until a knock came at my door and broke the silent trance. Remaining silent, I hoped whomever it was would go away, but the knock came again.
“Nienna?” A robust voice called from the other side of my door. “It’s Dee.”
I sighed and closed my eyes, hoping she would go away if I stayed quiet long enough. When we returned from the Shiverpeaks, I ordered our members to leave, for their own safety, but some did not heed my orders. They were just plain stubborn. Maybe Dee would eventually assume I had gone out. Who was I kidding. I hadn’t left my room for the better part of a week and she had probably been keeping tabs on me.
“Nienna, please open up,” Dee pleaded as she pounded on the door again. There was no mistaking the concern creeping into her tone.
Ignoring her plea, I pulled my knees up to my chest and rested my head on them, desperately wishing she would go away. Her knocks on the door kept coming and I covered my ears, but my quickening heartbeat rose up and filled them. I pressed my hands harder over my ears, but I couldn’t keep out the beating of my heart, nor the beating on the door. I clenched my hands tightly against my head.
A great wintry chill rose up in my room and immediately, Athena took to flight with a startled flutter of her snow-white wings. At first, I thought it had been a strong autumn wind that had blown in, but there had been no audible rush and no sensation felt on my skin. Growing alarmed, I looked up to find my entire room filling with shadows. They writhed and wriggled and I could have sworn they whispered my name.
“Go away!” I yelled, breaking out in cold sweat as chills crawled up my spine. I scrambled backward, but there was nowhere to go beyond my headboard.
“Please Nienna,” Dee said through the door. “I’m worried about you. Can you let me in so we can talk?”
Frightened and uncertain where the shadows had come from, I began to panic. My fingers frantically searched through my sheets and blankets for something, anything, to defend myself. I found a boot, grabbed it by the laces, and pulled it closer. With my boot in hand, I carefully surveyed my room, looking for the source of the shadows, but saw nothing out of the ordinary upon visual inspection.
“Please don’t push us away,” Dee said. “You promised you would explain! Let us help you!”
Nervously, I looked between the door and my darkening room. Although my eyes didn’t see anything, that didn’t mean there was nothing there. Despite my anxiety, I tried to focus, forcing my shaky senses to reach out. My heartbeat raced in my ears and as I pushed them out further, I could hear Dee’s elevated heart rate thundering from the other side of the door, but that was all I could sense in the vicinity. Maybe there wasn’t anything there after all.
With a deep breath, I encouraged my body and nerves to relax. Perhaps I was just seeing things. After all, I couldn’t remember when I had slept last and it wasn’t uncommon for one to perceive things that weren’t there when suffering from sleep deprivation. Loosening my grip on my boot, I leaned back against my bed’s headboard again while still keeping a close eye on the shadows, and as I did, they began to dissipate. I sat watching as my room emptied, perplexed at what had just happened. There had been no apparent source of the shadows, but yet they had come and gone all the same.
The knocks at my door stopped and I thanked the Six that Dee had left me in peace. Tossing the boot aside, it tumbled off the bed and hit the floor with a thud. I pulled up my covers onto my lap and looked around my room once again to make sure there was nothing there. All I saw was my chamber in complete disarray. Trays of barely touched food cluttered my table, accompanied by cups of now sour wine and tepid water. Articles of clothing were strewn all over the floor and across the way near the door, my axe remained lodged in the wall. The small fireplace across the room from my bed hadn’t been cleaned since before I had left, and the ashes had almost overflowed onto the hard wood floor. It was easy to see that I had lost my motivation to clean up after myself.
I ran my fingers through my long, messy red hair and they got tangled in the strands part of the way down. I struggled with them but gave up and instead rubbed at my tired eyes. When was the last time I had slept?
The sun hung high in the sky when another knock came at my door. I glowered, pulling up my covers up to my chest and let out a barely audible grumble. Again, I remained silent in hopes whomever was there would eventually go away and leave me in peace.
“Nienna?” A gentle voice called from the other side of my door. “You there?”
“I want to be left alone, Quint,” I called out sternly, still holding my covers close.
“We’re all worried about you,” he said. “Can you let me in so I can at least make sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” I snapped back.
“You haven’t come out of your room in days,” he pointed out. “Have you even touched any of the food we’ve brought for you?”
I looked at the clutter of trays on my table again and sighed. I hadn’t eaten more than a bite here and there.
“Look,” Quint began again. “I have a tray of apple muffins from your favorite market vendor and a fresh pot of omnomberry cinnamon tea. Will you let me in for just a moment to make sure you’re okay and then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.”
I had to give our Adviser credit. Apple muffins and omnomberry cinnamon tea was a favorite of mine. I stared at my door, debating whether or not to let him in. I didn’t want to be around anyone right now but at the sound of my favorite afternoon treat, my stomach rumbled. I supposed it couldn’t hurt to have a little something to eat and if I let him in for a few minutes, maybe it would satisfy them all and buy me some more time to be left alone.
Lazily swinging my legs over the side of my bed, I slid down off of it. The wood floor felt ice cold under my toes and it was the first time I realized just how cold my room was. Snatching a blanket off my bed, I wrapped it around me and it engulfed my small frame. I shuffled over to the door and unlatched the lock before making my way over to my chair by my table and sitting down. Slowly, my door opened and Quint timidly stuck his head in, making sure it was okay for him to enter. Not hearing any words of objection, he stepped into my room with a simple wood tray in hand and carefully made his way around the various items strewn about the floor while wordlessly surveying the entirety of my chamber. He stopped next to my table and moved a tray full of untouched food aside while balancing the tray he was holding with one hand.
“You’ve barely eaten anything,” Quint noted as he set the tray down on the cleared space. “You must be starving.”
I curled up in my high-back chair, wrapping my blanket around me until I had enveloped myself in a soft cocoon. The sweet smell of apples and cinnamon invaded my senses and my stomach cried out for the food with an audible growl. Quint reached over and set a tea cup in front of me before picking up the teapot and filling it. The sweet and spicy aroma of the tea mingled with the sweet scent of the apple muffins and I gave in. I took my cup carefully with both hands and brought it close to me. The steam warmed my face and the cup warmed my hands and for a brief moment, a sense of calm washed over me.
“When was the last time you slept, Nienna?” Quint asked as he pulled up another chair. He unbuttoned his knee-length dark jacket and sat down. His silvery hair had been neatly combed back and his face clean shaven, but his usually bright steely-blue eyes were dull and weary.
I took a sip of my tea and let it warm me. “I don’t know,” I replied honestly, and then took another sip. “When’s the last time you slept?”
“Far too long ago,” Quint admitted. He poured himself a cup and then placed a muffin on a small plate before setting it in front of me. He then settled himself back in his chair as he studied me with his calm gaze.
We sat in silence as I set my cup down and reached for the muffin. I pulled off a piece and popped it in my mouth, savoring the flavors of apple, vanilla, and cinnamon. I chewed and swallowed the piece and immediately craved more. Ignoring a question from the Adviser, I pulled off another piece and promptly consumed it.
“Why have you locked yourself away?” he asked me again.
My eyes shot up and locked with Quint’s as I abruptly dropped my muffin. It landed with a soft bounce on my plate and I lightly rubbed my fingers together over the plate to clean them of the crumbs. “Do you really need to ask me that?”
His eyes widened in surprise as he leaned forward and placed a hand on the table. “Yes, I do. We all do. Ever since we returned, you’ve been avoiding us, never coming out of your room. You’ve broken up the guild. You’ve barely eaten,” he said, gesturing to the rest of the cluttered table. “And by the looks of those dark circles under your eyes and the fact that you can’t even remember when you slept last, I know you aren’t sleeping.”
I looked down at the table surface, not really focusing on it. “I can’t sleep,” I replied simply. “I can’t sleep because every time I close my eyes, I see them all die over and over again. I hear them scream, blaming me for killing them and they’re right. It’s my fault they’re dead.”
“I shouldn’t what?” I cut him off as I abruptly looked up at him. “Blame myself? Of course I should.”
Quint straightened himself, and withdrew his hand from the table as he gestured to me. “You did not hold the gun to Liliana’s head and you did not drive that dagger into Artis. You didn’t kill Rhys and Sir Fendall. He killed them all,” he stated, careful not to say his name.
“And what about Torran?” I asked. “I killed him. He…he took it and I killed him.” The words spilled from my lips as tears glossed my eyes.
“You did what you had to do, Nienna,” Quint explained. “You can’t blame yourself for a choice he made.”
“And the rest? They all died because they were connected to me,” I replied angrily, firmly picking up my tea cup again and taking a sip. “Grenth’s great horns! I condemned them all when Rhys, Fendall, and I started this guild! Their blood is on my hands.”
“I believe you had good intentions when you founded the Defenders,” the Adviser said honestly, “and I believe you never meant for any of this to happen.”
I narrowed my brows and stifled a yawn. “Good intentions are not enough to keep people alive.”
“No, I suppose not,” Quint conceded. “Still, I don’t think you should be torturing yourself like this.”
“I got people killed, Quint,” I argued, setting down my teacup down hard enough, hot tea sloshed over its side and onto my hand. Biting back a sharp cry, I shook off some of the drops and then wiped it on my blanket. “And you saw what I did in the cavern. You all did. Torturing myself is the least I could do.”
“Using your gifts does not make you a bad person, Nienna. Besides, what good will you be to them,” he said, gesturing to my door, “if you stay in here punishing yourself?”
“Anyone still here shouldn’t be,” I growled. Another yawn fought its way forward and I placed a hand over my mouth as it rolled through. “I made it very clear when we returned that you all needed to leave. All of you. Anyone still here is as stubborn as a moa in heat,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him.
He settled back into his chair and rest his hands in his lap. A warm smile graced his lips. “We’re still here because we care.”
“Not all of you.”
Quint’s smile faded. “They only did what you asked.”
Clenching my jaw, I nodded. “I know.”
Lazily, I shook my head and it was then that I realized something was off. My vision began to trail with each movement of my head as if I had had too much to drink and my eye lids suddenly felt very heavy. I froze, unsure of what was happening and what had caused it. Looking up at Quint, his visage grew blurry and I blinked repeatedly, trying to clear my vision.
“W-what’s going on?” I stammered.
Quint’s fuzzy form leaned forward. “You’re going to be okay,” he assured me. “You’re just overtired and you need to sleep.” He stood from the chair and stepped around the table to my side. Hastily, I pushed myself up from my chair but my legs buckled under me and my chair slid out from under my grip. I almost fell over, but Quint caught me and scooped me up with ease. I opened my mouth to say something but the effort was too much. Whatever cares I had about my current state melted away and I gave up my attempt to cry out. My whole body grew heavy and I fell into a deep slumber.