“Dalah’surfal, we—we need to talk.”
Talthan didn’t look up, still going through his daily mail while he ate from the bowl of porridge she had fixed for him early that morning. He was relaxed, but she was not, her stomach flipping as if it had seen a lynx crouched in the brush. Mirium focused on a new stain on Talthan’s shirt, and tried to find the courage to go on.
“Yes, my dear?” Talthan asked lazily, when she hadn’t elaborated for several more minutes. That spurred her to continue where her whirling thoughts couldn’t.
“The Scourge,” she choked out. “The reports are coming in more frequently now. They could make it here in days—“
Talthan snorted dismissively, then, seeming to think better of it, he tapped his spoon against the side of his bowl and scowled at her. Or rather, scowled through her, Iike he was still mulling over something he had read from his mail.
“I don’t think those reports are correct, Miri. Either way, we are far from the front here.”
“Talthan, we’re right on the outskirts of the city,” said Mirium. “They don’t even man the wall south of us anymore.”
“Because they don’t even need to,” said Talthan, smiling beatifically as if he had scored a point. It was a topic they had argued over before. “We determined long ago that magic alone was sufficient to guard the walls, so we no longer needed to waste money on the wages of the guards there. It’s so much more efficient than funding those useless belchers.”
“Magic is not enough,” said Mirium stiffly. “Not against the Scourge, if the reports are true.”
“And I don’t trust the reports,” said Talthan, shooting back, though he managed to make it sound pleasant, even as Mirium heard the underlying condescension in it.
There were so many things she wanted to say in retaliation to that, but the thoughts just ran, barking, around in her head. The squirrel in the tree that was her tucked its head away against the noise and wished she was elsewhere.
Yet Talthan was going on. “My dear, the possibility of the undead making it to the city is next to none. Let’s say for a moment we actually believe the reports from the Farstriders, and I’m not sure why we would. There’s miles of human farmland between us and the Scourge, and the city of Stratholme besides. That’s even before you get to the wardstones and the city’s defenses. You would have me believe the Scourge can just march right on through the South Pass, bypassing both Stratholme and the Farstriders’ lodge without anyone ever knowing about it? For they would have to, to arrive here within days with no warning—”
“Talthan, the warnings have already happened. The Scourge made it past the wardstones… somehow. There’s rumors we’ve been betrayed by one of the Magisters, and if that’s true, they could be in the city tomorrow if they wanted to be!”
Talthan sighed, a loud, tired sigh he wouldn’t even use when Medi blew up his alchemy lab. “My dear, those are just rumors, from people who are already discontents and would do anything to destabilize the courts, including lie about something so vicious as traitors among my colleagues—“
“Talthan, the Scourge have already killed hundreds—!”
“Oh, please.” He was starting to lose his temper. “Humans. Soldiers. Nothing to do with us.”
Angry vultures were circling in her head. The squirrel fled. “And I once said the same about the Black Horde. It cost me my husband,” Mirium said woodenly.
Talthan faltered, and Mirium couldn’t tell if he was more angered by the mention of Keelath or by her continuing to argue. He slapped his spoonless hand against the table and Mirium jumped, even though it was an absent slap as he put his thoughts together, not a rageful one. “Fine. Let’s examine that, shall we? We failed to properly counter the Black Horde because of what the Farstriders and the knights who guard the border were telling us. And now we’re supposed to believe them when it comes to the Scourge? No, I don’t buy it. There was a lot of things that went wrong in the Second War, but what happened to the knights was not one of them—“
Mirium grimaced. Fire rose up in her head and burned away the vultures. The squirrel was long gone.
”—just think of what would have happened if you had been in the care of your brother-in-law at the time. Those knights are feckless, slack-jawed cowards who deserved every loss among their ranks that they got, and now—”
Her hand had shot out and connected with Talthan’s face before Mirium was even aware it had moved from her side. A fierce anger was burning through the exhaustion and depression that had been dogging her steps for… it felt like years.
“I don’t care,” Mirium heard herself saying, then she blinked and she felt the force of her words as they left her throat, with all her will behind them. “I’m taking Medi, and I’m moving. I don’t care if you believe me anymore. I don’t care if you don’t believe the knights, which my… my family was a part of. Don’t you remember? You’ve either been lied to about the Scourge or I-I don’t know. I-I’m leaving, though.”
Talthan stared at her for a long moment, porridge dripping from the spoon he hadn’t thought to put back into his bowl yet. His jaw worked, then his words started coming out in a rush.
“Oh, really! Your brother-in-law is hardly worth the name of knight. Remember how he abandoned you over our love? And what about Ser Lightsworn in the courts, who spurned you because of your breeding? And the others are not much better. Why, I had heard just the other day one was caught beating his mistress. You should be grateful I saved you from a similar fate with Tyrric—“
“Stop!” Mirium cried.
“As to the matter at hand, dear, I really don’t believe we are in any sort of danger. The knights, as I said before, are highly unreliable with their reports—“
“That’s not true.”
”—and don’t get me started on the Farstriders. Why the king still allows those layabout vagabonds to take money from his coffers is beyond me. No, sit down! Listen to me! We are fine. We are safe. Look, I can show you. You remember my divination crystal? It will allow us to see to the front. I assure you, nothing can get past the wardstones, Mirium, and to believe otherwise is quite frankly folly—“
Her heart was pounding; it was difficult to hear him over it. The anger rose up in her throat, but it was a broken-winged bird bashing itself against cage walls. She would never be able to convince him. She wasn’t even entirely sure of herself.
She looked past him, to their daughter Medi. The little girl had bowed her head over her own bowl, her red hair draping her face from view, though Mirium could just make out the flicker of her blue eyes as she watched them. How often have we argued in front of her? she wondered, a shameful little pit gnawing in her stomach. Mirium had never argued upfront of Evelos. Not that Keelath had argued much with her at all.
The thought brought an unbidden memory of Keelath’s body, battered as it was after he had taken his last stand defending their old home in Thalas’talah from Black Horde raiders. She wavered, and the grief broke a dam somewhere inside her. Yet instead of an outpouring of tears, she felt something harden inside of her.
“I’m going,” she told Talthan.
“You most certainly are not!”
“Yes. I am.” She reached across the table and took Medi by the wrist, gave her a tug to her feet.
“We’re going, Medi.”
“B-but—“ Medi sat back into her chair, applying her weight to resist Mirium’s pulling. The room seemed to dip and wave. Don’t fight me now, child. I don’t need this.
But she remembered Keelath’s stand for her sake and for their son’s… and she swallowed, reached further up Medi’s arm, and jerked her to her feet.
She turned to face the door, only to find Talthan there, his eyes smoldering. Once it would have struck Mirium to her heart, but now she only saw him as an obstacle. A stubborn, ears-stoppered-up obstacle, like a courser tugging back on the lead rope. No, a hawkstrider. Somehow, Mirium thought a courser would have more sense.
Not knowing whether it would work, she walked straight at him, as if she was going to slam right into him if he didn’t move. She saw something new in his eyes then, his shock compounded. He hadn’t thought she’d have the will to do this, and neither had she. But here she was.
Talthan stepped out of the way and watched them go in silence. Mirium could almost hear the seething thoughts in his head, rattling their way around and trying to find some way to make her look stupid, make her do as he pleased. She found she didn’t care. She was too weary of the fighting, and… this was too important. Her daughter’s safety was more important than Talthan acting like a fool.
She had just made it out of the house when Medi unexpectedly sat down again, sobbing. “I don’t want to leave! I don’t want to go! Daddy! Why can’t we stay here with Daddy?”
Mirium almost tumbled over with her, but instead she kneeled down and cupped her daughter’s chin in her hands. Medi glared at her and tried to smack her arms away, so Mirium transferred her hands to her daughter’s shoulders. Medi sobbed, and relaxed into her, and Mirium folded her up, her heart banging softly with nostalgia, like she was holding Medi when she was a frightened toddler, not a girl about to start puberty.
“Sweetie, sweetie, we must go.”
“Wh-hy-hy-hy-hy-y-y-y-y? Daddy said we didn’t have to.”
Comforting lies wouldn’t help. Mirium sat Medi up and looked her in the eye. “Because the Scourge are coming. We live on the outskirts of Silvermoon. We won’t be safe here when they arrive.”
“How do YOU know?” Medi turned vicious again, but Mirium squeezed her shoulders tight and did not let go.
“Because one of my old business contacts told me. Do you remember the Hashplight farmers, on the border of Quel’Thalas?”
Oh, right. Medi had never met them. In fact, the last time Mirium had seen them had been before Evelos had left…
“Well, they were friends of my family. They used to give your big brother lessons on his courser. They told me about the Scourge. They barely got away from the leading edge of their army, a little more than two weeks ago.”
Medi just stared at her, surprised into silence by the mention of her older brother. Mirium smiled, bittersweet. Medi always liked to hear stories about Evelos, even though he had never written, never visited. Mirium wasn’t even sure he was alive — she carefully put that thought aside.
“They’re gathering their family at the lodge southeast of the city. The Farstriders there have opened their doors to any refugees. We’d be safe there, with good, strong men all around.”
“Daddy doesn’t like Farstriders,” Medi said stubbornly.
“Medi, your father is—“ Mirium swallowed. No more arguments in front of her child. “I know they have failed Quel’Thalas recently, but they have a complicated history and it’s not all bad. Either way, it’s safer than here—“
The door slammed open suddenly, cutting her off, and Talthan was scowling down at them. Oh, Light. She should have gotten away from the property before stopping to soothe Medi.
“Fine, we’ll go,” said Talthan unexpectedly, “but not to those bloody Farstriders. And not today. I have a friend deeper in the city. He has a bunker that would withstand the Titans themselves. If that doesn’t quiet your fears, then I’m afraid you’ve quite lost your head, Mirium.”
“Daddy!” Medi leaped up and hugged Talthan about the ribs, face cleared with the thought her parents weren’t arguing anymore. Mirium didn’t respond.
She had won; Mirium knew that on some level, but she didn’t feel it. She didn’t trust this friend of Talthan’s, but that was normal, really. She had never much liked the other magisters.
What was worse was she realized she didn’t trust Talthan himself anymore. Keelath would have done anything to protect her and Evelos — and he had, ultimately giving up his life for them. Talthan though… now Mirium saw his selfishness and his cowardice. She felt sick, because she desperately wanted someone else to be responsible for guarding the family, leading them out of danger. She wasn’t a fighter! She never had been…
She watched Medi bounce back into the house, calling out to her daddy that she would pack up fast and make him proud and was she allowed to bring all her books? No, you can’t; they’re too heavy, thought Mirium, even as Talthan made promises that she could. Mirium shook her head.
She was the rational one in the family. The thought scared her, for she knew she really wasn’t all that rational when her emotions got going. Yet if they were going to survive, she saw now that it had to be her putting down her foot. She looked up at Talthan as he turned his back without even checking on her, presumably to go about making his own preparations. Mirium saw the end of their marriage in that back, though it would not be for several more years that it came to pass. She ducked her head and prayed to the Light for strength.