Rowan grabbed onto the parka of whoever was closest to them.
“Ori—” Ember squawked.
“It’s Jax and Justiciar.”
She stopped and spun like a whirlwind. The moment she spotted Jax, her face lit up. “Jax!” she cried and took off at a sprint.
Jax, at the sound of a summons, startled. He barely turned in time to see Ember barrelling towards him, but somehow recovered quick enough to catch her and hold her aloft into the air after a quick, tight hug.
They approached at a more sedated pace, now followed by Alanna and Cassius and, even further behind, Enoch.
Jax was grinning as he set down Ember, and his expression grew further delighted when he glanced up and saw the rest of them. “Oh, thank the graces, the four of you are all okay!” He knelt, drawing Alanna into a hug as she approached, and then Cassius.
Rowan stepped forward and, for a moment, it felt like they were back at the Citadel, greeting Jax after his absence for months.
Then he drew away and stood, face drawn in worry. “I passed the Citadel on the way here and the four of you were nowhere to be found. I dreaded to think that something may have happened to you. I have no words for how relieved I am to find you all here.”
“Was anyone there?” Ember asked, eyes wide and bright. “Was the village ok? Did you talk to anyone?”
A shadow crossed Jax’s face which he quickly covered with a tight smile. Rowan frowned.
“The village is perfectly all right. Those who escaped the fire went there, and they’re shaken but recovering.” He sighed. “I cannot say the same about the Citadel. I’ve heard of magefire eating away at stone, but never would I have imagined a fire as devastating as this one.”
Rowan glanced towards Ember. Her expression screwed up for a moment, before she frowned up at Jax.
“Those who escaped?” Ember’s voice was small, cautious. She already knew the answer.
Their stomach shrivelled as Jax’s smile fell. “There’s nothing to say that those left in the village now are the only ones who survived. They could have fled on the roads rather than going to the village.”
“What about our parents?” Alanna asked, eyes wide and glistening bright with unshed tears.
“What about Lady Sylvania?” Ember added.
Jax hesitated, and a sickening feeling took root in Rowan’s heart. Jax glanced towards them. “I saw Eluna helping in the fields, trying to get everyone back on their feet. But I also did not see to everyone. It’s very possible I missed some, and even more possible that some were simply not there, but fled to the industrials roads when the fire spread.” He looked towards Ember and some tension faded from his expression. “Lady Sylvania is perfectly all right.”
Rowan felt all at once a flood of relief and terrible guilt at it, that their mum was okay but also that she was the only one that Jax had seen. Only their mum? Not one of the others’ parents? That surely wasn’t right. Couldn’t be right.
“What if they were captured?” Cassius asked. He looked to be fighting hard to keep dismay off his face. “By the Grey Masks?”
Jax frowned. “The Grey Masks?”
“We’re being chased by people in grey face masks,” Ember explained. “They were the ones who attacked the Citadel. They said they were looking for us.” She turned around and grabbed onto the bottom of Enoch’s shirt and tugged on it. “This is Enoch. He saved us from them and brought us here.”
Jax stepped forward and offered his hand. Enoch eyed him as though he were wielding a dagger in the proffered hand but took it and shook it.
“Then I cannot tell you how grateful I am that you found them and looked after them,” Jax said, smiling once again. “I’m Jax, I’m something of an informant for the Chronicler’s Guild. As for the Grey Masks, you said they attacked the guild and were looking for you?”
Rowan thought about the conversation they’d had with Caddy. “They were looking for us. And Jax, they knew who we were.”
He raised his eyebrows at that. “They knew who you were?” He reached back to rub Justiciar’s broad, muscled neck. “I warned Margaretta before I left that I had heard Tyrus Frost had been getting up to some kind of trouble in the west, though they were rumours and I had hoped that perhaps they were just that. But if they knew who you were…”
“Tyrus Frost?” Alanna asked. The corners of her eyes pinched as she narrowed them in confusion. Ember wore a similar expression.
Cassius’ brow furrowed deeply. “Belle told me about him. Didn’t he try to poison Margaretta?”
“I didn’t realise Isadora remembered that,” Jax said, surprised. “She was only nine. Yes, he did. It was an oversight not to do away with him after Salvador was removed from the guild, but Margaretta wanted his brilliance. I warned her about him, back then.”
“So it was about Salvador,” Rowan said. “It was that they knew us that threw me off, and knew Ember’s name in particular, since only those at the Citadel and the village knew about it.”
Ember eyed them. “Then why didn’t you say anything?”
“I did, but to Caddy, not to any of you. She asked about it, and it got me thinking.”
“Speaking of Isadora…” Jax turned to Justiciar and reached into the saddlebags. He procured an envelope and faced them again. He held it towards Rowan. “She gave this to me to give to the four of you. I had intended to give it to you at the Citadel, of course, but things didn’t exactly go according to plan.”
Rowan took it and felt a lightness in their chest. If nothing else, Isadora and Mishal were okay then.
Alanna’s head snapped up. “You saw her and Mishal?” she asked, hope lining her words like silver. She looked much younger suddenly, and it was then that Rowan realised that she looked so much more grown than she had just a few seasons ago. She looked older and, they had thought, more aware and mature, but now they realised she simply looked much more burdened.
“I did! They miss you all terribly.” Jax smiled brightly, as if relieved to be talking of something happier than the burning of their home. “They ran into a few spots of trouble, but now they’re headed towards the Sundown Ruins. If my estimates are right, they should be in the City of Bells right now, though knowing Mari, they could have already pressed south.”
Cassius shifted towards Alanna and, in quick motion, she had ducked under his arm and buried her face in his side. Even from where they were, Rowan could see that she was trembling. Cassius murmured something into her hair, and she laughed, but did not re-emerge.
“We were planning on going to Chromium,” Ember said. “We figured that the Grey Masks would have a harder time trying to grab us. With the gargoyles and all that.”
Jax nodded. “That’s actually a good plan for now. It may be closer to wherever Tyrus has set himself up, but getting to a city and Chromium especially, you’ll have a better chance at warding them off. On the roads and smaller villages, it would be easy to grab children without anyone noticing, but in a bustling city, it’d be harder to pull off. I’d certainly feel better if I knew the four of you were safe. If I wasn’t trying to get to Glacier’s Keep and handle some… complicated situations, I would be right beside you to escort you there.” He looked to Enoch. “You’re leading them there, protecting them? I would be happy to grant you anything in my power for their safety. It means more than I could possibly say that a stranger would take them and keep them out of harm’s way like that.”
Enoch looked incredibly uncomfortable, and Rowan almost had to laugh at the irony of the situation and all that Jax didn’t know. But no use worrying him more than he already seemed to be.
“…I agreed to guide them to Chromium, aye,” Enoch said. “And I’m prefer nothing, if it’s all the same to you. I’m satisfied with what I already have.” He crossed his arms over his chest, shoulders tense. “We should continue to be on our way then, if all is sorted here.”
Jax nodded. “I have to stable Justiciar, but by morning I must be on my way.” He smiled down at the four of them. “I’m so glad to see the four of you unharmed. Try to keep it that way. I’ll have word sent to Margaretta, Mishal, and Isadora as soon as possible, to inform them.”
It was only as Jax had left that Rowan remembered they should have asked about the whole trueblood thing.
They laid down that night, and slept very little, unease and dark thoughts plaguing their mind.
word count: 1,516