Interlude: Meanwhile

Majiv was drowning in air. She spent the nights (and the days?) drifting, the world around her insubstantial as water - an ocean in her mind. She walked empty corridors and charred halls when awake and in her dreams, in the spaces between and the times when she did not know which was which. She was alive, yes, ate and slept, but those were quick slivers of her world. The world was this tangle of impossible passages, wooden beams raising stairways to nowhere, walls blackened with soft soot, and it was in this world she sank and drowned.

It was in this world that the shadows roamed.

She dreamt the first times, she remembered that, and sometimes she would whirl around and see Kejik, her eyes lowered. But there were other times. She'd gaze into the forest from a window ledge and be there, running and ducking between sharp, jagged branches, the smell of pine needles in the frozen air, until a figure stood before her, and she would stand her ground... and there she was by the window, blinking in the dim autumn light again. She'd cross the ruined hall and hear a near-silent footstep, and turn to see nothing. Every time it ended with the same words in her head, the same plea, always so close to being spoken. Every time the words froze in her throat. No! It's not time yet! It's not time for that!

Times like this one.

Her breath fogged in the still air. She tensed, fists clenched, knowing what would be there before she turned - yes. There. At the far end of the passage, enveloped in light so that only a blurred form remained, dual shadows streaming from its feet. She stepped forward, the air so cold that she felt ice would condense on her skin. The words sprang to mind again, screaming in her head.

But she'd had time to think, while cast adrift in her own inner sea. And new words formed. No. It's not time yet. It won't EVER be time for that!

The ocean drained at the thought. Kejik stepped out of the light, and a single shadow pooled at her feet, no more. Majiv relaxed, her hands unclenching, the fog her breath made dissipating - if it had ever been there at all. Kejik approached like a nervous deer, poised to flee at the first and slightest sound. "Lady Dhalsiv?"

Never time for that. "Yes?" She was hungry and tired, for the first time in an eternity. She willed herself to remain upright, remembering how it felt - all the pain in her joints, the emptiness, the heavy ache behind her eyes. Life.

"You have a visitor."

She nodded. Food and rest would wait a little longer. The world had come back, and with it solid ground, solid thoughts - solid duties."Very well. Take me to them."

"So you know," said Majiv, watching the newcomer as she stalked across the ruined hall. "Say what you came for."

"Came for? I came for nothing. Except perhaps expecting to tell Sarn that I still have no intention of stealing his precious kill."

"I'm glad you didn't expect a glass of spirits and a nice talk by the fire."

"Oh, that would have been pleasant. But would you expect me to take advantage of someone in your state? Even if you go putting parts of yourself in little locked boxes. I've got principles, Dhalsiv."

"I know." Even when Majiv looked away, casting her eyes over the by now familiar charred furniture and blackened walls, she knew the older woman was watching. "And I still don't know why you came here. Who told you?"

"Nobody told me anything." She strode down the hall, towards where Majiv stood. Her hair was greyer, Majiv noticed. Practically white, vivid against the dark ruins. "I almost never came by, after what you and Sarn said the last time. Sometimes the world just compels us, doesn't it Majiv? Gives us a few little pushes in the direction we need to go. So I think to myself yes, it's cold, and winter's well on its way, and I'll be mad to stay up here any longer without lodgings, and yet I find myself knocking on your door again. And wishing I could say I was surprised. Sarn dead and the boys gone. Should have known. I'm sorry. But I'm never going to be surprised."

"I never made you my guest tonight." Majiv stood forward, looking her right in the eye. "Remember that."

"Oh, I know that. But you haven't thrown me out yet, have you? And you might be master of this little domain of yours, but you're not my lord and you'll not stop me saying what a mess you and Sarn made of your family."

"What do you know about family?"

She shrugged. "A fair amount. Helps I don't have your blood. And if you want my failings, there's always the fact that I never realised how big a mess you made until I walked through that door."

Majiv said nothing, merely reaching up, resting a hand on her narrow shoulder. Even through her heavy clothes, she could feel the thin, sharp bones pressing against her palm.

She pushed. The old woman fell sprawling across the floor, and, before she could move, Majiv was on top of her, pinning her down, holding her thin wrists behind her back.

"Ah, well then. If it must come to this, I see when I'm not welcome. If you'd be so good as to get off me, I'll see myself out."

She'd just walked free. Majiv had nearly screamed at her as she walked off, still covered in soot, "Your lord will hear of this!" But she knew that the first thing out of the beast-hunter's mouth would be "Ah, so you do know he's still alive, then?" and she'd have lost either way. So she waited, until the doors slammed shut, and rang for Kejik.

"Don't say anything," she said, as the young healer entered. "That was only an old friend. Now then. Can I trust you to guard the holding?"

"Yes, Lady Dhalsiv."

"Good." Majiv faced the doors - good, heavy things, blackened but not weakened by the fire. "My children are out there, lost. It's time I helped them home."