Arc Four: The Waystation
The cane caught in the ground again, Dhaymin's hand slamming into his stomach for the fourth time that day. He swore and righted himself, prodding at the ground. The sun no longer shone brightly enough to thaw the dirt road during the day. The world was crisp, clean, and frozen solid. "You fine?" Jen's voice was just by his ear.
Absolutely," Dhaymin said. "And this isn't frustrating at all." He kicked a loose clod of dirt aside. "Fucking ground. What about you? You still sound bad." Jen's voice had taken on a scratchy tone over the morning, as though he were talking through a throat full of wires.
"Don't sound like nothing." But Dhaymin received no reply except a tug on the arm, and kept going alongside him. He walked closer, deciding he'd be better off for now relying on Jen's leadership than risk being stabbed in the stomach again. He kept the cane slung over his shoulder, rubbing it with his thumb in what might have been an apology.
It wasn't as if it came with instructions.
Above him, chill breezes sang through the pine woods, and he drew closer still to Jen for warmth - Jen, who was shivering, moreso than anyone should with that heavy coat. "Listen, I don't like this. I think- Jen will you stop? That's better. Stand still." He raised a hand to Jen's face, feeling his way up to his forehead. "You're sick. Think you can make it to- wait, forget that. We should go back." They'd spent the night in a waystation, little more than a cabin by the roadside, but shelter enough. That alone was a clue the next town was a long way from here. Better to go back and face a certainty than keep going and gamble.
Jen fell silent for a second, but tugged on Dhaymin's arm again. Dhaymin stood firm. "We can't go back. It'll-"
"That's not important right now!"
"Jen, will you stop trying to be brave and just come back with me?" Dhaymin pulled and turned around. Jen stumbled, only just catching his footing and leaning against him. "Shit, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. But I'm not giving up. You're coming with me."
"Nice words from someone who wouldn't stay in bed after a mauling."
Dhaymin clenched his teeth and tried not to swear, as Jen leaned over his shoulder. "That's different," he said. Of course it had been different. He'd waited, tested his strength, sent his mother to chase echo-eaters to buy time. Time he'd needed, to go from a body that barely worked anymore to the warrior he'd been before. If Jen thought he could compare a winter sickness to that...
"Why can't we just go on?" There it was again, that scratchy sound in his voice, louder this time despite Jen's obvious attempts to hide it.
Dhaymin gave up. "Because I'm your brother, and because I said so."
That, at least, did the trick. Jen straightened himself up, and Dhaymin walked alongside him again, back on the path they'd come.
All they had to do now was keep on putting one foot in front of the other.
They reached the waystation in what Dhaymin presumed was still daylight, by the birdsong from the trees. He wouldn't have admitted it to Jen even now, but it was a relief to be somewhere human again, somewhere where he could pull off his boots and rest his feet.
Their journey for some time now had been one of few such spaces. That was the reason for the waystation, some generous individual from a better time's way of saying no, you're not at the next town yet, but here are the basics. Just a one room wooden hut with a fireplace, enough to keep a tired traveller warm and dry, and not much else.
No sign of life, not even on the great south road. In a corner of Dhaymin's mind he pictured the south as empty as Amtika's ruins, whole cities laid bare and empty, and shrugged it off. Maybe the emptiness was a warning. Maybe this was just bad land. Jen took priority, not superstition. "Get yourself comfortable," he said. "I'll put some water on." A little feeling around revealed the remnants of last night's fire, soft ashes in the hearth that crumbled under his fingers. So too, he found the firewood they'd gathered and never gotten around to using, leaving it in the hopes it might help out the next wanderer. If said next wanderer had to be him, then so be it. He made a mental note to restock the pile before leaving.
Now when would that be, he wondered, as he set the fire going with a clash of stones. Well, that was probably up to himself, lest Jen try to stagger back onto the road whilst in the grip of winter sickness. Under Dhaymin's hands, warmth blossomed, and his thoughts turned to summer as he gently fanned the flames into life. Taking the world step by step, ignoring the pain, building himself back up in the hopes he could still be himself when it was all over. Jen couldn't compare. He'd be down for a few days, but the winter sickness rarely left lasting marks on the young and strong. Jen didn't have to face waking up not knowing what he was capable of any more.
No use dwelling on it. Dhaymin had proven himself time and time again on this road. Now he'd do it again. He listened to the crackling fire, pulling his coat off to let the warmth spread into his body. Before long he had a pot of water boiling, and some of those leaves Jen had picked up in the last town before this stretch of wilderness waiting. He'd liked the tea they made, and it was the least Dhaymin could do.
"Hey Jen," he said, once had had two cups filled. "I got you- Jen?" There was no reply from the corner, but a little prodding with his foot, moving slowly so as not to spill the drinks, and Dhaymin found him curled up under a pile of blankets. He heard the gentle sound of shifting fabric as Jen stirred.
"Hngh? I must have gone to sleep..." His voice had thickened, deeper than before and slightly slurred. "Ugh, my throat. Feels like it's been clawed out."
"Well, you're sick," Dhaymin said, lowering himself to the floor so that he sat with his back to the wall. "Being sick isn't meant to feel good. Otherwise it wouldn't be called being sick, it'd be called... having a nice time? Something like that. Sorry, that was shit. Here, I made you some tea."
"You shouldn't have," Jen said, as he took one of the cups.
"Too late, I did." Dhaymin wrapped his hands around the remaining cup, letting the heat soak into his fingers. He couldn't remember what sort of tea it was, but it had a strong, deep, slightly fruity flavour, and it felt as though strength and energy were pouring back into his body as he drank. "Fine place for you to get sick, way out here."
"I'll try to find somewhere better next time."
They finished their tea in silence, not from a lack of anything to say, but only to save Jen's voice. He curled back up when they were done, while Dhaymin tidied up and checked the fire.
There wasn't much else to do, now. He nibbled on a piece of dried meat to take the edge off his hunger, conscious of how little was left, and wondering if it was worth the effort to snare a rabbit or two while they were holed up, and making another note to try tomorrow, for even without sight, deep instinct told him to stay indoors until dawn, and the birds had fallen silent over time. So he piled up another heap of blankets by Jen's side, settling down beside him with their backs touching for warmth. Jen didn't move - he was properly asleep now, snoring lightly - a faint, almost apologetic sound.
With the birdsong having faded away, the only sound from outside was the faint breeze in the treetops. A slight draft blew from underneath the door, but the blankets and the fire kept it at bay. The world outside lay frozen and desolate, but here inside these walls, it was a distant memory, icy winds muffled and muted through the walls, drowned out by the crackling fire.
It wasn't long before Dhaymin was asleep too.
The world is an expanse of white..
Dhaymin's feet sink into the snow as he trudges along. Each step is a struggle to lift free of the ice clinging to his boots. He doesn't know how far he's come. He isn't even sure if he's moving anymore, though his footprints spread behind him as far as he can see. Perhaps footprints is the wrong word - they're closer to gashes or scars in the land, a lingering testimony to his weary steps.
Fresh snow falls, soft white flakes on his coat, melting on the skin of his face and clinging to his hair. They fall thicker and faster, until the world is nothing but whiteness, land and sky blurred into one. In the distance he hears the soft crunch of disturbed snow, but whether his unseen follower is human or not, he cannot tell.
He isn't sure how he ends up collapsed, either. He's just there, face down in the snow, as if the intervening time has been cut away with a sharp bladed knife. Funny, though, he thinks. Face down is just like walking, out here. Whatever you do, all you can see is white.
There. That's the sign. He's lying down and freezing to death, and he doesn't feel a thing, but he can see the snow. For a brief moment, there's that feeling of control as he sits on the border of two worlds, of knowing they're distinct and separate, and that if he just reaches out and doesn't think too hard, he can take control. But he grasps too hard, and as it always does, the dream world dissolves.
Jen was still snoring.
Dhaymin stretched. His back ached, and he could feel colds winds on his face. The fire's comforting crackle was gone, letting the drafts in. He'd grown stiff and sore from the cold, and he rolled over, pulling the blankets closer around his body. He took in the soundscape around him - everpresent snoring, wind outside, the door swaying slightly on its latch. "Jen?" But his brother didn't wake, and Dhaymin supposed it must still be night. It wouldn't be like Jen to sleep in, even if he was sick, and so he drifted back into sleep, and his dreams.
They were always in vivid colour and detail, as though his mind wanted to compensate for an expanse of black.
A pause, a distant intake of breath, and again, shhnk! Dhaymin stirred into wakefulness. The sounds, that he'd first taken for another dream, continued relentless, and when he reached out, he found the blankets beside him unoccupied.
"Jen?" Maybe he felt better. Maybe-
"I threw up on your doorstep," came a low voice from outside.
"Oh." He should have known. Jen was just off being sensible again. "Could have been worse. You could have said 'bed'." He pushed himself upright, stretching to rid himself of the night-time stiffness, until he felt his bones crack. The door lay open, coldness flooding the room, and it made his skin prickle. "And it's not my doorstep." It wasn't anyone's doorstep, just a tiny spot of humanity in the wilderness. And now there was a spot on the spot. Hahahaha... well no, that wasn't really funny. "You fine out there?" Need anything to eat?"
"How do you think this happened?"
"Well, I still need to get a fire on. When you're done." He pulled on his boots, took up his cane, and stepped into the doorway. "Help me past there, would you? "I need to... go find a convenient tree."
It had snowed in the night, he noticed, as Jen led him over the step. His boots crunched into the fresh fall. It was the first of the season after a wave of frosty nights, shallow and light, but a warning that the worst was still to come. Maybe, if Jen felt better, they should move after all.
And then what? There lay the old dilemma - press on and hope things didn't get worse, or stay in the fear they did. His mind lay calm despite all this as he picked his way through the undergrowth. Later, he knew, it would matter. Right now, he had more pressing concerns.
He was just finishing off when the digging noises subsided. "Oh, fine time to stop now," he muttered, as he picked his way back down the slope, snow-covered twigs and fronds brushing chilly trails over his legs. He had just stepped onto the road, the underlying dirt frozen hard under the soft snow, when he heard the fall.
"Jen?" The world suddenly felt wider, colder, featureless. Dhaymin picked up pace, counting the steps back to the cabin. "Jen, talk to me."
No reply, but a creak of floorboards told him where he was, and he followed the sound, over the disturbed earth and through the doorway. His boot touched something soft, and he crouched down, laying his hands on Jen's body. "Jen, please, if you're awake, talk to me." Still breathing - he could feel his chest rise and fall, and when he felt for his neck and brushed his hair aside, he made out a curiously vigorous pulse, faster even than Dhaymin's own.
And then Jen stirred and groaned, and Dhaymin took in a deep breath of relief. "Fuck, you had me scared there. Anything hurt?"
"...scared there... anything hurt?" The words came slowly, as if Jen had trouble grasping their meaning, and then - "No." He shifted again, and Dhaymin backed off to give him room, the floorboards creaking again as Jen got to his feet. "Got dizzy. Tripped on the step. Fuck, I'm going back to sleep where it's safe."
"You do that."
Dhaymin fell back into routine. He checked the firewood - enough left for another day, and got another fire going, before checking their supplies. They'd stocked up well the last time they'd been near civilisation, he thought, as he pulled out each carefully wrapped package, feeling their contents like a child with a wrapped gift. Well enough, but without the foreknowledge of several extra days holed up. Behind him, Jen started to snore again. Dhaymin wondered if he'd been thinking the same, before he fell asleep.
He sat by the fire, putting each packet away, deep where he couldn't think of them, and listened to the wind outside.
It was only the winter sickness.
It was only a light snowfall.
It was only going to be a few missed meals.
Of course he'd survive. He'd been through worse.
Fuck it, but he'd been stupid.
Dhaymin fell into what routine was left to him, anything that kept him active and focused on nothing more than the task at hand. He thought not of the snow, but of how many steps he had taken and in which directions. He carved notches on trees and retraced his footprints, and his world grew. Here a trap set, here some dry wood so there might be a fire tomorrow. No sense in despair. No sense in sitting, useless, as his father had done so many times refusing to speak. The bastard. All his body in one perfect little piece, and what had he done with it?
But even here, with steps to retrace, there were only so many things that needed to be done. He found himself back by the fire, hunched up for warmth, listening to Jen snore. Occasionally he glanced up at an unusual sound - a crunch of snow, a creaking at the door. Perhaps another human life, seeking shelter. Perhaps conversation. It didn't matter who. It could have been his mother, for all he cared. There were rules about waystations that not even she would break. Weapons remained sheathed, words remained civil, and rivalries waited for the road.
Even if his father, miraculously alive, walked through that door...
But it was always the wind, or snow falling from the roof, or some creature passing by, unwilling to linger in the human world.
Jen had it right. Go to sleep where it was safer, better than letting the white madness take over. He lay down, pulling the blanket over his head, and listened to the fire.
He can't feel his feet, or his hands. He can taste ice in the air, as thick snowflakes brush against his face, melting on his skin. The world has turned to white, and he is a speck of humanity in the storm.
He's crouching down, letting the snow cover him for what warmth it may give. He knows better than to wander in a snowstorm - it'll lead him nowhere but back when he started if he's lucky, and even more lost if he isn't. He will wait, and resume his steps when the blizzard relents.
But there is a figure up ahead. Dhaymin raises one hand to shield his eyes from the snowfall. He, or perhaps she, is nothing more than a dark shape against the white, but unmistakably human. Dhaymin calls out, but there is no reply.
It is with great reluctance that he gets to his feet, forcing frozen muscles into action, as snow falls from his back in great chunks. So soft, so warm, like the finest of beds, but he pushed himself to trudge on through the knee-high drifts, closer to the stranger. The very action is fire running through his legs, life and pain in one, but he presses onward.
It's a young man, with his back to him, fair of hair as himself, but, by the straight, close cropped style, no Rhusavi. If that is not enough to convince him, then the fact that he wears only a light coat to protect him from the cold is. The snow forms a light dusting on his shoulders, and, as Dhaymin stops to push wet hair from his eyes, the stranger turns to face him.
"The fuck are you doing here?" It's almost as much of a struggle to speak as to walk.
"You doing here?" He stands there, confusion all over his slight features.
"What it looks like I'm doing. Waiting for the snow to stop." He feels as though his legs have frozen back into place, and he twitches his toes inside his boots to remind himself they're still there, before turning aside for a second to pull his coat tighter.
When he turns back, the stranger's eyes are inches from his. Their noises almost touch. Dhaymin can feel his breath, burning after the snow, on his face. The strangers eyes are green as summer, Dhaymin notices, and it's all he can help noticing. The world blurs for a second, or perhaps it's the wind whipping snow between them, but neither of them flinch.
"Well then," he says. The stranger never moves in response. "And here I was going to offer you warmth."
"You know," Dhaymin goes on, one hand reaching to his belt for reassurance, "they used to say there's no such thing as enemies in the cold. I'm going to hope for you're sake you're only ignorant, and not out to prove those words wrong."
Those summer-green eyes never move, never blink. "But I'm not cold."
Dhaymin opens his mouth to respond, and no words come. When he tries to move, he feels as though the wind has frozen him place, like meat in an ice cellar. And then he's falling, and on his knees, and time's turned into a choppy, distorted thing again, and he finds his voice long enough for one word. "Eyes!" And now the snow is still falling, and he's freezing to death again, because the pain is gone and he's drowning in sudden warmth, and none of it matters, because he knows what's coming next.
And the stranger is crouching beside him, and he says nothing, but he never takes his eyes off Dhaymin, not even to let him die again.
"Don't worry about me," he whispers. "Wouldn't be the first time..."
The world around him is fracturing as he wakes. Already the sun breaks through the grey skies, a blazing backdrop for the stranger's form, while his shadows stream out behind him, and a second later, Dhaymin is back to black reality.
"It's an echo."
Dhaymin spoke up only when he was sure Jen had gone back to sleep. He'd woken for a while shortly after Dhaymin's dream, stumbling outside and confirming it was still night, before gulping down a generous helping of water. Dhaymin hadn't dared discuss his dreams or suspicions, much as he wanted company and conversation. Jen didn't need it. The more rest he got, the sooner they'd be out of here. No sense in worrying him and making things worse.
But he talked afterward. He needed to hear a voice, even if it was his own. "Some poor bugger must have frozen to death in here. Makes sense, now." Everyone knew about echoes. They said when people died, imprints remained, like a soul's footprints on the world. They left their last words and thoughts, repeating during the night, fading away into nonsensical sounds over the years. "Never met an echo before. Don't suppose you ever have either. It's all stories and things." And the stories were never the same. "Monsters? I know all about them. You stick sharp things into them until they stop trying to eat you. Monsters are easy. I've never heard two stories about echoes that agreed on what to do with them. Wasn't even sure I believed in them until right now."
He held his hands out over the fire, which, from the faint warmth, had dwindled to embers overnight. Sitting in a crouch before the hearth, he pulled a blanket over his shoulders to ward off the cold, drawing it tight around his body as he began to shiver. "Telling you, Jen, I wouldn't be saying these things if you were awake. I don't know what I'm doing here. This isn't like forgetting the words to something, this isn't even beast-hunter work! Why the fuck don't I just wake you? You probably read how to do it in a book! I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know if it's better or worse if you hear them in your dreams, I don't know a fucking thing!"
He shuffled closer to the fire, trying to soak up the last remnants of heat. "I know one thing, though. I know it's really fucking cold in here, and I'm not going to go like him. Least if I die here, I'm going to die properly dressed." He paused. "I should think of some better last words before that happens, though."
He fell into silence as he fed the fire, bringing it back to life piece by piece. Taking up up his place by Jen's side when it was done, blanket still draped over his shoulder, cane held in one hand, he stroked it with his thumb as he awaited the dawn.
There would be no more sleep tonight, not if it came with those summer-green eyes.
He is dreaming.
He knows it now, without having to fear for his life. He's been here too many times already. The blank wilderness and the soft flakes brushing past his face are old friends now. He knows he should feel no cold in a dream, so he does not. He may have to die to wake up, but not yet.
Because right now, he is more curious about the other person.
He's standing in the same spot as before, his back turned to Dhaymin, white flakes blanketing the thin coat that is his only protection from the blizzard and, undoubtedly, the reason he died.
Dhaymin doesn't know much about dead men's echoes. His parents taught him to battle living monsters. Even his mother, who walked some strange paths in her time, knew little of them. The only advice he does have is a few old words from Aunt Bala. "Stories are tricky things. There's a truth to most of them, but finding out which parts are that truth isn't easy. All you can do is ask questions and find out for yourself. Maddening, isn't it?"
Yes - and right now, he'd have preferred something more like "aim for the head" but it's all he has.
He walks on, each footstep heavy, until he realises that there's no reason for them to be so as long as he dreams. After that, his feet pass through the shin-deep snowfall as though it is air. But his vision fades to black for a second, the world hanging in the balance, and he dares not disturb the dream land any more.
The young man ahead hears him, and looks over his shoulder at his approach.
"I know what you are now," Dhaymin says.
"What you are now." The echo turns properly, so that they stand face to face in the wilderness. His expression reminds Dhaymin of one of his mother's cats, as much as he has an expression - he is blank but wide eyed, never taking away that fixed stare. Dhaymin finds his dream-eyes watering at the sight of it.
"And I know that the nature of you means you're not exactly going to be good conversation," Dhaymin goes on, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "Shame, that. It's too empty out here. Too lonely. You could find yourself going crazy." He already had, hadn't he? There had been something important in the waking world...
The echo remains impossible to read. No expression, no body language. He is simply there, letting the snow fall over his body, and he never, ever takes his eyes away.
The world turns black again.
He wasn't supposed to fall asleep! That was what he'd forgotten! He'd sat by the fire, awaiting the dawn, and he'd fallen back to sleep, still sitting up. Fire, he had to get the fire going again. He struggled back to wakefulness, and felt the blanket wrapped tight around his body, tangled and pinning his arms down. He pushed it away. No. Not blankets...
He felt hot breath at his back the faint touch of long hair as it brushed against his cheek, and strong arms holding him in place.
"I won't hurt you," he said, snapping into alertness. "Rules is rules." No matter who you were, no matter who they were, you didn't attack in a waystation. No such thing as enemies in the cold. Oh, how much he'd like to believe that, he thought, as he resisted the urge to call out for Jen. Couldn't think of him now. Have to get out of this first... no use this way... no such thing as enemies in the cold...
Jen's voice was right by his ear. "But I'm not cold."
Dhaymin pulled aside, out of Jen's grasp. As he got to his feet, the floor shuddered with the impact as Jen, flung backwards, crashed to the ground. Dhaymin reached for his cane but, finding it gone, backed off, pressing against the wall. He heard movement in the corner, Jen pushing himself upright, but nothing more. "Jen?" He braced against the wall, fingers digging into the cracks between the rough old logs. For a second, he heard nothing - no breath, no movement, no voices.
And then, just as he tried to move away, he felt fingers brush his face, trailing over the scars.
"Jen?" Jen's voice carried a curious, lost, almost confused tone. The same as the echo, on the occasions he'd spoken. Dhaymin snatched Jen's wrist, pulling his hand from his face. Jen barely resisted, though Dhaymin could feel muscles and tendons flexing in his grasp.
"Give him back, dead man."
"Give him back!" Dhaymin's grip tightened, his nails digging into the skin, steading himself against his own trembling. My fault. I let the fire go down. My fault. He searched inside for stories, solutions, anything. The echo didn't move, but he could feel its stolen breath on his face. His legs, shaking, threatened to give way, and he wondered if he'd collapse if he let go. "Why aren't you doing anything? Why are you just standing there?" He jerked the wrist down, pulling the echo to the floor, leaning over the fallen form. "What's the point? What do you want him for if you're not going to do anything? What's it all for?"
The echo lay in silence.
Dhaymin kept his hand firm on the echo's wrist, so tight Jen would surely have cried out in pain if he'd been there. Dhaymin sank to his knees, breathing in deep and heavy. "What are you?"
"What are you?"
"Rakaros only knows." Dhaymin whispered. He laughed, a sharp gasping breath, and let his fingers relax, freeing the echo. It shifted, placing his hand on his face again, as though trying to work out who Dhaymin was. He sat and let it, his heart thudding so hard he felt it vibrate through his entire body. "Now look at me. Talking fancy with a dead man. And yesterday I didn't even know if I believed in echoes."
The hand paused, cradling his chin.
"Or maybe you're not," Dhaymin went on. "Maybe you're some other thing entirely. And what about me? Don't know much about what I might be now, but I know one thing I am." He smiled, lunged, and grabbed the echo by the shoulders, dragging it upright as its feet scabbled for purchase. "I'm the sort of person who doesn't let anyone fuck with my little brother. Understand? Without waiting for a reply, he drove the echo backwards, toward the last traces of heat from the dying fireplace. It would be enough. It had to be. He pushed, forcing the echo to lean over the fireplace, its hands in his grasp. "I don't know any fancy rituals. I don't remember any pretty words to see you off. But there's one thing I do know..."
And the world faded.
He stands dreaming, knee deep in the snow.
The echo waits before him, no longer wearing Jen's body. This is the echo he met twice before, the little Abiry man with grass green eyes. He stands there and lets snowflakes swirl before him, but at his back, the world is no longer a blank snow field. The sun is rising, vivid and bright in Dhaymin's dream eyes, and it blazes with more light and power than he has ever seen before. It swallows up the horizon, burning until the echo is merely a shadow before it, a shadow that fades to a pale, lingering trace of what he once was. He is a translucent figure now, the snow melting at his feet, giving way to pale green moss.
Dhaymin watches, and waits. "I thought so," he says.
He isn't sure if the echo is about to speak, but it makes no difference when he fades before his eyes, just before the world turns black again, and he dreams no more.
The fire crackled in its hearth, rich scents of cooking meat drifting Dhaymin's way. He let himself ease back into wakefulness, listening to the birds outside and the sound of footsteps creaking over the floor. "Morning," he heard Jen say. "You're not sick too, are you?"
"What'd make you think that?" Dhaymin muttered, pushing himself upright. Jen had draped a blanket over him as he slept, and he pulled it aside.
"There's food and you didn't get up right away."
"Maybe I am," said Dhaymin. Or maybe I'm too busy thinking about last night. Jen didn't sound right either, his voice still low and scratchy, but that was the sound of lingering sickness, or so Dhaymin hoped. But at the promise of food, his stomach took over, as he remembered how little he'd eaten in the last few days. "You'd better get that to me, before my insides try to eat themselves," he said, licking his lips.
"It's rabbit," Jen explained. "Someone didn't check their traps outside."
"I was a little busy," said Dhaymin, wondering if Jen remembered what with. But if his brother knew anything of the previous night, he remained quiet about it. And whatever else happened, Dhaymin had had no more dreams since the sun engulfed the dead man, and the food was ready.
Jen wasn't much of a cook, so the rabbit was plain, but Dhaymin didn't care - it was still hot and juicy, and that was more than enough after days of nibbling on leathery dry strips. To finish it off, Jen had made two cups of his favourite tea, and they finished off their meal with that, both too hungry to pause for talk. When Jen did break the silence, it was only to say "This is yours, last I knew," and push Dhaymin's cane back into his hand. Dhaymin squeezed it, feeling the by now familiar grooves his fingers left in the soft grip.
"Must have dropped it," he said, gulping down the last of his tea. Now what? "You better, I hope?"
"I'm not perfect, but I'm upright."
"I know what happened last night."
Dhaymin played with the empty cup in his free hand, turning it over and over. "I wondered about that."
The floor creaked again as Jen got to his feet, gathering the remains of their breakfast. "Well, I'd have asked earlier," he said, "but you passed out, and I didn't know if I'd been dreaming. I still felt sick, and... I don't know. I fell asleep again. But I woke up and I still remember, and now it doesn't feel so much like dreaming. What was that? And what did it do to my wrist? It's gone all bruised."
What was he supposed to say? He'd have told Jen, if only they'd both been more awake. Nothing more than the truth as he understood it. He stayed where he was, facing the fire's warmth as he sat on the floor and Jen continued to clear up. "Some poor bugger froze to death in here once. Or so I think. His echo was still here."
Jen's footsteps stopped. "Echoes don't get into people's heads."
How do you know? You got some pretty little book all about echoes?" Dhaymin set the cup aside. "I'm sorry, right? I'm the one who let it happen to you."
"And you're the one who stopped it." The floor beside Dhaymin groaned as Jen sat back down, his shoulder brushing Dhaymin's. "I remember you, when I thought I was dreaming. There's not much. I just remember it being cold... colder than I've ever felt anything before. And then everything burned... I don't really think I saw anything, I felt it. But I know you sent it off."
"You sure I did, though? You sure you're really you?" Dhaymin held his hands over the fire, feeling them grow cold in the drafts from outside. That was the problem with stories. Just as you didn't know which parts were real, you didn't always know when they were over.
"Sure as I can be."
"Remember that time Father took us to the northern borders? I was about sixteen, yes? I came back to the room one night, and there was you, and these two girls, and-"
"Fine, I believe you! Let's not talk about this any more, shall we?"
"Believe me," Jen said, "I'd love that."
"That's Jen Dhalsiv, for sure." Dhaymin smiled, and his smile turned into a laugh, a sharp gasp of relief that shook his whole body. It wasn't long before Jen was joining in, leaning against him, shaking with happiness, but his laughter quickly degraded to a hacking cough as his throat caught up to him, and he crouched over the floor, gasping. "Jen? Hey, watch it!"
"I'm fine," Jen whispered.
"Get back to sleep," said Dhaymin, shuffling closer and laying a hand on Jen's back. "We're not going anywhere until you feel properly better."
"But I feel-"
"I'll say when, you self-sacrificing idiot!" Dhaymin got to his feet, letting Jen lean on his arm and pull himself upright beside him.
"And you're not?" Jen said, leaning his weight against him as they walked back to the corner.
"We're both idiots." Dhaymin let Jen lead, back to the pile of blankets he'd thrown down, and pulled a few over him as he lay down. "Best we can do is the least idiotic thing."
Jen squeezed his hand before curling up under the blankets. "Thanks."
"I did what I had to. Don't have to say that." Dhaymin made his way to the fireplace, where Jen had gathered the rabbit bones in a neat little pile. They'd need burying, before something caught the scent. Hopefully Jen hadn't thrown up on the doorstep again.
"What?" Dhaymin paused, just as he turned toward the door.
"That was his name. Karos. I don't remember much about him, but I remember that."
Dhaymin stood, lost in thought for a moment. He'd never wondered if the dead man had a name, or who exactly he might have been, except perhaps in the context of how stupid he'd been to wander through the snow with barely a scrap of warm clothes. He considered asking more, but before he could speak, he heard Jen's voice again.
"You'll keep that fire burning, right?"
And that answer must have been enough for Jen, because soon enough, as Dhaymin slipped back into routine, he heard gentle snores from the corner. It might be a day or two before they could leave, but for the first time, it didn't matter so much. But he kept his promise all the same, and he never once let the fire fall to embers.
When he slept that night, he dreamt of nothing.