Arc Five: Numbers
It was surprising how, given all the tales of horror and gore that (quite rightfully) emanated from its depths, how peaceful the forest could be.
Dhaymin leaned on a marker stone, its inscription long since weathered away to his fingers, and waited. The thick coat of snow that lay over it melted and rubbed away under his touch. Tonight, the world lay still and silent. It had better do, after the last few days.
The sound of hurried footsteps, crunching over the snowfall, alerted him. He listened but remained still, until he heard Jen's voice. "Well, that took longer than I thought."
Dhaymin immediately held out his arm, letting Jen take it, and walked close to ward off the frosty air. He'd felt what might be a few flakes brushing against his face earlier, and had no desire to be caught in another blizzard. "So, then," he said. "Tell me what happened."
"Well, she got my name."
"You idiot!" Doesn't matter, he told himself. One bad experience meant nothing. They'd survive.
"It was your fault."
"My fault, what did I do?"
"You want the full story, or the short easy to tell while dragging through snow while your toes fall off one? Just next time, keep that clasp where nobody can see it!"
"We're way south," protested Dhaymin. "Listen. Where are we?"
"About an hour or two up the hillside. Hard to tell."
"Well." So here they were, laden down on foot, the wind whipping snow around their legs - and yes, yes it was falling again, he could feel it now, little points of cold melting against his skin. "Overall, I think that went quite well."
Several days earlier...
Sometimes, Dhaymin thought, there was a problem with generosity, that being you never got to experience your work firsthand. Take the bacon joint he was slicing right now, holding the meat steady as he carved through it. This was going to make some fine bacon, and he'd never taste so much as a sliver.
That wasn't even the worst of it.
"Been thinking," he said, as he navigated the knife through a particularly tough cut.
"This is going to be interesting," said Jen.
"We're beast hunters, roaming the land, saving people, doing the thing..."
"Unless we're butchers. The point being?"
Point of that is not everywhere conveniently needs rescuing from monsters. But that wasn't it. "We're not like the others. We didn't get a choice." He pulled the knife away, fresh juice dripping by his fingers. Strange, how the pervasive meat-scents vanished after so long. At least it stopped his stomach twisting into knots of anticipation.
"Course we didn't have a choice! Why are you going on about this again?"
Dhaymin held the knife steady, testing it against the edge of his last cut. "Because it means we've always been doing this. Been trained to the life since we were born."
"What are you trying to say here?"
"How come we're both so shit at it?"
"Think about it!" Dhaymin had. Everything felt so easy back then, setting out so long ago, before the frost and snow took hold. He'd been dancing on his own little rebellious high, ready to throw away every rule he'd been taught, and to drag Jen along into this glorious new world. A glorious new world that, in hindsight, included nothing about huddling in a freezing butcher's workshop, slicing bacon for a few coins. Bacon he wouldn't even get to eat. "I took you out here! I've been an idiot. We've both been complete idiots."
"So are we going to-"
"No." Dhaymin took up the knife, his grip firm, his hand steady. No going back. Ever. "We've got to lay low for winter. One of the stupidest things I ever did was think we could just walk down the south road."
Jen said nothing.
Dhaymin resumed his slicing. "I know. I'm not thinking of holing up here. Wouldn't forgive myself if... someone got hurt. Can't think you would either. That city, though, few days along the road. What was it called?"
"Don't be so stupid. We'd never make it down there."
"We wouldn't on foot. Remember that hunter we met yesterday? Remember the caravan?"
"Remember what we're being paid for this? She'll never accept any of our money, not at this time of year."
"Been thinking about that, too." Dhaymin felt at the joint, by now nearly all carved up. If money was useless, maybe he could negotiate payment in bacon instead. "Know what else we've done that's stupid? Completely ignored the most valuable thing we do have." He set down the knife and rubbed his hands on his apron, the rough fabric restoring some of the feeling in his fingertips. Laying a hand on Jen's arm, he leaned in closer. "How much do you think the skin of the last wolf is worth?"
"Fuck," whispered Jen. "Thought the plan was to not be stupid for once? She'll never accept it's real."
Nobody ever did. Not if you acted innocent enough. They'd had it cleaned off at their first stop since dealing with Amtika, well before the waystation and the dead man... and if Dhaymin was honest with himself, never wanting to meet another echo ever again made the city even more inviting. Nobody ever told terrible stories about the city. In any case, they'd handed in the skin claiming it to be a dog they'd lost on the road, and there'd been no questions since then. People never saw wolves unless you wanted them to. Otherwise, they simply didn't believe a wolf could be there, and their minds filled in the gaps, and they saw a dog, plain as day.
"You know anyone else who's heading south?"
"At this time of year?"
Jen sighed, his breath ruffling Dhaymin's hair. "So we strive not to be complete idiots... by being complete idiots."
"That's it. Lay another pig on here, would you? I think I'm getting the hang of this."
"Cleaver's third on your right," said Jen, over a rattle of chains as he unhooked the next body. "Maybe you're right. Maybe it is worth something..."
"You know it makes sense," Dhaymin said, as the block resonated with a thud. He took up the cleaver, testing its weight while feeling his way across the chilled flesh with his free hand and, when satisfied, swung.
"...Thanks for that," said Jen, when the echoes died down.
Dhaymin felt his way across the cut. "You are, of course, covered in blood now, aren't you?"
Her name was Numbers. Or rather it was not, but it was the one she'd given them before, with a smile and an assurance that she knew they'd never give her their real names, so why should she do the same for them? "You know how it is," she said. "I've used so many names I've lost count. Fitting, isn't it?"
And now she was inspecting the wolfskin draped around Jen's neck. Her fingers brushed the hair, digging in to the soft undercoat. "Nice," she said. "Very nice. I haven't come across one of these in a long time. Might be worth the price just for old time's sake." She turned away from Jen, back to where Dhaymin stood leaning against the nearest dirt wall. "And you wanted?"
"Passage to Kastek."
She didn't speak for a moment, looking back at Jen, catching his eye in a way that made him suddenly decide his feet were very interesting. "You are either stupid, mad, or both. Let me think, the blue taxraks are going wild right now, and I need say nothing about the snow." She kicked up a spray, letting it catch the torchlight, for a moment illuminated in fire before settling again. Jen shuffled his feet, flexing his toes in an attempt to keep the blood going. She need say nothing. It reached the top of his boots already, and it piled in thick drifts around the sturdy little homes and storehouses, turning them into low silvery mounds in the moonlight. He pulled his hands from his pockets and rubbed them together. At least the wind was calm for now, but it did little to reassure him.
She was by his side before he realised she'd moved. "Dangerous. Very dangerous. I'll do it! Stepping back, her motion light despite the snow, she folded her arms. "The wolfskin is pretty, and I suppose three is safer than one on the road these days. And you're interesting. I like that."
"That's it?" Dhaymin stood up straight. "You got a catch?"
"None that I know of."
Jen said nothing, letting the scene play out before him. He stroked the wolfskin's course coat and looked up at the sky. A clear night tonight, the stars unmarred by clouds, their light broken only by the vivid torch flames. There would be no blizzard tonight. May it last, he hoped. He became shadow-Jen again, and the world and its dangers ceased to be. He was floating, letting fear and cold go, narrowing his mind to only the most correct of thoughts and options as Dhaymin negotiated with their host.
"Dawn," she eventually agreed. "If you want to get there quickly, we need to use all the light there is."
"I'll assume that's nothing personal," Dhaymin said, with a quiet laugh.
"Forgive my slip," she said. "Meet me on the south road, and don't let me wait. I get bored easily." She was off without another word, vanishing into the deserted streets. Jen turned to see her go, Dhaymin laying a hand on his arm.
"That was a little too easy" Dhaymin commented.
Jen nodded. "There's a catch, isn't there? There's always a catch."
"Don't change how valuable that skin is, though."
Jen stroked it again, rubbing the undercoat between his fingers. Had anyone heard? They'd chosen their meeting place well enough, a narrow path between storehouses. In the distance he could see faint orange lights in the windows, belonging to the few people who, for whatever reasons, had not yet gone to sleep. But with the ice gnawing at his feet, sleep felt such a long way off. "I tell you one thing. I'm frozen, standing here."
"Me too. If we've been idiots, we'll worry about it when there isn't a warm bed waiting. Dawn don't wait forever." Dhaymin nudged his arm into the crook of Jen's elbow, giving it his usual gentle tug. "Or so I'm told, anyway."
Morning came all too soon, after a few hours of intermittent dozing. Jen stood unsteady on frozen feet, ice creeping through his toes. The sun had not yet begin to rise, only a few faint streaks in the east indicating its eventual return. The clouds had drawn in overnight, and Jen hoped it would not mean snow later. At least the cold kept him awake.
Beside him, Dhaymin yawned. He'd complained of an inability to sleep at all the previous night, and it was no wonder Jen hadn't gotten much of his own with his brother's constant pacing. "Stop that," Jen said. "You'll start me going again." He'd been getting worse about that, come to think of it, complaining of tiredness in the middle of the day and sleeping when the notion seemed to take him, as though never seeing the sun had destroyed any notion of time.
"Far as I'm concerned, it's the middle of the night," said Dhaymin.
"Far as I'm concerned, it is." Not even a farmer would wake at this hour, he was sure. Not in this weather, while snow piled up against the town walls and his breath came in thick clouds. The only signs of disturbance came from the gates, where the snow had been pushed aside to let them swing open, to allow Numbers and her carriage to pass through. It loomed against the pre-dawn sky, and at its front stood the biggest horse Jen had ever seen, a massive black beast whose shaggy coat left it quite unconcerned by the weather. It ignored the brothers, staring at the road ahead and occasionally flicking its ears. Jen tried his best to ignore it in turn. "Where is she? She said not to keep her waiting."
"Good morning, both of you!" The carriage door opened just as Jen finished speaking, and Numbers leapt from it, landing with a soft crunch in the snow. "Is the weather pleasant?"
Jen looked over at Dhaymin, who rubbed his hands before thrusting them back into his pockets.
"Well, I trust you had a pleasant night together," she went on. Perhaps it was a trick of the half-light, but to Jen's eyes, her face twisted into a smile that fitted more than a little extra meaning into the word "together". He sighed, and looked back at Dhaymin.
"Brothers," Jen muttered.
"That's very nice to hear. Wouldn't you like to be moving, though? I did say I didn't want to wait." She hopped back into the doorway, a quick motion that saw her seated in the frame, looking down at them. "Come on inside, you must be frozen."
Jen stamped his feet, shaking some of the snow from his boots as she disappeared back inside. "Why does everyone always do that to us?" He let Dhaymin take his arm, and led him toward to carriage. The horse glanced over at them, swinging its head back with a snort.
"Can't say," Dhaymin said, as he touched the frame and pulled himself inside. "Must be all about the look on your face."
Dawn came in silence. The rising sun revealed a landscape smoothed over with snow, tinted pink in the half light. The south road began to twist with the hills - no longer a straight path through the pinewoods, it wound up the hillsides as the land rose, zig-zagging back and forth through the trees, their ragged shapes obscured by snowy blankets. Pink gave way to blue as the morning wore on, the sky turning vivid and clear, streaked with wisps of white.
Jen watched all this from the carriage window, his eyelids heavy, willing himself to stay awake against the carriage's gentle motion. Dull aches coursed through his body, stiff joints and blistered feet, pains he'd stopped feeling for so long, until he'd had this chance to rest. If Dhaymin felt the same, he didn't care. He lay curled up on the floor, wrapped in his coat and finally dead to the world. Jen kept his draped over his shoulders, warding off the hints of cold that permeated inside, as his breath came in faint clouds.
The day would not remain peaceful. Of that, Jen was certain.
He paused to catch his breath, pulling back his hood to catch a little more fresh air as he leaned on the shovel handle. Kicking aside a clump of boot-high snow, he pulled the blade back out and dug in.
At least the work kept him warm.
"That's different," he commented, as the shovel struck hard ground. Digging up more snow revealed a cobbled surface, rough and aged, but quite unlike the dirt roads he'd been used to.
"That old Kastek lord loved his stone work." Numbers crouched in the drift beside him, occasionally giving her trapped wheel a push. "Worked half his people to death, I hear."
Jen paused mid-shovel, his foot on the blade. "To death, was that?"
"No need to look at me like that! He's long dead. I'll let you in on something. The south's not as terrible as you might have heard. People do say the strangest things in these times. You'd do well to relax. And I'd say that wheel is free." She pushed it again, and the carriage rocked. "Get back inside. You'll freeze."
Small chance of that, Jen thought, unless it was from all the sweat he'd built up. "Nothing else?"
"No." She turned away.
"Your horse?" The creature had pulled all day with barely a rest, save for the times, such as now, when the drifts became too much for the carriage. If anyone could talk of being worked to death... but its ears flicked backwards at the sound of his voice, and Numbers laid a hand on its side, fingers buried in the shaggy black coat, and it stayed still, calm as a statue.
"He won't answer to anyone other than myself."
"I thought as much."
The western mountains lay outlined in gold as the sun sank behind their ridges, their shadows falling over the land and turning the forests below into a world of uncertainty. In the distance a few lone yips and shrieks echoed through the valleys, that Jen had learnt to identify as the calls of blue taxraks. He ignored them, telling himself not to worry until he saw their lights, and concentrated on the fire as it sprung to life, an island of heat in a frozen world. Numbers stood by the carriage, leaning against the heavy bulk, muttering to herself.
"..and she was the one - no, no, she didn't, slipped out before... no, it was her. Yes, she made a proper deal, not that I-oh! Well excuse me, that lovely fire just slipped my mind!" She bounded through the snow to where Jen had cleared a space. "Excuse my ramblings. My favourite tailor resides in Kastek, I wanted to make an order. Nothing more." Jen caught sight of a slim, plain bound book in her hand, but before he could get a better view, she tossed it unseen over her shoulder. It traced a neat arc in the air, soaring through an open window and landing inside with a muffled crunch of paper. "I hope that wakes that brother of yours up. It's a little dull, a guest that says nothing."
"Wait until he does wake, you won't shut him up."
"Oh, a challenge." She stretched, her arms reaching out to the frozen sky. The first stars lay visible in the east, where the sky shaded from gold to the deep indigo of night, and she stood framed against them in the campfire's blazing orange. "Do you know something? I think I like having you around."
Dhaymin was woken in the evening when a book fell on his head, a process which, when he thought of it, was doubly rude. He stepped outside for food, but only to find out that, with night fast approaching, his host had come to a halt. There was little to do except sit and talk, and now, even less.
Jen lay beside him for warmth, while Dhaymin sat upright, arms wrapped around his knees. He'd tried to sleep earlier, but his mind remained locked awake in the freezing darkness, refusing to rest. Keep watch, or so to speak, Numbers had told him. A nearby taxrak pack's screeches sounded out in the distance, punctuating the night's soundscape, but she'd brushed them off as irrelevant.
There was really only one thing to do, but not while he had company - and certainly not with the possibility of frostbite.
And definitely not now. "Mmmmyes?" He licked his lips, slightly numb from the cold.
"So you're not asleep."
"Unfortunately." Not that he minded the disturbance. If he'd been sleeping so badly lately, forgetting what was night and what was day, perhaps it was because he couldn't rely on Jen. He'd been waking in the night too often since their encounter with the echo. Dhaymin would be the first to admit that the night lost some of its terrors when the world was an expanse of black no matter what, but to be alone with your thoughts, performing your own inner tally to grasp if you were still you, was not a fate he'd wish anyone, least of all family.
"She is. Over in the other corner. Doesn't she freeze?"
"Suppose she's done this run alone before."
"Mmm." Jen shifted his weight, sitting upright beside him. "I don't trust her."
"What did she do?" Dhaymin asked, cursing his daytime sleep. It had been so easy, drifting off to the carriage's motion - so easy to leave Jen alone.
"You're suspicious because she did nothing."
"Keep your voice down!" Jen hissed. "Think about it. Nobody does anything nice to us without a catch."
Someone did, thought Dhaymin. He remembered the last of the autumn sun, late nights, fiery drink, arms wrapped around his bare chest... and pushed it away. Not now. He'd feel sorry for himself later. "Yes, well, maybe that book she hurled at me has some clues? Maybe it's her diary." He scrabbled around the rough wooden floor, pretending to grab an imaginary book. "Here we are. 'Dear diary, today I was incredibly sneaky and cunning. Phase one of my grand plan, in which I do fuck all, is proceeding perfectly. P.S. Oh, it's a bit cold.'"
Jen nudged his shoulder. "You are unbelievable."
"You're an idiot."
"You're a dick."
"Just as usual."
Except, Dhaymin thought, as he listened to the taxraks' screaming intensify into a distant pack squabble, Jen had a point. "Promise me one thing."
"What?" Jen sank back to the floor, and Dhaymin heard the tug and swish of blankets as he wrapped up against the night air.
"If you're going to do anything stupid... don't do it without me."
I remember that night.
I remember far more than I believe Dhaymin thinks. I don't remember enough. I'm not sure which is which.
It comes back to me on nights like this, when I'm half asleep, trying to stay warm without suffocating. That's the part I don't remember so well. I had a head full of feathers and dogswool, trying to ride it out, or fall asleep where it didn't matter. There was Dhaymin, sitting by the dying fire, this dark shape hunched up and probably... yes, definitely... sleeping himself. I watched the fire fade to black, until I could no longer keep my eyes open, and waited for sleep. I don't know if it came - I lay with my heart thudding as though I'd come fresh from battle, I felt every pulse of blood forcing its way through my body. Faster, faster... I remembered a drawing I'd seen long ago of all the veins in a man's body. It was in a book I'd sneaked a glimpse at as a child, and that image stuck with me after closing it. It would be years before I'd touch that book again. I lay awake that night too, unable to stop thinking of that branching, spidery, second skeleton laid out before me, terrifying in a way that makes no sense to an adult but all the sense in the world to a child in the dark. I could see it then as vividly as that time, feeling as though if I opened my eyes and stretched my hand out before me, I'd see the veins pulse and shiver just like that drawing.
This was it, the winter sickness closing in. I pulled the blankets over my head, riding it out, waiting for it to break, and drifted, feeling as though I was falling sideways and the floor had vanished beneath me. Like drifting off to sleep while being aware of it, falling inwards, no longer a body but a point in space, I felt it brush against my consciousness. A thing I'd felt before, while falling asleep, but no roaming forest predator this time.
Deeper we fell, deeper still. Two selves spiralling one another, we came closer every second, and I could no more resist than I could fight back against gravity itself, no matter what I might try. We clashed, and I felt a whole other self in my head.
-footsteps in an echoing chamber and light filtering through golden windows, motes of dust floating in the brilliant shafts-
-shadows in the corners, strawberries and salted almonds and sweet tea and the smell of old books-
Faster, deeper, on and on, my own self crowded and strained, stretched thin and cracking apart, and...
...I drifted in ice, the pressure gone, the memories ebbing as fast as they came, and I grasped at what was left. No. That wasn't everything. I'd missed something, a repeating image, faint and indistinct, yet without doubt the same thing, over and over. Something vital, missing, something I needed to see again, and could not. The world was ice, translucent blues and whites pinning me to the spot, and the urgency slipped my mind as easily as everything else.
I don't remember much else, perhaps that was part of a dream, until the sun blazed into life and the ice melted around my limbs, and I woke. That's when things turned back to what I think was real - there was Dhaymin, and the fireplace, and such tiredness, even as I realised I was myself again. More I should remember so well, but don't. I knew - or guessed - what happened, but all I could do was sleep, and I did, properly this time, until morning came and the sickness began to release its grasp just like the ice. I went about the morning as I knew I should, relighting the fire, preparing food, waking Dhaymin, and in the light of day, thought of what happened.
It isn't so bad now. The only clear thing was the dead man's name. Karos. But on nights like this I look at my hand, imagine the blood coursing through slender black ink-veins, and remember more. Remember too much. Not enough.
How do I even know what strawberries taste like?
I've never seen one in my life.
"Go away. I'm asleep."
"Nice try. She's gone. Left a note." Jen unfolded the paper, a torn scrap from a blank book, and moved closer to the window to see.
"A... what?" Dhaymin pulled the blankets away, getting to his feet. "Why does everyone have to leave us notes? What's it say?"
"She was gone before I woke up." Jen scanned the paper, deciphering the unfamiliar, curled script. "Says the taxraks were getting close, she left to sort them out... back at dawn... and it is," he added, looking at the wisps of pink through the narrow window.
"I see. So we've had the argument over what to do, we've done it anyway, and now we've reached the point where you run off alone and do something stupid." He bundled up one of the blankets, and tossed it in Jen's direction.
"I never said I was going to do anything!" Jen protested, as the blanket hit him in the chest and fell to the floor, draping around his feet. "I just... wanted a look around." He nudged the door, confirming it was unlocked. "Going to do... that." As he opened the door, a fresh, icy breeze greeted him. The morning landscape lay still and calm before him, frozen and snow blanketed, its pink tinge deceptively beautiful. From the doorway, deep gashes in the snow traced a path outward, where their maker had trudged. He hopped onto the ground, landing lightly in Numbers' footsteps. The compacted snow crunched under his feet.
"Hold up. And warn me, next time you're about to let the cold in." Dhaymin appeared in the doorway, leaning against the frame. "How's the going out there?"
"Give me a moment." Jen stepped forward, following Numbers' path where the going was clear. The trail led along the road for a short distance before veering off down a steep slope like a scoop out of the land, where trees and boulders clustered in the bottom. "Looks steep, but passable," he said, returning. "I can get down there. Just for a look."
"I'll listen out for you."
"You're not going to argue?"
"I'm going to wait and find out." Dhaymin sat down, letting his legs dangle over the side. "Don't be long."
"Got you." Jen set back off down the path. That Dhaymin! He put Jen in mind, most days, of a banner cut loose, torn and crumpled in the wind without an anchor point. And yet, underneath it all lay a sensible person, someone trying to curb Jen's moments of irrationality. Jen couldn't make sense of it, most of the time. You'd be dead otherwise, he reminded himself.
He should have done better, all those times he'd gone running off. The son of Sarn and Majiv, a raging idiot? But it occurred to him, as he made his slow, deliberate way through his host's footprints to the slope's edge, that he'd never been this alone. As he looked out over the cliffs and mountains, the pink giving way to white as the dawn receded, he could only think of how little he knew about the world. His world had been home, deep within wooden walls. Home was gazing out over the gallery, long days training, nights by the fireplace, pushing himself every day to do better, and home was family. Even on the long hunts and trading trips, he'd always had family with him, even if it were just Dhaymin - the old Dhaymin, not the loose-banner Dhaymin, who didn't even know what home was anymore.
And now he was cut loose himself, in a land he'd never touched and had always been told he'd never see. He could only hope that whatever he ended up doing, if either of his parents could be here, they'd say it was the right thing.
The right thing, at the moment, consisted of what turned out to be a rather undignified slide on hands and feet down the slopes. Here and there he caught a foothold and, catching his balance, managed to stumble down for a short way before having to face the wall and climb again, clinging to roots and ledges as though on some vast, rocky ladder. Fronds and bare twigs, dusted with what snow remained, brushed against his face as he descended. How Numbers had managed this in one piece was anyone's guess, but manage it she had, from the trail she'd scoured down the hillside. At least it was out of the wind, but no wonder Dhaymin had opted to stay behind. Maybe he'd been right about overwintering. The risk of being caught up mattered little when a soft, warm bed beckoned...
He landed eventually at the pit's floor, rubbing dirt encrusted, numb hands on his coat. Here, sheltered from the worst of the cold, a few trees dotted the stony ground, though they were young growth, the tallest of them barely reaching past Jen's head. Numbers' trail led straight through the stand, and beyond to the boulder strewn pit floor as it gently sloped away. He took a few steps through the grove, deeper into the broad basin. At its centre lay a shallow lake, frozen over and dusted with snow, while more scruffy pines dotted the scenery - and, as he watched, a figure emerged from one of them, following the line of footsteps. Jen ducked back into the pines, looking back at the basin wall. No sense in scrambling upwards, she'd spot him instantly.
"Well, good morning!" he called, as she girded the lake, coming close enough to hear.
"You?" She paused, shading her eyes from the morning sun, and picked up her pace. "Not that I can stop you from coming down here. Certainly if there was a law against it I should know."
"And what brings you here?"
"I told you, the taxraks." She drew closer still, and he saw that she held something blueish and limp in one hand, a few spots of red still dripping onto the crisp white snow - a taxrak's severed ear. "They like it down here, away from the wind. Well? It isn't that unusual. I did say this was stonework country. This is a quarry!" She hopped onto a boulder, balancing on its top, arms splayed out. "Oh look! Rocks! I won't ask what brings you here. That would be rude." She hopped down again, and continued on her way.
He followed on as she passed by. "Only curiosity."
"Curiosity? Oh! Perhaps we have not met. My name is Numbers, and I am a beast-hunter." She tossed the ear in the air, catching it mid-stride. It had left her hand coated in drying blood, but she did not appear to care. "And right now, I'm a beast-hunter who wants breakfast, and to get moving before we waste any more of the morning." As they came to the wall again, she gazed upwards. The road lay above, several times higher than Jen was tall, over that icy ridge. She gestured with her free hand. "You first, dear."
"Maybe I was wrong."
"How do you mean?"
"About the ride, what do you think?" Jen had to admit it wasn't a lie. Sitting in the dark, huddled under blankets on a bare wooden floor, he wondered if it might have been more comfortable simply to walk the distance to Kastek. To freeze, or to feel every jolt on the road, shuddering through his body, wearing his bones and muscles into an aching mass? "Think of Kastek," he went on, his initial line of thought forgotten. "I heard they have springs there. Imagine a hot bath..." He could picture it now - the rising steam, the warmth filtering through his body, the pain melting away.
"I'd rather not," said Dhaymin.
"Must be something you're looking forward to." Jen closed his eyes - pointless doing otherwise, in the dark - sitting in a ball with his arms around his knees and blankets over his shoulders.
"A proper bed'd be nice."
"Can't argue. How about some real food?"
"How about you being quiet and letting me get some sleep?" But Dhaymin laughed a little at his own words, and Jen couldn't help a smile in the dark.
His first line of thought came creeping back, in the silence that ensued. "Maybe I was wrong about her."
From Dhaymin's corner came a tired grunt of approval. Jen took the hint and lowered himself onto his side, curled up into a tight ball under the blankets. He pushed the aches and pains away - not long now. Just a day or two. Dhaymin was right. Nobody could say no to a proper bed.
When he first heard the voice, he thought he was dreaming.
"You've been having some very interesting conversations. May I join in?"
"Numbers?" It had been her voice in the dark, though Jen could see nothing. The sky had become obscured by cloud over the course of the evening, and now no moonlight penetrated the carriage's windows. He could almost imagine she'd arranged it, if such a thing were possible. "I'm sorry." Better to be honest, he told himself. No shame in mistrust, out on the road. This time he was going to stay calm. "I never meant to disrespect you."
"But what you mean and what you do aren't always the same thing, are they?"
Dhaymin shifted beside him. "Calm it," he said, his voice by Jen's ear. "He didn't mean any harm, I've been telling him all along. He's just... jumpy."
"Ah. Well, I suppose we can't help being idiots sometimes."
"Leave him alone, he made a mistake!" Dhaymin said. "And I'm the only one who gets to call him that!"
"Dhaymin, I don't think that was a good idea," Jen whispered.
"Only my brother gets to insult me. But you still did." Though Numbers was invisible in the dark, Jen imagined her lounging across the floor, more comfortable than anybody had any right to be on that bumpy, splintery surface.
Dhaymin shifted again, trying to get to his feet. Jen laid a hand on his shoulder, gently pushing him back to the floor. Said we were going to get through this without being stupid, he thought, hoping the gesture was enough. Stay still. Stay calm. He could talk his way out of this.
"I don't mind, so much," Numbers went on. "You just put me at a bit of a hard point, that's all. It wouldn't do to take you all the way to Kastek if you weren't going to be grateful for it. I know! Here's a game. Now I don't know you well, and you don't know me well. Let's do something about that. Suppose I guess something about you. Suppose I get it wrong, you win. I take you right to Kastek's gates. And I'll even throw in that pretty little wolfskin. Suppose I get it right, you get to walk. Would you like to bet on that?"
"And if we don't play at all, we still walk, I suppose," said Jen.
"Oh! Good idea!"
"Thanks so much," hissed Dhaymin.
"Shh!" Jen nudged him with an elbow. "I'm listening." He didn't have a choice - and he still wasn't about to break. "Your guess?"
"That's where I'm feeling generous. You'd not make it to Kastek if you set off from here. But give it another day's ride, and you'd be in with a chance. So you have tonight, then all of tomorrow, and when we stop, that's when you decide if you want to play. Sleep on it. We're all tired."
Under the heavy wraps, Jen's right arm began to itch. He resisted the urge to scratch.
"Accepted," he said.
Jen slept in brief snatches, trying to blank out the night's conversation. In his dreams he rehearsed Numbers' game. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost, and every time he stood with his sleeves ripped away and his arm exposed to the shoulder, his skin red and run through with vivid, interlocking cracks. Morning came after countless repetitions, waking and drifting off again, such things as hours becoming meaningless.
He did not dare speak of the previous night until they had set off again. He sat on the floor, leaning against the back wall, as comfortable as he could manage in the swaying, jolting carriage. He couldn't mess this up now. One more day and surely his joints would get used to the motion. Perhaps Dhaymin felt the same way - certainly, he waited until they were well on the road before speaking.
"You're still doing this?"
"She knows. About... that. That's what she's going to guess." He kept his voice low, hoping the swaying and creaking would mask it.
"Then she'll kill you."
"She'll be well within her right to. I'm dangerous. Or had you forgotten?"
"Oh, I know you're dangerous, you big lump of sulk."
"Yes." Jen stared at the ceiling, going over words he'd practised the night before. "And I don't want you to be a part of this. I got myself into it, I don't want you dragged in as well."
"You're asking me to stay out of this? You've hit new levels of... of... of being an idiot!"
Jen didn't move. "No," he said. "I'm not asking you to stay out. I'm asking you to wait for me."
The sky had turned white. The road ahead stretched off into thick fog, facing from view only a few paces ahead. At least if they had to run, Jen thought, nobody would track them through these quarry-scarred, mist blanketed lands. Most nobody, anyway. He couldn't be so sure about Numbers.
He pushed the thought from his mind. She was only a beast-hunter, just like himself, doing what she had to. A good beast-hunter, given, but ascribing her beyond human capabilities with no grounds would do nobody any good. So he counted his paces along the road,until the carriage was well out of his sight when he looked over his shoulder. "Bad weather tonight," he commented. "Can't see far in this fog."
"How dreadful," said Dhaymin.
"Sorry." He pushed on, counting several more paces. Kastek could be anywhere in this mess, and they'd reached the southern limit of Kes' map. Without any other guide, he could only hope Numbers had told the truth, and it really was only a day away at most. The road had widened over the past few days as it wound onward and upward over the hillside, but any other sign of the city's existence was lost in the white haze.
Before long, a shape rose out of the fog, and he paused to investigate, hope rising when he realised what it was. "Found a marker stone!" But the hope was short-lived - the weather had long since done its work. The Toxiliviti script, difficult for him at the best of times, was an eroded, indecipherable, moss-strewn mess.
"Don't feel so bad," said Dhaymin. "Means there's something. Good stopping point too, I can wait here."
Jen looked back down the road, or what little of it he could see, and set down his pack. He rubbed his shoulders where the straps had pressed into his skin, feeling he had forgotten what being comfortable was like. Between aching shoulders, blistered feet, and sore joints, he could barely think of a part of his body that didn't hurt. If he didn't need the day's ride, he'd have pushed on now with Dhaymin by his side, leaving Numbers alone with her games. A possible safe passage, or an uncertain trail through the snow?
His arm was itching again.
"Go on," Dhaymin placed a hand on Jen's shoulder. "She's waiting."
"You're not going to call me an idiot?"
"No. Takes a certain amount of stupidity to be a beast-hunter. It's all about running toward things that keep trying to kill you."
Jen let out a hesitant laugh. "Doesn't exactly fill me with confidence."
"What do you think?"
Jen looked up at the sky. The sun was setting, though he could only tell from its secondhand light as it filtered through the mist shroud. Not even the vivid firelight of a true sunset - the light merely began to fade before his eyes, white giving way to grey. "I think it's going to snow tonight." He turned to leave, treading in his own footprints to save another trudge through the snow.
"Anything bad happens, and I'll come for you."
"I know," he said, and set off up the road.
Dusk had fallen by the time Jen returned to the carriage, tinting the white fog a dull slate grey. Not wishing to waste any more time, he made straight for it. Numbers' horse, as unconcerned by the weather as ever before, watched him pass. Jen tried not to look. Things were bad enough without the nagging feeling that creature was watching him every time he went near.
Despite his haste, he felt as though time were slowing as he entered. Time enough to take in every splinter on the carriage body, every last hint of the sun gleaming on the snow, every fog-dampened strand of hair that fell over his face. He smoothed it back, and, barely daring to breathe, stepped inside.
"Good evening." Numbers sat cross-legged, lit by a single lantern by her side, casting warm light from beneath, shading her face in strange ways. She was pouring tea from a hefty pot as he entered, steam rising into the cold air as it flowed from the spout. "You think I don't understand," she continued, "but I do. "I have a brother too. We were close."
"Had, what happened to him?" He could guess, but guessing just brought him further to his own truth. Whether that was a good thing depended on what she said next.
"He went down some different paths. Most of my family won't have anything to do with him after the last few times." She held her teacup to her lips, blew to cool it. Steam, pine scented, wafted in Jen's direction. "Here, take some." She poured another cup, placing it by Jen's feet without another word.
"Thankyou," he said. It was a solid, earthenware cup, big enough that he had to lift it in two hands, hot enough it nearly burned after standing outside. He gave it a cautious sniff. It certainly smelled like pine tea, but nevertheless he blew on it as she had done, placing it aside. "I'm sorry to hear about it."
"I've had time to think about it." She leaned back, still with her legs crossed, her weight on her right arm. "And I think I called you here for a game, not to discuss my little brother's problems."
"Go on, then." You couldn't stall forever, and Jen knew that one too well. Sooner or later, someone always dug into your mind and found the truth.
"First, my question." She gazed upward, as though suddenly very interested in the ceiling. Jen waited, pushing the thoughts from his mind, willing himself to become shadow-Jen, and set aside his fears for himself. "What..." and here she looked back at him, smiling, "...is your name?"
Jen blinked, scrabbling inside for thought. "You want to guess my name?" Without thinking, he rubbed his arm, giving the itchy old scar a gentle scratch through the layers.
"I was curious. I can't spend so much time with such interesting people as yourself and your..."
"Of course, your brother, and not wonder who you are. We had so much fun together. You wouldn't back out now, would you?"
Jen thought of Dhaymin, waiting in the face of an immanent snowfall. "No."
"Lovely. Why don't we begin?" She sat upright again, and rummaged through a coat pocket, taking out a handful of coins. "First, the obvious. You are Rhusavi." She laid the first coin down before her, bright gold in the lamplight. Jen tried to make out the design, but it was one he did not know. "Second, the clasp I saw under your brother's coat is in the shape of a wolf's head, yes? I assume a wolf is your family emblem." She laid another coin beside the first. "Not particularly creative, by the way."
Jen stayed perfectly still, and showed no emotion.
Numbers shrugged, taking another drink (how had she heated up the water, Jen wondered? He'd seen no sign of a fire this evening beyond her lamp). "Suit yourself, if there's one thing I can't stand it's dreary players. Rhusavi, wolf." She tapped the two coins in succession. "Not so much to go on? But you do have your father's name, I think, good standing... but not so much, else why would you be here with me? I'm thinking of a small family, a little land, a few people." And she laid down a third coin, and looked him in the eye. "Am I getting closer?"
"I'll tell you when you guess."
"You're so dull! I wish I'd played with your brother. And look at me." She spread her hands, to indicate the coins before her. "I have three clues. That's a good number to work with, isn't it? People like threes. The world likes threes. But not so much to go on. Rhusavi, wolf, small family. That could be anybody. I did say it wasn't very creative. So, your father's name?"
"It's what I have." Jen picked up his tea again, not to drink, but simply to have something to hold on to. How many other men styled after wolves roamed Rhusav, anyway? How many others called themselves lords in that fractured, divided forest, lords of nothing more than a patch of dark wood and a handful of people who lived their own lives? They would tell each other things had not been the same before, that they would not be the same tomorrow, and yet tomorrow brought the same, people trying to survive. He and Dhaymin could be anyone, and that was something he'd held onto since the slips-ups with Koiski.
But this was Numbers in front of him, and he could not be sure, so he held the cup tight, let it warm his shaking hands, and watched. "Go ahead then. Guess."
She had no need to hesitate. "Is it Dhalsiv?"
She sat in the carriage doorway, open wide to the frozen world beyond. Her legs dangled over the side as she held a cup of pine tea, watching the east sky turn pink.
It had all been so terribly rude of her guests, she thought, to leave like that. The tall one hadn't even drunk his tea! And it was quite good tea, better than the food supplies. She'd nibbled a sliver of dried meat as she watched the sun come up, and immediately tossed it into the snow. Some things just weren't worth the effort.
"Wonder if they got to Kastek," she said, to nobody in particular. She hadn't lied - she never did. Kastek was a day's walk from here, too far to spot with this fog clinging to the hills, but reachable if the weather were kind. And the night's snowfall had dwindled by now to a few flakes, landing with a slight touch on her skin.
She set her tea aside and, taking up the wolf's skin she'd won, stepped into the snow. Already the new fall had covered most of last night's footsteps, leaving only smoothed indentations to show anyone had left, let alone run away. Her feet crunched through the soft coating, her legs sinking in. The cold ran through her, as though her veins were filled with ice water, the chill spreading through her toes, the freezing winds wrapping her body. Fresh snow landed on her shoulders, in her hair, dusting her entire form with white. She took a gulp of air, and let the cold engulf her entire being.
"Now what am I going to do with you?" She stared at the skin, and slipped its head over her hand. "Well I don't know!" she said, putting on a gruff tone and waving the skin about. "Maybe you should have asked those two idiots."
Number stepped forward, wandering off the road where the tangled growth whipped against her legs. "I don't think they knew either." She paused by the edge of yet another drop into yet another quarry - how dull the scenery became when it was all you'd seen for so long! - looked down. The wind whipped the skin around on her hand like a banner. "Even I don't know where they found a wolf."
"Don't ask me."
"Probably you're worth a lot."
"I told you they were idiots."
"Could be set up for a long time, if I sold you to the right person." Numbers smoothed the ruffled fur, and leapt straight up. Wind tugged at her, threatening to pull her over the edge, and she opened her hand, letting the skin fly from her grasp. It fluttered to the quarry floor as she landed, and she watched it vanish into the fog, buffeted by the snow.
"How boring," she said, and turned to leave.