Arc Seven: Midwinter
Snow piled in waist-high drifts, the wind so harsh it blew into his eyes and turned the whole world white. Jen trudged on, stumbling over his own numb feet. His thoughts came as sluggish as his steps. Mustn't wander like this. Had to stop, sink into the snow, go to sleep...
He stumbled forward. The blizzard parted, the hail in his eyes abating just enough to let him see ahead. He stood, blinking, having found himself in the lee of a sharp slope, its rocky walls a stark black against the ice. A little way off, it split into an overhang, and he climbed into the cramped space. It was too small and open to be called a cave, but the low ceiling and piled snowdrifts sheltered him, at last, from the relentless wind. He tried to clear a space, aware he needed fire, warmth, something to keep him going, but his limbs felt clumsy and uncoordinated, his whole body dead weight. Don't need fire, he thought. There was no pain any more, no feeling but the deepest of exhaustion. Barely able to even think of where he was or where he was going, he sank to the ground, huddled against the cold, and closed his eyes.
He woke to the sound of screaming winds, the blizzard outside as strong as ever. He pushed himself upright, the exhaustion and cold finally gone, but his thoughts still slow and his memory a haze. He'd been going somewhere. He'd been looking for someone.
His body lay motionless on the ground, drained of all colour.
He had barely any time to register the sight before the snow crunched outside, and a dark figure blotted out the light. Its earthy, musty scent filled the little refuge in seconds, and a great head peered inside. Jen watched as it sniffed at his body. It ignored him, its yellow eyes focused on the still form. He tried to call out and scare it away, but no sound came. He couldn't move...
A splintering crack echoed through the hollow as the beast gripped an arm in its great bear-jaws, shattering the bone. Jen watched, unable to do any more, as his blood poured over the snow, as bright as a fresh kill's. It pooled beneath his body and clung to the beast's muzzle as it ate, caking its dark hair in red and spattering over the ground.
"No," he finally managed to choke out. The creature did not hear, and the scene turned black.
Jen woke in a perfectly dark room. Under the covers, his right arm ached.
There was no reply. Jen, still blinking in the lamplight after so long in darkness, stepped inside his brother's room and set the lamp by the bed. Dhaymin lay asleep, and Jen nudged him in the shoulder. "Dhaymin, wake up!"
"Whu... bird just cut my head off.... oh, s'you?" Dhaymin pulled the blankets away, pushing himself into a sitting position. "What'd you come barging in here for, we being attacked again?"
"I..." Jen began. His throat felt dry, his tongue like cracked ground in high summer. "Water, you got some water?" Dhaymin gestured to the table, where a bowl lay, and Jen took it up, gulping down as much as he could in one go. He'd woken up sweating and tangled in blankets, laid in the dark before remembering. "There was a dream," he said, as he finished drinking. He paused to catch his breath, taking another gulp before continuing. "I was... I've not dreamed proper since-"
"You woke me up over a dream?" Dhaymin flung the covers away, getting to his feet. "So, what do you want now?" Got so scared you needed to sleep in my bed again?"
Jen stared at the empty bowl in his hands, and tried not to look at Dhaymin's self-satisfied expression. "It's here," he said.
Dhaymin's smile faded. He didn't need to ask any more. "Sit down," he said, his voice suddenly level. He did so himself, sitting on the edge of the bed, and Jen joined him, still holding the bowl. He turned it over in his hands, not sure what he should do with it. "Tell me,"
"It was cold," Jen said. Dhaymin frowned at the words, and Jen felt fear creep through his body again, a rush of energy through his veins that made him tremble. "I was watching - watching myself. I was still, as if I'd frozen. It found me."
If Dhaymin could have been said to have a gaze, he would have been staring at the ceiling, a thoughtful look on his face. He was half in shadow, backlit by Jen's lamp so that he appeared outlined in light. Jen's memory slid back to a waystation on the lonely road, and dreams of snow and freezing, as told by his brother. "Light a fire," he said. "Light it and don't let it go out."
"Yes." Jen looked at the fireplace. It was empty, usually a rare sight in winter, but this deep inside Kastek's stone walls, it didn't matter. Jen had never even seen it lit, nor had he felt any need to light his own. They lay bare and empty, scattered with a few lonely ashes. Though they were a long way from the chimney's vents, Jen imagined he could hear wind screaming in the distance, just as he'd dreamt it. He was just about to get up and gladly do as he'd been told when Dhaymin spoke again.
"And you know what else you're going to do?"
You are going to go back to your room," Dhaymin said, "and you are going to find a good book. Whatever one you like best. And then..." here he smiled again, "then, you are going to come back in here, and sit down, and you are going to read it to me. And we are going to talk about this again in the morning, because we've got more walls than I can remember between us and it. Is that understood?"
"Yes," Jen said. "Got it all."
Jen woke the next morning with a book draped upon his chest, lying wedged between Dhaymin and the wall, with an arm and a leg gone numb from lying on them. The midnight fire had burned down to nothing, but no more dreams had come that night. If they had, they faded before waking, until Jen was none the wiser for it.
Though his body was stiff and his mind fuzzy from his unexpectedly cut-short sleep, he was back in the library at his appointed time. That had been Dhaymin's doing. "Let me handle this," he'd said. "I've got a free day. If anything's prowling around here, someone's bound to have heard." Jen had protested, but finally given up. So now he stood blinking in the golden morning light as it streamed into the library's main hall, fortified by all the pine tea he'd been able to gulp down and not a lot more.
Dhaymin was probably right, he thought, as he stepped out of the mote-dusted sunbeams and into the welcoming dark world of the back shelves. Dhaymin knew how to handle people. If Jen went around asking questions, he'd be out in the snow by nightfall. Better to stay here, where he was good at something. There was already a stack of books awaiting his attention on the nearest table. Shelving the Kastek library was an endless task, and right now, that was all he wanted.
He'd been so sure the wolf's blood would stop all this.
No sense in worrying about it. He took the first book from the stack, checked its title, and set off deeper into his world of shelves.
Dhaymin stopped for a moment, to rub some feeling back into his hand. These days, if it wasn't his cane he was holding, it was a knife, and the closer he came to midwinter, the faster he worked. For him, midwinter had always been a small affair - the solemn noon sky, a few candles in a darkened hall, and the promise of good food even in the worst of years. But even he could sense the mounting anticipation. It was not just overheard snatches of conversation, but a sense of energy building that he could not name. It put him in mind of birds huddled in the trees at summer's end, their numbers growing as if by an invisible attraction, until they reached an unknown tipping point and the flock was gone in an instant. He could feel that point approaching now, the sensation that soon things would come to a head, and it spread its unseen influence throughout the city. And he was at its centre, after days of preparations and new recipes, imagining all those flavours and scents and bringing them to life.
But even if he hadn't had this day free, he'd have stayed away from the kitchen today. Aix would simply have to cope. He took his cane up again, and headed off.
It was a good thing he'd persuaded Jen to go back to the library. Now he didn't have to watch Dhaymin panic.
Jen was shelving a log of chemical reactions written by a long dead (and possibly long exploded) scholar when Amtika crossed his mind.
He couldn't say why. The memory of that night underground made him close his eyes and turn hot with shame. No, he told himself, as he pushed the book back into its rightful place. You have skill, here. Here was important, not there, tackling the disorganised book piles one volume at a time, giving himself up to the task and telling himself to panic later. But he thought back, all the same. Not to the night where he'd skinned the last wolf, but the sight of Amtika's taxrak, letting her rest her hand on its head like a favourite dog, obeying every command...
"Oh! It's you again. May I give you this? I wanted to bring it back."
It was the girl from the lake again, holding the book she'd borrowed earlier. He accepted it when she handed it over, brushing a little dust from the cover. A grey cloud rose and fell at his touch. These old volumes seemed to generate their own. "Yes," he said. "Of course."
There was no title, but another, recent memory flashed. He opened the book, turning a few dry old pages. Each was headed with a date and, in tiny, neat script, the night's events...
"Was it an interesting read?" he said, as she turned to go.
Even the winter air felt strange to Dhaymin, after so long in Kastek's tunnels. Of course he'd been outside plenty of times, but he'd never gone as far as the city gates since arriving. Now, close by, and feeling the wind on his face, he realised how shut off he'd been. It was not like being snowed in, trapped in a small space with the same voices, the same food. You didn't realise it at all, when you were surrounded by people and life. Not until you stood by the gates...
He knew exactly who he was waiting for. He'd met the man before, when he'd shown up at the kitchen with crates of fresh fish and a few words for Aix. His name was Iktin, and he oversaw food deliveries and other vital trips from Kastek to the lakes and fields. He was also a beast-hunter, even if food delivery seemed to be the only work he had. Dhaymin sometimes wondered how bored he was.
He stood with his back pressed against the wall, hands deep in his pockets, his fur collar turned up against the cold. Even that didn't stop the biting chill from nipping at his face, but thankfully, he had little time to wait. The gate slid open, a shouted warning echoing toward him giving him enough time to step aside to let them pass. Ahead, he heard voices, sleds dragged over the snow, footsteps crunching through the icy crust.
"Iktin?" he called.
"Who's asking?" Iktin's voice was unmistakable, with a slight Rhusavi accent buried in the mix. Dhaymin wondered if there was a little of the blood in his family.
"I am," Dhaymin said, stepping into the road. "Don't tell me you've forgotten a face like mine."
"Aix sent you?" Behind him, a few of the younger hunters shuffled their feet, unsure what they should do.
"No. But I did hear there were rumours of a beast out there that's been causing you trouble." A guess - Dhaymin had no idea what might have happened outside the walls, but if anyone did, it was Iktin. "You know I'm working on the midwinter feast, don't you? I don't want to have to tell Ardea there'll be shortages."
"Nice try. Think I'm stupid? What are you really up to?"
"It's a crime now for someone to wonder about their food supply?" Dhaymin adjusted his coat collar, brushing a few stray hairs down. "Fine then, I'm not interested in taking anything up with Ardea. You've done nothing wrong if some big old monster tries to push its way into your territory. Last I knew, that was what you people were for."
"Flattery, now?" A few of the young hunters let out stifled laughs at Iktin's words.
"All I'm saying is that if anything is the matter, I need to know," Dhaymin said. "This is about food lines, not magic and echoes."
"Very well," Iktin said. "It's hardly a secret. We did have an encounter a couple of days ago. Big ugly dog bear..."
"It's dull," she said. "I'm looking for something with a little more life in it."
Jen squinted at the narrow, cursive script, tilting the book sideways. "That's disgusting."
"He had some strange ideas about snakes," She looked embarrassed again, staring at the floor. "It's nonsense. I wondered if you knew any better ones."
"Journals?" Jen closed the book. "I could show you."
Not so long after, the two of them sat at a long table, on the broad gallery overlooking the hall. Vivid sunbeams cascaded onto a stack of books at one end, all full of dead mens' memories.
"I'm surprised," she said. "I didn't think you were interested."
"Neither did I," he admitted. What had there been for him in the word of dreams? A few childhood nightmares, a vague initiation of little use, and then nothing but half-grasped flashes and feelings. And now he found himself asking questions he'd never considered. What did the dreams of the tarnished feel like? Maybe someone had written them down in their last months of humanity.
"My name's Rosa."
"I thought you'd like a name to put to someone you keep running into."
"...but you needn't worry. Took one of my best out last night. She shot it."
Dhaymin fought to keep his expression unreadable. No, he thought, as ice ran through his body, spreading through his veins in a cold rush. No, Jen's fine. Couldn't have been his... "Is she here?" he said. "The one who who shot it down?"
"Why? It doesn't matter, whatever you want." Iktin stepped forward, and at his motion, the sleds began to move. Dhaymin hurriedly stepped aside over the hard-packed snow. "She's not with me today."
Ardea had seen enough of his meeting chamber, and he had only seen it once, and not while he was in any position to take in the decor.
He'd spent too many of his days buried down here, as if his old enemy had finally gotten his wish in the end to entomb him. He knew every crack in the mosaics, every fine current of cold air that broke the stillness, every echoed voice. And he knew his place, on the stairs leading up to the smashed platform, worn down smooth after years of sitting there. He adjusted his robes, shifting into the most comfortable position he could manage.
Aix and the librarian were already there, introduced by Lakedi. A scuff of feet here and a cough their betrayed their boredom and confusion, their urge to be back in their proper places. Ardea vowed to make it up to them another time. As it was, the one who had asked them to meet had yet to arrive... not that Ardea had ever expected him to do so on time.
"Am I late?" came a voice from the far end, echoing in a familiar wave around the chamber. Ardea heard footsteps as Iktin entered, probably striding as Ardea always remembered. He could practically imagine the smile on his face at the thought of a job well done.
Maybe he was right. Ardea thought back to the strange coins, the ones that Lakedi had yet to identify. But he had other people to listen to, as well.
"A little," he said. "I take it we can all begin now?"
"Yes, please," said Aix.
"Very well." Ardea was well aware that he should stand before the others, but he stayed seated. His legs would not forgive him otherwise. "You are all here because earlier this morning I received a message from our top beast-hunter, here." He imagined an even bigger smile on Iktin's face at that. "It would appear that he has some suspicions relating to two of our overwintering guests. Iktin, please explain the meaning of all this?"
"Gladly." More footsteps, as though he were taking his place at the centre of their little circle. "As I was arriving at the gate this morning, Aix's prized little kitchen assistant started asking questions. Aix, is there any reason he wasn't with you?"
"Because he had a free day," Aix said, in a tone of voice that put Ardea in the mind of someone proclaiming snow was cold. "More questions?"
"No." More shuffled footsteps, those of someone backing off. "But he did seem unusually interested in my work. Claimed he'd been hearing rumours-"
"You say it's a crime for someone to take an interest in what happens around them?" That was the librarian.
"Strange," Iktin said. "He said the exact same thing."
"Then he had a point." put in the librarian.
"I'm telling you," Iktin said, "I don't like it. You might be happy taking in strays, Ardea-"
"It is called compassion," Ardea said, folding his hands across his lap, "and it is nothing to be ashamed of."
"Call it what you will. He was getting too interested for my comfort. Aix, you're a cook. By definition, good with knives, aren't you? You remember all that? You all remember what we went through? You remember what you went through, Ardea?" His voice became louder, and Ardea realised he was close, leaning over him, his breath ruffling his hair. Memories threatened to rise. He held still, breathing deeply, shutting the noise from his mind. For a moment the world hung in dark silence, before he regained the will to speak.
"I was here, Iktin," he said, the pleasant tone gone from his voice, "and I would dearly love not to remember, and I will ask that you do not tread that road again."
Iktin backed away again, clearly feeling outdone by Ardea's words, yet not willing to give up. Words alone did not silence a man like him. "Then you know it is your duty to ensure your people's safety!"
"That does not mean I have to like it."
"Listen," Iktin went on, "I only think you want to keep an eye on him. So to speak. Told him not to worry. One of my hunt team members shot it."
"It?" Lakedi said. "What 'it'?"
"What else, the monster!"
"You think he's tarnished?" said Aix.
Ardea, in silence, found the strength to stand. He pushed himself into a half-upright, shaky stance, letting Lakedi support him. "A monster?" he said, through teeth that ground together though the pain. "You tell me about a man asking questions and you neglect to talk about a monster? Tell me, now."
"That's exactly why I'm telling you I don't like it. It was a dog-bear. Big, ugly, hairy old beast."
"That's hardly unusual," Lakedi said.
"No, but what is unusual is that they don't usually come out in the winter," Iktin said. "I think Aix is right. I think it was his."
"Never accused him. Was asking you," Aix said.
"Enough." Ardea hissed, drawing himself up to his full height and ignoring his aching back and fire-slashed legs. "Aix, do you suspect your assistant of tarnishing?"
"He set fire to my kitchen once. But he's perfectly human."
"And his brother?"
"He's quiet," said the librarian. "He bothers nobody until they ask, and spends his days reading. Don't think you could find a more apt librarian in the world."
"Well, Iktin," Ardea said, "it is not as it I don't have eyes of my own, you understand? And in any case, I don't think we have anything to fear. As you said, one of your hunt team shot it, did they not?"
"Of course," Iktin said, obviously glad to be recognised again.
"Very well," Ardea said, "and you can bring me a body, can you not?"
"Ah, I thought so. Well then," he said, easing himself back into his familiar, well worn seat, letting the pain ebb in relief, "we have two possibilities. We can jump on the assumption that our guest is clearly tarnished, or we can handle the very real threat that we know is outside the walls. Iktin, if you feel such an urge for heroics, perhaps you and your hunters would be better positioned to keep watch for this beast."
The plans decided, the meeting wound down to its inevitable conclusion, Ardea waited dismissed his guests, and sat, as he always did after such an event, with Lakedi at his side.
"Lakedi?" he said, once he was certain they were all gone.
"Have you made any progress on those coins, yet?"
"Sad to say, no."
"Ah," Ardea said. "Well... that is a shame."
"What did he say then?"
It was night, and Jen had finally returned from his library work after getting a little lost in the books. It wasn't the first time he'd done so, but this time he found a pacing Dhaymin, demanding to know where he'd been. After a little shouting, they'd shared what they'd found.
"Nothing," Dhaymin said. "Walked on past without anything else. Hope I never see him again.... er, you know what I mean. Ah. Yes. That's good, right there..."
Jen pressed his fingers deeper into Dhaymin's palm, right at a spot where the muscles tensed up. He'd been having these pains for some time now, and while Jen helped as best he could, he couldn't shake the feeling that Dhaymin had been throwing himself into his work again, to blank out everything else. He had no room to speak, though, after what had happened today. His mind was a mess of dusty old journals, and little gain.
He moved his fingers a little, working out the knots. "He said it was dead?"
"No, that it was shot."
"It's not dead," said Jen. "There, I think I've got the worst of it. How does that feel?"
"Better," Dhaymin said, taking his hand away and flexing the fingers, clenching and unclenching his fist. "What do you mean, not dead?"
"Look what happened to Koiski. I'm fine. I'm better than I ever was."
"Or it wasn't yours he got."
Jen stared at the fireplace. It was empty again, a few swept ashes the only remains of last night's fire. Despite being safe inside, he shivered at the sight. There'd be another fire tonight, and soon. "No," he said. "It's... the one." The word mine wouldn't come. He thought back further. His dream had been so vivid, as though he had frozen in some other world and been torn apart. "You said it was shot last night. It got away... it had to. But I had that dream."
"I know," Dhaymin said. He lay back, his upper body sprawled over the bed, his legs trailing onto the floor, one arm under his head. "That's what I don't like. And you didn't find anything?"
"Not a word," said Jen. "Only some people with some very strange ideas about snakes. I don't know what to think." And Rosa... but that had been a very different thing, and one that Dhaymin would only laugh at... and why was he thinking of her, at a time like this? He put the encounter out of his mind, something to think of later. He leaned forward, hands clasped in his lap, and stared at the wall. "I wish Father taught us about this."
"He fucked up, there," Dhaymin said.
"He did," Jen said, before he had a chance to stop himself. He fell silent again as he realised what he'd just said, but it was nothing - not fear, not relief, just a simple statement of facts. He pushed it back, as he pushed back everything else. Just like being tarnished - he'd locked his fear away, and in time, as he continued to feel his usual self, let it slip.
But it was always there. You couldn't run. Sooner or later, the problem caught up with you, and bared its teeth, and you realised how stupid you'd been to pretend it never happened...
Dhaymin pushed himself upright, so that he was propped up on one arm. He frowned, and Jen could have sworn he was looking right at him. "Course you're scared. Anyone would be. That's how you know you're still you."
"So it doesn't even matter if-"
"I'm scared too," Dhaymin said. "You saw that. But whatever's happened to you now, it's not changed you. You're still the same sulky Jen."
"Don't mention it."
Jen stood up, walking over to the empty hearth. "I'm going to start another fire. Going to go to sleep. Not going to dream again, if I can help it." Another memory came back, and he turned around. "Do you want to hear another book?"
She lay in the shelter of an overhang, out of the snow and the worst of the cold, and nibbled at her shoulder, where something lodged, digging into her flesh. Pain spread like spindly tree branches through her body when she moved. As she gnawed at the spot, a few more hard, sharp objects, like dark stones, pulled themselves free, and fresh blood ran over her coat.
She lay still and lowered her head. Instinct told her to remain where she was, though her stomach clenched with hunger. Snow fell outside, and she felt a deep urge to stay hidden. Not here, but deep within the earth, never to move until spring came. Yet she was pulled on, with an urge even deeper than the drive to follow her prey. Instincts conflicted, and she went hungry in the snow.
Her claws raked the dead, icy dirt beneath. There might be food again, but it came with danger. She knew the lake, the piles of fresh food ready for the taking, despite the scent of those creatures that were not prey. But she also remembered the flash of light, and that terrible sound as the world turned to fire. She fled, something she never did, for there was nothing she feared - nothing but that sound, that light, that pain.
Her hunger told her to hunt again, despite the cold. She could stalk the silent forests, seek prey that had fallen in the face of winter. But the pain kept her still for now. Her blood filled the tiny hollow's air with its fresh scent. She feared nothing, and yet she knew what the smell of blood would do.
She may hunt the next night, or the night after. She would survive. She had gone hungry for longer than this, whilst she lay low and let time deal with the pain. For now, she could do nothing else.
In the distance, over the forest and hills, past the lake shores, the lights of Kastek shone in the darkness.
Jen arrived back late, as he usually did these days. The sun had long since set, but he barely noticed, hidden away as he was in the library's deepest corners. If pressed, he'd have said he liked the way it quietened his mind, giving him an immediate concern to focus on, far away from the forests and monsters. If pressed a little more, he'd have said he merely enjoyed being around the books, and if pressed to the sort of levels Dhaymin applied, he'd have thought of the need for research, though his hunt had, so far, been unsuccessful.
There might be other reasons too... but he kept them at the back of his mind.
But the dreams had subsided since that night, and midwinter crept up on him, day after day, without another hint of his creature, and he wondered if he were slipping back into complacency - but happy complacency, if it was.
Dhaymin was already waiting for him when he pushed open the door. He lay sprawled on the bed, holding something Jen couldn't make out. "Jen!" he said. "Hope that's you, or I'll have looked stupid."
"It's me," he said.
"You work too hard!"
"I like working," said Jen, with a slight smile. A tiny twinge of guilt rose in the back of his mind, but he silenced it as he closed the door behind him.
"Good, I was waiting for you. Someone left you a piece of paper." Dhaymin held up the object, which Jen could see was now a slim, folded note. "I assume there's writing on it, but nobody tells me this shit."
Jen took it from him, and unfolded it. The paper was rather old, as if it had been hidden away in the bottom of a pack for a while, but the ink upon it was crisp and fresh. He sat down, so as to be closer to the lamp light, and pored over the curled text. "What is this?" he said. "'After our last meeting, I hope you will agree to...' oh." Behind him, Dhaymin tried, and failed, to hide laughter. It came out in a series of stifled snorts, and the bed shook with his efforts. "Be quiet!" he said, trying to read the last. "I'm sure it's not... oh. It is."
"It's what?" said Dhaymin, sitting up and leaning over Jen's shoulder with a huge smile on his face. "Oh, Jen. Have you been keeping a little someone from me? I'm hurt. And here I thought I was the only one for you."
"No!" Suddenly feeling very hot, Jen hastily reread the note, just to be sure he had the details right. "Nothing like that! There's only this girl who I keep meeting at the library and-"
"You have been! Read it to me!" Dhaymin said, leaning so far over Jen's shoulder he was pushed forward.
"I am not reading it to you!"
"Why not? Is it dirty? It's dirty, isn't it?"
"No! Jen shuffled aside, away from his brother, and folded the note away. "She... she asked me to come with her to the celebrations at midwinter. That's all."
"Ah, an admirer," Dhaymin said, resuming his sprawled position across the bed. "How romantic! You going to take her up on it, are you? I never thought of you as the type, but..."
Me neither, thought Jen. He stared at the faded paper, now showing its blank side. Don't lie to yourself, he added, in his head. There's other reasons you spend all that time at the library. He remembered the first time she'd given him her name. He'd been a mess, his mind hazy after a night of bad sleep and too much tea, and she'd been so full of energy and life, tearing through those books with him as if there was nothing else she'd rather be doing. Another guilty twinge rose, when he remembered how he'd been unable to give her his. "I shouldn't," he said. "I won't be here forever."
"I wasn't in Raketi forever."
"I know," Jen said. "Crap. Are you fine with-"
"Jen," Dhaymin said, "first off, I have my hands full this midwinter. Second, this isn't a competition. She wants you. And this is about what she's wanting, not me."
"Ah," Jen said. He unfolded the note again, shaking a little as he read through Rosa's handwriting. He imagined midwinter, wondered what he'd have done otherwise. And, sitting here, feeling the warm rush as he read over words meant only for him, he realises this was the most human experience he'd had in months. After running, fighting, freezing, meeting dead men and fierce beasts in his dreams, here he was, reading an invitation note from an admirer. "Yes," he said, and a grin spread across his face, a proper, spontaneous smile, unlike anything else he'd felt in a long time. "I'm going to do it! I'm going to say yes!"
"Good boy!" Dhaymin said. He sat up again, and draped an arm around Jen's shoulder. Jen, without hesitation, pulled his brother into a tight hug, still grinning as never before. "You'll have a good time, I know it."
"Say nothing of it, Jen. Now.." he said, moving a little closer so that he could whisper in Jen's ear. "stop leaving me hanging and tell me about her!"
Jen had never seen so many people, so much activity, in all his life. He passed by half finished bonfires, vast piles of timber even taller than himself, as people scrambled over their surfaces in a hurry to finish in time. Not even since entering Kastek had he imagined there could be so much life in the world. His inner images of empty, barren cities melted away at the sights and sounds.
Rosa obviously knew what she was doing, as she led him through the chaos, up stairways and over terraces. They climbed ever higher, leaving the lower city behind and rising to the narrow peak. "It's the best view you'll have," she said, when he'd asked where they were going. She ran on ahead, beckoning him to follow, and he did.
"You've seen this before?" he asked, embarrassed to admit that he had no idea if she even lived here.
"No," she said. "I'm only wintering. But I heard about it, and I have to see it! We never did anything like this where I'm from."
"Neither did I," Jen said, winding his way through the crowds.
Finally she came to a stop, amidst a crowd so thick Jen almost didn't see the broad terrace they'd arrived upon. He peered out over their heads, his view only obscured by a few children lifted on their parents' shoulders. Below him, the city was a few spots of light in the dark.
"Good view up there?"
"Oh," Jen said. "Here." He held out his hand, and she took it. He held his breath for a moment. She'd run ahead him all the way up the pyramid, letting him follow, but never had she taken his hand. He felt a little hot with embarrassment at the touch, wondering if he'd done the right thing, but she smiled, and her hand was so warm after the cold night air.
Now it was his turn to lead. He weaved his way through the crowds, and eventually they parted before him, and there was nothing ahead but thin air. He stood by the terrace walls, one hand draped over the side, as Rosa came to join him. "Now that's a view," he said.
He had seen it before, of course. The city sloped away beneath him, the lamps illuminating the last of the work on the bonfires, but it was still dark, uncertain. But ahead and above, the stars scattered across the sky in gleaming bands of white and blue, and the forests and mountains were a jagged, black shape beyond the city walls. The wind blew in his face, cold and brisk, and it tasted of ice.
"It is," she agreed. She still held his hand in his, and he realised she wasn't going to let go any time soon.
And yet, he was not afraid. The night had begun, and the anticipation had melted. He'd been unable to work to clear his mind (work, people said in surprise, on the shortest day?) and so he'd spent the handful of gloomy daylight hours with Dhaymin, helping him prepare the feast. There was little for him to do except clean the kitchens and keep the fires running, but it kept him busy, and kept his mind from wondering why he'd ever agreed to say yes. But night fell all too swiftly, and soon he could put it off no longer.
He'd gone to meet her, unsure what to expect, but she was there waiting in her thick, battered, leather coat, smiling and as full of life as ever...
"They'll light them soon," she said. In the distance, in the city's lower depths, a light flared. "There," she said. "Watch."
At first it was nothing more than a point in the dark, indistinguishable from the lamps. But as Jen watched, others followed, spreading out into a wave across the city. They flowed like streams up the terraces, covering the city slopes in a myriad of flames, and then, they grew. One by one, the bonfire attendants lit their charges, and one by one, they grew in size and intensity. On the terrace below him, he saw a figure thrust a torch deep into a timber pile, and watched as it lit up and sparks drifted toward him, the smell of smoke in the air as he felt the warmth. Gasps of admiration rose all around him at the sight, as the city was transformed into the biggest midwinter flame he had ever seen.
It was a sight he could never have imagined as a child, when he whispered the sun chant over a few tiny candles.
"I'm glad I came here," he said, and she smiled at his words. She didn't know the extent of it. She didn't know what he wanted to say, that there might well be no Jen next year, to see another midwinter ceremony. And yet he knew that whatever happened to him in the future, right now, he had no regrets. He held himself at peace, as he watched the blaze before him, embers rising into the sky to join the stars.
But eventually, hunger brought him from his trance. He'd barely eaten all day, and now it was catching up to him. "Do you want to eat?" he said. "I know just who we can see for that."
Though night had long since fallen, midnight would not come for several more hours. At that point, Ardea would recite the sun chant, and the city would fall silent to greet a new year and the sun's return. But until then, Kastek erupted with life and excitement. Jen led Rosa past blazing bonfires, past impromptu stages and street games, as the people around them took their one chance in winter's grip to let out all their pent up energy in one burst.
He smelled the feast site before he arrived. Of course, on a night like this, there was food everywhere, but it was in the very centre, between the pyramids, that the greatest of feasts was to be held. Already people thronged the tables, loaded with more food than Jen had ever seen in his life. He'd seen nothing like this during the day - then, it had simply been empty tables and people scurrying to prepare. Now fresh baked bread, sweet berries, roasted fish and birds, chunky hams and creamy marrow crowded the tables, a sight so delicious Jen could barely resist diving in. But there was one place he wanted to be, one person he wanted to meet, and he could see him in the distance.
"Hey!" he called out. "How about some of that bird you've got there?"
"You again?" Dhaymin said, as he sliced away at a roasted bird drenched in berry sauces. "Leave me alone!"
"No," said Jen, drawing up to the table. "That smells too good." He gestured toward Dhaymin for Rosa to see. "This is my brother," he said, "and he is the best cook on Kasuorvis."
"Rosa, is it?" Dhaymin said. "Well, if it's the two of you I'm not going to complain. Come on, sit down, take a slice. Made this one special!"
Jen and Rosa did as Dhaymin said, sitting by the long table as Dhaymin carved away slices and laid them before them at Jen's guidance. "Never seen you so happy," he said.
"Never heard you so happy," Dhaymin added. "Go on, eat it."
The bird was a perfect blend of deep savoury flavors mixed with sweet berry sauce, a little sticky and very juicy. Jen ate it as fast as he could, savouring the feeling of a full stomach for once as Dhaymin passed around bread for them to mop up the last of the sauce. "So," he said, as Jen and Rosa ate, "I've been hearing about these fires. Tell me."
"We went to the high terraces," Jen said. Around him, the pyramids were peaks of light as they burned on, rising all around him. "It's... you've never seen anything like it. Imagine more fire than you've ever seen, lighting up beneath you..."
His voice trained off as he realised the three of them were not alone. A fourth person had joined the group, a tall, pale haired man in a long cloak the colour of raw flesh. He coughed as he approached, the sort of noise that indicated he wanted attention, and wanted it now.
"Rosa," he said. "I need you now."
"What," Rosa said, a wedge of bread in her hand, "now? Isn't there a better time?"
"Now," said the man. "I wouldn't ask, but I need you immediately. I'm sure you understand."
"Bugger," muttered Rosa. She turned back to Jen. "I'm sorry. I have to go. I'll find you by midnight, don't you worry!" She stood up, still holding the last of the break.
"What-" Jen began.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "But... thankyou for coming with me." And with that, she was gone, along with the stranger.
Jen stared into the darkness. "What.." he said again.
"Iktin," Dhaymin said, all traces of his former cheer gone. "That was Iktin. You didn't tell me your lady was a beast-hunter..."
"Beast-hunter?" Jen stared on, and suddenly the bird he'd eaten settled heavy on his stomach. By the sound of Dhaymin's voice, he'd come to the same conclusion.
"Shit," they chorused.
The only thing Dhaymin knew to do, after Jen left, was to find Ardea. What Ardea could do - or what Dhaymin could make him do, without arousing suspicion, he didn't know. But when Jen ran off again, there was little else he could do.
Nobody around him seemed to know what had just happened. People stepped in his way, buffeted against him in their hurry to be wherever they had to be - a wherever that couldn't be as important as this. He knew where he might find Ardea as he prepared for midnight, but amidst crowds and noise, he felt himself pushed and pulled off track, lost in a torrent of people, all without a care.
Hundreds of people with eyes, and not one of the buggers looked where they were going. He swore as he pushed his way through, realising he had no idea where he was anymore. Maybe if he could find his way to the feast tables... then he could start all over again. He tapped his cane on the ground in frustration, and listened.
Jen hadn't left entirely on a whim. The boy had a habit of running away to do stupid things, but this time he'd made his decision long ago. "If it comes back again," he'd said. "they'll try to kill it again. Remember what happened to Koiski."
Dhaymin did remember, and the truth had sunk in, one disturbing word at a time, as Jen kept speaking.
"I'll have to save its life."
He wanted to argue. Of course he wanted to. He wanted to grab Jen by the shirt front and scream in his face that he was not to do so, for any reason. Because it was stupid, because it was dangerous, because it was going to make Jen worse and, if all else failed, because Dhaymin was his older brother and because he said so. But he never did, because no matter how much he disliked it, Jen was right.
"Just a little," Jen said. "We'll make it. You and me. Sinak Island. It's like you used to say, this time next year, isn't it?"
"Can't believe you're telling me all this," Dhaymin had replied, and that was the end of it.
It would be nice, he thought, if just once there was a solution that didn't involve one of them acting like a complete idiot.
And then, a familiar voice. He couldn't make out the words, but that was definitely Ardea - few other people he knew had that accent. He pushed forward, in the right direction, remembering at last where he was - somewhere in the central city, a raised platform where Ardea could lead his people into greeting the new year.
There were others talking too - he recognised Iktin and Lakedi, and maybe a few others, though distinguishing anyone in the chatter around him wasn't easy. Why does the world have to be so fucking noisy? he thought, as he moved ahead, climbing the last few steps to Ardea's platform, which, thankfully, was clear. Nobody seemed to want to bother him, though nobody tried to stop Dhaymin, just as he'd anticipated. He steeled himself for the moment, remembered what he wanted to say. "Sorry to push into this," he said, "but I've got something to ask."
"Can't this wait?" That was Iktin.
"No," said Ardea. "If he wants to talk, I'd rather let him. Would you like a seat?"
"Thankyou," Dhaymin said, "but I'll do without." He stood, and steadied himself, ready for his next words. "I hear you've got a karvite problem." Silence followed, and he slipped in his next line. "I know about those."
"You're a cook," Iktin said. "You don't."
"You think I got these scars in a kitchen accident?"
"Ohhhh," Iktin said. His voice grew louder, as he moved a little closer. Dhaymin pictured him standing before him, staring at his face. Below, the crowds chattered and wandered, heedless of what played out above them. Dhaymin felt a cold breeze tug at his clothes, and was suddenly aware of the empty air at all sides. Yes, a little closer, he thought, remembering Lakedi's training. Come where I can see you. "So," Iktin went on, "are you volunteering to go out and catch it for me?"
"Now," Ardea said, "I don't think that's what he'd saying at all."
"Oh, it is," Iktin said, and Dhaymin felt a hand clap onto his shoulder, making him jump at the touch. "Isn't it? Man like you volunteers, we'd all be mad to not accept, yes? Let him talk, Ardea."
"I've met karvites before," That was a female voice - Rosa? "They could do that to someone."
Dhaymin froze, voiceless and motionless at the support. This wasn't meant to happen! He'd come here expecting to argue his place, especially against Iktin, and now the same person he should be fighting was supporting him?
"Understand, Ardea?" Iktin clapped Dhaymin on the shoulder again, as though they were the best of friends. "He has experience."
"Yes, Iktin," said Ardea. I think I do."
"Lovely. Now if we can get a move on with-"
"Which is why you will not be going with him."
"What?" snapped Iktin, pulling his hand away. Dhaymin heard a stomp of feet as he turned on Ardea, but forced himself to remain where he was. Shit, he thought. He'd run headlong into a rivalry, without any clue, and the two of them were using him as their own personal bargaining chip. And he could already piece together half the reason. Iktin, as a beast hunter, would naturally suspect anyone who took too much interest in the supposed threat. In a flash, he realised that the suspect was Dhaymin himself.
Could work with this, he thought, in a burst of hope. Better me than Jen. He stayed quiet, listening as the scene unfolded.
"You said it yourself," said Ardea. "He has experience, you do not." Iktin tapped a foot in frustration, but Ardea kept going. "I'll be sending him out alongside Lakedi and Rosa, and I'm sure he won't disappoint me."
"No," Dhaymin said, kneeling to make the gesture of offering. "You have my word."
Ardea was enjoying a mug of pine tea when the interruption occurred.
Pine tea was not his favourite, when he was honest with himself - it was a little too thin, the taste more subtle than he preferred. But it was never out of season, and always plentiful, and thus he had no reason to feel guilt at using valuable supplies only to warm his hands. He smiled as the heat worked its way through fingers stiffened with cold, and tapped one against the side as he recalled the sun chant in his head. He lapsed on the chants more than he would care to admit, but it was expected of him to lead, and so he did each year.
He stopped as he heard the footsteps approach, leading out of the sea of voices below. "I'm back," he heard Iktin say. "Now we can talk. What was the meaning of leaving me out of this?"
Ardea kept his grip on the tea, inhaling the pleasant-smelling steam. "It is midwinter," he said. "You seemed as if you needed a break."
"Don't play with me!" snapped Iktin. "Tell me or-"
"By all means, strike me down," said Ardea. "You'll have a wonderful audience. It sounds busy down there, is it? I'm sure they'd like to see your glorious victory against an old blind man who can barely stand."
Iktin grumbled in reply, an angry, wordless sound. "Fine. Let's talk."
"Good. Would you like to sit down?"
Iktin took up his offer, and Ardea heard him ease into the seat beside him. They sat together on the platform, as cold breezes, funnelled by the pyramids, sliced through them. Ardea shivered a little and tightened his grip, taking a long drink of his tea before continuing. "I know you have your suspicions."
"He walks in here, claiming to know all about karvites? What more do you want?"
"Proof," Ardea said. "Absolute proof. "Why else do you think I sent him out? If there is a problem, then you were right."
"Then I should be there."
"Lakedi can handle any difficulty. But I hope she won't have to. You know I wouldn't wish to throw a harmless man into the snow. Nevertheless, I had her train him. She knows how he fights." And after that, he thought, I told him what happened to me. He didn't doubt the young Rhusavi's words... or did he simply not wish to doubt them?
"You're soft, Ardea," Iktin said, though his voice was calm, all his anger gone. "getting attached just because he's like you."
"And by the end of midwinter, we'll know which one of us was right."
"Yes," Ardea said, and finished off his tea. He kept hold of the mug, for its last traces of warmth. "And midwinter is not getting any further away. Come with me, if you want to be useful. We have to prepare for the chants."
The most important thing his mother had taught him, Jen thought, was to always appear as if you had any right to be wherever you were. A furtive man drew questions. If anyone asked, Jen was simply heading home with one of Dhaymin's excellent roasts, to share with his family. And if it hadn't been for Rosa's interruption, he'd have never known tonight.
If he hadn't said yes, if she hadn't asked, if they'd missed one another in the library...
He'd been lucky once, who knew if he'd be lucky a second time? Best not to think of it. He pushed his fears to the back of his mind, as he always did, becoming shadow-Jen, bothering nobody and going about his own business.
He already knew where he was going, for he'd done a check of the walls in daylight some time ago, for this eventuality. He knew leaving by the gates would draw immediate suspicion, but Kastek's walls were ragged and rough, clearly meant to keep out monsters, not people. He approached the right spot, an overlooked spot of wall far from any crowds, perhaps about twice his own height. There would be guards, if Ardea knew what he was doing, and if they weren't stupid, they'd not stick to a pattern of patrol. As quick as he could, he darted up the stairs, onto the wall top, and crouched to hide his shape against the stars.
Beyond, the forest beckoned. Dark, jagged pines formed a black silhouette against the starfield.
He kept his breath steady, ignored his heart thumping, told himself that only he could hear it. The roast bird was a tiny island of heat in the frosty night air, and the walls were slick with ice, but thankfully it was only a dusting, and the top had been swept clean - less to give away his position.
The bird dropped to the ground below, making a quiet little crunch in the dirt. A moment later, Jen joined it, rubbing the feeling back into his hands after gripping the ice-free handholds in the wall. So far, so good. He'd landed in the lee of the wall, without so much snow to give away his position, and if he kept close, nobody would see. He blew a little on his fingers, trying to get the blood running again, and slid them into his pockets.
Nobody wrote much about the abilities of the tarnished, except to tell others to beware. "They command their beasts," he had read, and so he had seen, in Amtika's hidden town. And if he hadn't been so stupid, so desperate for useless wolf's blood, she might have taught him a trick or two, but that was in the past, and he was done thinking of that.
Minutes passed, stretching into icy eternities. Jen stood still as he head footsteps above him, hardly daring to breathe, until they passed by heedless. His eyes adjusted to the meagre moonlight, and he thought over his escape routes in his mind, working over the daylight memories as a distraction. He stood on a narrow path, just wide enough to accommodate him if he lay with his feet against the wall. That was one escape route, close and out of sight. Behind him, back up the wall and into the city, if he timed it right, and he could slip back into being another city-man, enjoying the midwinter fires. Beyond the path, one of Kastek's many old quarries fell away beneath him, with only the glimmer of moonlight on its lake's frozen surface to give away. The sides were sloped, scalable, but not a route he wanted to risk without good reason.
Ahead, the snow crunched under heavy feet.
I am not afraid, he told himself, and ice crawled through his limbs as he stood firm.
He saw its breath first, a cloud of fog rising in the cold air to match his own. Even through his night-adjusted eyes, he saw only a dark shape, its outline ever so slightly formed by moon and starlight, its eyes occasionally gleaming in the dark. He saw ears, pricked and alert against the stars, smelled its thick, musty coat. It sniffed, and stepped closer, curious.
I am not afraid, he repeated to himself. You cannot hurt me.
It moved closer, its great head now blotting out the sky, and Jen nudged the roast bird ahead of him with a foot. Hungry? he thought, and he realised he was speaking to it as much as himself, for he did not dare speak out loud. You don't need to hunt here. They'll kill you if you do.
The scent of food must have distracted the creature. It lowered its head, and sniffed at the roast, standing so close that its ears nearly brushed Jen's shirt as it moved. The bird disappeared with a crack of bones, gone in barely a couple of bites, and without warning it looked up. Jen heard the wet sound of lips being licked, and realised it was watching him.
You have to go now, he thought, hoping it would listen a second time. He'd been begging it to leave him alone then, with no idea it would ever know, no idea their blood had mixed. Go. Please, go. They'll kill you. They'll kill both of us.
It stepped forward, and Jen felt a cold, wet nose press into his chest as it sniffed. He raised a hand, laid it on the creature's cheek, feeling thick fur and powerful jaw muscles under his fingertips. He remembered the sound of bones splintering... no, that was only a partridge. Barely a bite to a creature like this...
Rakaros... he'd never imagined it to be this huge. Not even when it loomed over him on that spring night...
The creature lunged without warning, snarling and flattening its ears against the sky. Jen felt snow underfoot, heard it crunch as he was flung backwards. He steadied himself, willed panic to the back of his mind as he'd been taught. Go. I am not afraid. Go. He forced himself to stay still, despite legs shaking so hard he felt he would collapse in an instance if not for his own will.
It lunged again, and he dodged backwards, taking the creature by surprise. For an instant he noticed how it held one foreleg aloft, as though injured...
...and then his own feet met air, and he found himself tumbling backwards, toward the distant quarry floor, as the beast stumbled and followed behind.
They'd found tracks. Rosa's dog wouldn't stop whining and circling for attention. "Careful," Lakedi said, as Dhaymin stepped closer. "They're close, and fresh."
Dhaymin sank his hands into his pockets and stayed where he was, as Lakedi and Rosa discussed the trail between themselves. He let their words wash over him - whatever had made it had been running, and away from the city. That was good. It had to be good.
Not for the first time, he found himself wondering if either of them knew what Ardea was planning. The wind picked up a little, and he shifted from one foot to another to ward off the biting cold in his toes. No, he was here because he knew what he was dealing with. He could think of Jen later.
"Tell me," he said. "What do they look like?"
"Broad," Rosa said. "Large claws. A little like a bear."
"How many toes?"
"Yes," Dhaymin said. "It's a karvite."
He stepped back, turning away from the scene, for all the good it did. Stupid, stupid Jen! And here he was, useless, working on someone else's words and trying to convince them he had a right to be here. His hands clenched into fists inside his pockets, nails digging into skin. They wondered why he was here, no doubt. Lakedi had to know, at the very least.
"Where do they come from?" he asked. "Did it go near the city?" That was good. Act concerned, as anyone would be.
"From the old pits," Lakedi said.
A memory of splashing water surfaced, and Dhaymin thought of frozen lakes, surfaces ready to crack, icy water dragging anyone stupid enough to stand in the wrong place under the surface. He ignored it. "Then let's find out where it's been," he said.
Their descent was a slow one, taking care to avoid the fresh trail as they picked their way down the slopes. Lakedi let him take her arm, and action for which he thanked her as he tried not to think of Jen. The boy's probably back inside, he thought. Maybe it worked. And then, he tried not to think of what that implied, as he sweated inside his heavy coat.
Nobody came to the quarries often. That much was evident from the ferns and thorns that breached the snow, brushing and catching on his legs. "Any other tracks?" he asked, as they crossed the floor.
"None I can see," admitted Lakedi. But Rosa's dog still had the creature's scent, and Dhaymin could hear her paws crunching through the snow as she ran on ahead, skirting the frozen lake (yet again, Dhaymin pushed it from his thoughts), and at last, to the far side.
"That's odd," Rosa said.
"What is?" Dhaymin said. Of course, they wouldn't tell him about human tracks unless he asked...
"There's a lot of disturbed snow by the far wall," she said.
"Yes," added Lakedi. "Let me take a closer look."
Dhaymin was left alone again, as she let him go. For a few, agonisingly slow moments, all he heard was her feet in the snow, pacing back and forth, pausing to examine the scene before her, all while he stood and waited. "Tell me," he said. I don't give a shit if you're suspicious, he added in his thoughts.This is Jen you're messing about with. But he hid it all, every hint of frustration and desperation, and slid his hands back in his pockets where they could give nothing away. They're already suspicious, he thought. Doesn't matter.
"Something happened at the top of the wall," Lakedi said, after an age. "There's a lot of disturbance."
"Bare rock, broken plants," Rosa added. "What do you think? Looks as if it fell and got back on its feet. Couldn't have taken it too badly, if it got up and ran off, though."
"Must be a tough one," Dhaymin said, in the most conversational voice he could manage.
"You would know," said Lakedi.
"I do," Dhaymin admitted.
"I wish it was daylight," Rosa said, still pacing around the scene. "I can't make out the-oh. No. I'm sorry, I didn't mean... no."
Dhaymin startled at her words, jolted from his thoughts as he realised what she meant. He'd been so lost he'd not even registered what she'd said at first. It was just something people said when they could see, because it was never good enough, and they never thought. It was something he'd said so many times, when he'd strained to find a trail by lamplight while his father watched. "It's fine," he said. Jen said sorry when he slipped, he remembered. Vesin used to. Beast-hunters, as a rule, did not. "But thank you."
"I'm still sorry," she said. (Apologises just like Jen too! Dhaymin thought.) "Do you have any ideas?" And he realised she was addressing him, and nobody else.
"What's at the top?"
"The city wall," Lakedi said.
"Let's go, then."
The top of the beast's trail turned out to be another long walk, backtracking out of the quarry and skirting the gates. In the distance, Dhaymin could hear music and voices, people celebrating without an idea of what was going on. Yet again he took Lakedi's arm as they skirted the strip of land between wall and quarry. "Careful," she told him. "It's narrow." He held tight, and was grateful for her thick sleeves, for they disguised just how tight, and he walked on the inside, pressed against the wall while she traced the edge. He willed himself to move as fast as he dared, and yet it was another age before they found the karvite's trail again, Rosa's dog barking in the distance.
"Go take a look," Lakedi commanded her. "We'll catch up."
Moments slipped by as Rosa ran after her dog, and Lakedi and Dhaymin continued their slow pace around the wall. The wind blew harder here, and Dhaymin forced himself to go on, until she spoke again.
"There's boot prints over here," she said.
Jen, Dhaymin thought. No, Jen... Ice rose through his body, his breath caught in his chest. "Someone with it?" he said. "Why'd anyone do that?"
"A guard?" offered Rosa.
"I need to see this," Lakedi said, and Dhaymin nodded his approval, letting her go on and study the scene. "No," she said, after some deliberation. "I'll know a guard's boot when I see it."
Dhaymin never moved, staying pressed against the wall. His hand brushed against the stones. They were rough, easy to climb for someone who knew what they were doing. "I don't understand," he said.
He imagined the scene around him. The wall to his right, the quarry gaping to his left, and beyond, the forest. His hand gripped a crevice in the wall, and he shifted his weight from one foot to another, all the movement he dared up here.
"There's nothing going from or to this spot," Rosa said. "Whoever this was, they came down from the wall. From the city."
Nobody spoke. Nobody needed to state the obvious. Dhaymin thought of the wall again, as he listened to a hundred voices, muffled by distance, safe inside the city. Jen could be safe now, amongst them, but now anyone wintering was a suspect. "We should get inside," he said. "You need to find them." And he needed to find him first.
"No," Lakedi said. "Rosa, look at that." And then, to Dhaymin. "They fell too. There's a trail here, where someone slipped."
"But you said there were no tracks at the bottom! Weren't there?"
"None we found," Lakedi said.
Wind tugged at Dhaymin's coat. He held tight to the wall, and tried not to think of anything.
Jen fell backwards.
Briefly aware of the beast following, he snatched at the air for a handhold, anything to slow his fall, but before he could manage it, the creature slammed into his side. Snow sprayed into his eyes as the pair slid and stumbled together the sheer quarry side. Ice coated ferns whipped his face, rocks bruised his body and knocked the breath from his lungs. Claws flailed in front of his eyes, and he grabbed again, at the only thing within reach.
The beast caught its footing and broke into a run, propelled by its own momentum down the slope. Jen's face was buried in hair, two clumps of mane in his hands as he hung on.
No sooner had he caught his breath than, with a thump, his face slammed into the creature's shoulders. He had only enough time to register that they had landed before it ran on, thrashing and twisting in an attempt to throw him off. He clung on, legs clamped around its sides. Jaws snapped, claws raked, but it could not reach. Below, he heard a crunch of ice as it broke through the frozen shallows. Far above, Kastek's fires burned. Teeth clenched, he hung on.
And the beast ran.
Jen caught a glimpse of quarry wall before it tore up the slope. Spitting out hair and blood, he saw the road ahead. Not the gates! he thought. They'd be seen for sure, any passing guard wouldn't hesitate a shot, nevermind the presence of an unusual rider.
Muscled bunched underneath him, and the creature turned, away from the city and into the wild road, and the forest depths beyond. The world was nothing but shades of darkness, black jagged trees and needles against a sky strewn with stars. Jen's breath came in ragged clouds as he held on, face pressed down with the stink of hair in his nose, while branches snagged at his clothes and grazed his back. He thought of nothing, not where he was going, nor what he might do when he got there, only that he must hold on and run, as far from Kastek as he could.
The trees thinned, and he risked a look up.
The creature ran on, through a thinner grove of spiny, stunted pines, enough to give him some breathing room, and from here, he saw the world.
Above, stars in warm yellow and cold blue, and a bright, frost-coloured moon. Beyond, a snow-blanketed forest, outlines by gleams of moonlight upon ice. Here and there a frozen lake lay as a flat expanse, Kastek's numerous quarries as pits where the ground fell into blackness. The northern road wound down the hills, twisting through thick groves and steep slopes. If he looked hard enough, he was sure he could see little points of firelight in the distance. Other towns and villages, perhaps ones he'd visited. In a second, he imagined he could see his entire journey, from here to what was once home, everywhere he'd been, and all he'd seen.
But it was fleeting, and before he could take it all in, his beast charged into the undergrowth, and he ducked from low branches. His hands held tighter to the mane, and he smiled, unbidden.
Jen shifted, rubbing his arm and feeling the blood flow back. The creature by his side twitched an ear, but did not move. He licked his bottom lip, tasting blood where it had split open. Pain returned to his body as the rush of the last hour wore away. Every last ache, every cut and bruise, felt distinct, like points in a net of pain that someone had draped over him. Yet he smiled, sitting back against a cold stone wall and listening to the wind outside. It all felt so distant. He was hidden away in a tiny overhang, sheltered by snow drifts and the beast that lay beside him, warm and secure in the dark.
He rubbed his fingers together, dislodging a few traces of dried blood. This time, it was not his own. He'd dug into the creature's shoulder as its run slowed to a walk, finding shards lodged in the flesh close to the surface. It reached up, snapped at him, but he hung on, and once more it grew quiet, responsive to unspoken commands. At last, its walk slowed to a standstill, and he found himself here. Stumbling in the dark, feeling his way by moonlight, he made his way inside and sat, waiting for morning.
It was strange, he thought, how clear the mind could be when the worst had passed. It would be better to sit here and stay out of the wind and cold until he could follow his way home in the light. Dhaymin would laugh at me, he thought, and he found himself smiling again. Beside him, the beast slept, letting out deep, hot breaths. He could feel its body rise and fall as he sat beside it, and he drew his coat collar over his ears to keep away the last of the cold.
Rosa stepped through the trail, following the disturbed snow. Still there was no trace of a human trail, only great gashes where paws had ploughed through the surface. She kept a slow pace to let Lakedi and their guide follow, but kept looking up, straining to see beyond the circle of firelight her torch granted her to the forests beyond.
Wind tugged at the flame, sparks and smoke rising and trailing behind. She held it in both hands to keep them warm against the night air, while Cinn walked alongside her, following the beast's scent.
Rosa didn't need to ask what she would find at the end of the trail. The Rhusavi insisted on going into the forest, and there was only one conclusion she could draw from that. It was not a pleasant one, yet she felt her fingers twitch as she held on, looking back and willing him and Lakedi onwards.
At the end of that trail, she knew, lay just what she'd been looking for.
Ardea took the ascent step by step, as he did each year, and did not think of how many more to the summit. His people lined the stair's sides, cheering and shouting greetings as he passed, and he smiled and let them go about their business. If any of them wondered why Iktin guided him and not Lakedi, they said nothing about it. Neither of them spoke a word to the other during their ascent. They had said what they needed, and now they had entered a quiet state of waiting. One of them would be proven right, soon enough. Until then, they had other duties.
He concentrated on the world around him, placing one foot before the other, keeping the midnight torch steady in his free hand. He felt that the stairs grew taller with each year, the night winds colder. Even the torch felt heavier. Yet he persisted, until, at last, he stood at Kastek's summit, where there were no sounds but the wind, no people to call his name.
The summit had never been finished. Where the last few stones should have been, there lay only a flat stone platform, upon which someone might come to feel the wind in their hair and be somewhere quiet for a moment or two. He wished only that he could sit, feeling as though his legs might split open at any time, but he leaned on Iktin's shoulder and willed the pain away. Only a few more minutes to go, and he recited the midwinter chant in his head to block it all out.
Iktin's words cut through his memories. The Rhusavi's words were quiet, not enough for the people who gathered around the summit to hear. "Yes?" Ardea replied.
"When this is over," Iktin went on, "you will do what must be done? No matter what the outcome?"
Without another word to Iktin, he held the torch before him and spoke. The people followed on, the words of the midwinter chant - not quite a song, and not quite a speech, but something of both - spilled out over Kastek's terraces in a wave of sound, fading into the distance, and a new year fell upon the world.
Jen stirred, opening his eyes and realising he'd fallen asleep. It had not been a deep sleep, but the exhausted drifting away of a man unable to get any more, so light he'd have thought he'd never slept at all. How long, he wondered? It was still dark, with only the tiniest hints of moonlight to lend outlines to the shadows, but this deep into winter, that meant little.
And this night, all was not peaceful. Jen didn't know why, but that was nothing new to him. He'd grown up learning the language of the forest, how to pay attention to every little movement and sound, every footstep and snapping twig. But this was something he could not put a word to. Something waited outside the safe confines of his den, something dangerous. Something that caused his creature to look up, ears pricked against the stars outside.
He moved slowly, so as not to startle it. As he made for the exit, it grunted as if in protest. Its hot breath sent up a cloud of vapour, but it remained where it was.
Outside, now piled up knee deep, its surface frozen into a thin crust of ice that he broke with every step. No sounds penetrated the deep forest, no bird song, no voices, not even a distant taxrak's call. All lay as silent and still as midwinter could ever be. Only the moon lent a slight gleam to the ice, otherwise all was darkness, the trees little more than jagged shapes against a starry sky. Jen listened, and watched. His ears weren't sharp enough, his eyes no use in the dark...
He dropped to the ground as soon as the shot rang out.
Hidden in the snow, he rolled down a slope, risking no glance upward as he came to a stop below. He lay as still as he dared, listening for the crunch of snow that would give his pursuers away. Each breath came slow and careful as he quietened his mind. There were footsteps above, too light to be human. Nothing, he told himself. Do not feel. Do not feel. Only be. Time slipped by, a frozen age as the cold seeped into his body, numbing his fingers, his toes, his face.
And then, lights and heavier footsteps, and Jen found himself looking up at a flame that loomed over him, its holder's form blurred. Jen blinked, his thoughts slow to respond and his eyes slow to adjust to the light. The flame stank of burnt wood, and sparks fell where he laid. Before his face, he saw a hunting dog, its deep red coat thick enough to withstand the cold, watching him.
"I told you I'd find you," said Rosa.
Jen struggled to find his tongue. Rosa looked up, as more footsteps heralded more company. "Rosa!" barked a voice from above. "Stay back!" No sooner had Jen gotten to his feet, his legs reluctant to support his weight, than Lakedi appeared, a bolt pointed in his direction. Jen took it in with calm indifference, as though he were reading a passage in a book, and any time he wished, he could close the pages and return to his life again. Rosa stepped back, her dog retreating beside her, never leaving her side. Through the haze, Jen spotted a second person by Lakedi's side. Dhaymin.
He struggled to regain his voice. "I-" he began, but never had a chance to finish. Dhaymin rushed forward with barely any heed to his path, spurred on by his voice, as Lakedi called for him to explain. Jen held out a hand, and Dhaymin found it, taking it in his. He was so warm, so much that he felt like burning after the snow, and he stood before him, clenching his hand so hard he felt it would break in his grip, his form outlined in gold by Rosa's torch.
"Jen?" Dhaymin whispered.
"I'm fine," Jen said. He could feel the sluggishness melt away as Dhaymin turned away, to face the women. She shot you! Jen thought. Rosa shot at you! He'd known - there was the gun, slung over her back - and yet it was as if he'd only just woken up and realised. He tried to read Rosa's face, but she looked away from him, her free hand stroking her dog's mane. Beside her stood Lakedi, steady on her feet through all she had seen, her bolt pointed at the brothers.
Dhaymin stood his ground. "Stay away from my brother." There was no hint of rage in his voice, only a level, firm tone that hinted it lay ahead if nobody listened.
"This is not Kastek," Lakedi said. "You." Now Jen realised she was talking to him. "I suppose a librarian such as yourself has a reason to be in the woods on a midwinter's night?"
Jen gnawed on his lip and a cut reopened, metallic blood tricking onto his mouth. In an instant the pain and exhaustion flooded back. No indifference, no defiance, only exhaustion remained. His feet ached from the mere effort of standing. Yes, he had a weapon, waiting in its hollow, and too dangerous to unleash. And he had Dhaymin, brilliant, raging Dhaymin, who believed all life's problems could be solved by shouting and running, armed with a cane and no more. And they could run, deeper and deeper into the forest, and one day look back and realise they had nowhere to turn, no way to leave, and winter was closing in around them...
He placed a hand on his brother's shoulder, and gently pushed him aside. Lakedi shifted her weight, her aim still trained on him as he stepped forward, hands held out before him. He kneeled in the snow, and made the sign of offering.
"No," he said, "but I'll go there if you ask."
"Jen..." Dhaymin said, a strangled, choking sound.
"I think you are severely overestimating my husband's compassion," said Lakedi.
"The rules are Lord Ardea's."
Rosa spoke up. "If I might talk," she said, "I think he was luring the creature away from Kastek, not attacking. Maybe we should listen."
"Very well," Lakedi said. "Watch the pair of them. You know what to do."
Rosa obeyed without another word, never once looking Jen in the eye. She and her dog moved behind them, while Lakedi led the way, back up the hill. Jen's feet ached with every step, and the going was slippery, as he trudged through the snow and undergrowth. He strained to see ahead, but there was no sign of the city lights, not even the road leading to its gates. Dhaymin walked beside him in silence, but Jen didn't need to ask what he was thinking.
I'm sorry, he thought, and wished Dhaymin could hear. He'd make him understand, when dawn came.