Arc Eight: A Knock on the Door
The man cowered before her, his eyes fixed on the bolt she aimed at him. She had him backed into a corner, and he'd either break down or turn on her in an instant if she let this drag out too long.
"You were a danger to everyone here," she said, "and yourself. You should have ended it a long time ago."
"She-" But he never finished. His breath came in great gasps, and any more speech became nothing more than incoherent half-words. His hands scrabbled at the walls as if looking for an exit that wasn't there. Majiv's finger twitched, ever so slightly, on the trigger. She wondered if he'd seen it. Daylight faded fast outside, turning everything dull and grey.
"She wasn't your wife," she said. She could still hear the noise in her head, above the racking sobs at her feet. She'd stood outside, listened to the thumps and screams, and she didn't need to wonder what she'd find when she'd forced open that locked door. "She stopped being your wife when-"
"You fucking bitch!"
Ah. There it was.
She sidestepped as he lunged at her, aiming a clumsy blow at her chin. He tried to make a run for it while she stood aside, but she kicked out at his legs, causing him to collapse, sprawled out, on the floor. He looked up, his face plastered with tears and strands of old wool from the ancient, rotting rug at their feet. Dust settled around them, stirred by their brief confrontation. "You people! You're supposed to help! You... you... why did you do that to her? Who the fuck are you?" And, yet again, his voice gave way to choked gasps, muffled as he lay at her feet, all the fight gone from him. He'd never had much to start with. He was young, barely older than Dhaymin at the most, and scrawny, and his hair was a greasy, knotted mess, untouched for months, that spilled over the floor.
"Look up," she said. Who am I? She could say so much to that. She could spill everything out with her audience at her feet, and then walk away knowing nobody could tell. Someone might know her name, her family.
But she wasn't Sarn, and she told nothing. The young man did as he was told, strands of hair obscuring his face.
"I'm just someone who doesn't want to pay for your mistakes," she said, and took aim.
The snow was falling again. It was only a light dusting, but the iron-coloured sky hinted of more to come. She retraced her steps, back to where her sled waited. The dogs were growing restless, as if they too wanted to be back before nightfall. This might have been a little wayside settlement long ago, too small to be called a village, only a cluster of houses that offered a better rest to a traveller than a waystation. Now, just like any other place without suitable defences, they stood alone, their windows shattered, their walls smashed. Alone, unless someone had a use for them.
He'd kept her in there months, by the looks of things, and acted as though nothing had happened. It was not the first time Majiv had seen this happen. Some of them came to her and asked for help, and she gave what she could. Some ran, and she hunted them down. But the worst of them all were the ones who denied everything, and screamed when she did what should have been done long ago.
She was grateful for the cold air. It blew away the smells, made everything clean and fresh again.
"Everything done in there?" Her escort smiled as she waited by the sled, and she made the effort to smile back at him. The dogs barked at her approach, ready for the off.
"It's over," she said. "You're safe."
"Don't know what we'd do without you."
Majiv pulled her coat's hoot up. "It'll be night soon," she said. Indeed, the sky grew darker by the minute. To the west, a splash of deep red clouds marked the sun's passing. It looked so strange, she thought, like the only colour in a grey world. "Let's go now. We don't want to be here a minute longer."
"Your tea is ready."
Majiv didn't look up. She heard the sound of a cup being placed on a wooden floor, and the hatch closed again. Barjin left her alone once more, amidst the rafters.
She liked that, in her own indifferent way. She'd found all she wanted here - a wayside town, too small for a lord to take residence and wonder who she was, but large enough for talk to circulate and clues to reach her ears. And Barjin was just the right sort of host. He had no family, or rather, he had none any more. Perhaps that was why he'd allowed her to stay. They'd looked at one another as equals, and asked no questions either way. He gave her his attic and claimed he had no use of it any more, and she, in return, did not ask him why.
She picked up her tea, and sat by the window. Outside, the snowstorm continued. A few flakes caught the golden lamp light, or piled up outside the window frame. Nobody wanted to be outside in weather like this. They'd all be hidden away by their firesides, safe and warm. At least it gave her a chance for some privacy. People did give strange looks to a woman on the road, who called herself a beast-hunter. "There's no sense in trying to appear normal," Bala had once told her, when she was young. "They'll know something's unusual, and they'll talk." She guessed that they whispered rumours amongst themselves; she knew that they asked questions. But Barjin would step in, when he saw that happening. "She doesn't have to answer to you," he'd say. "Go bother someone else."
Other people's rumours, on the other hand, were more welcome. Sometimes, if she listened hard enough, she could get an idea of where she should go next. Where she would go next, if she wasn't hemmed in by walls and snow.
The evening meal was ready just as she was finishing her tea. It was little more than hard bread and dried meat, but all the best food was waiting for midwinter, when the town would erupt in fire and feasts. The sight of the preparations put Majiv into a mindset she hadn't felt for a long time, one that she had no idea what to do with, except...
"I have made my plans," she said, "if the weather clears. Would you be able to escort me to the south waystation, the day after tomorrow?"
"That's a long way to go, on midwinter," Barjin said.
"Can it be done during daylight?"
He looked lost in thought for a moment. "I can take you there," he said. "but not take you back until the morning. And you'll forgive me, but I'll not take my sled out on any road after dark."
"That will do," Majiv said.
She and Barjin called what they travelled under daylight, but in truth it was only half-light. The sun slunk along the horizon, casting a dull glare across the great south road. Snow sprayed from sled tracks and dog's paws as Barjin's team sped southwards, toward the waystation that marked the only point of human activity for the next two day's travel at least.
They travelled in silence. Certainly, Majiv knew, Barjin would be full of questions, but as always, he kept them to himself. That, she did not mind. There'd been rumours surrounding this particular waystation, rumours that nobody who called themselves a beast-hunter wanted to ignore. Why she was going, then, was not the question she suspected burned in his mind, but why now, of all days? Why the shortest day of the year, when everyone would crowd around their fires, welcome the sun back to the world, and eat until they could take no more? That too, he probably knew the answer to, just as she could understand why he himself did not speak much of the day and its celebrations. So it all came down to one last question, one that curiosity compelled them both to ask one another, white politeness compelled them not to.
Who did you lose?
She mulled over those unspoken words as they raced south. The road wound through mountain foothills and thick, snow blanketed pine woods, silent even this close to noon. At last the trail grew flat and cut through the forest in a straight line, and the chilling wind died down as the trees shielded them from the worst. The sun lay directly ahead, and Majiv had to shield her eyes from its golden glare, while Barjin tightened and lowered his hood.
Finally, as the sun swung to its highest point, hovering just over the horizon, they reached the waystation. It was no luxury, just a wooden shack by the roadside, part obscured by trees. If she hadn't known what she was looking for, she might have gone past without a thought. But Barjin knew, and he pulled up by the side to let her off.
Nobody had been this way in a while, at least not since the last snowfall. Majiv's boots crunched through the fresh snow as she tested her legs, which had turned a little stiff from balancing on the sled while cold winds lashed around her. The snow piled into drifts around the waystation's door, and it would take some digging to get inside, but it was nothing she could not handle. "This will do," she said.
"You sure you're happy to wait all night?" Barjin said. It was the first time he'd ever asked.
I will wait for every night, if I must, Majiv thought. "You've seen me at work," she said. "You know I can handle this."
"You know what happens to travellers on midwinter," Barin said. But he nodded. "Best of luck to you, then."
"I'll return at noon tomorrow," he said, and, as Majiv stepped up to the snow blocked entrance, he was gone again, northward to his home.
Majiv waited, and killed her time with small things. Though the door to the little waystation was jammed with snow, leaving her with some digging to do to get inside, it was clear that someone had been this way not so long ago. When she finally made it inside, she was greeted with a swept out hearth, and when she checked the walls, she found moss pressed into the cracks to seal out the cold. After another check outside, in the last of the daylight, she discovered snare remains under the snow.
She knew that it meant so little as to be nothing. Even if few people were willing to travel in the grip of winter, some might choose to do so. If they did, they would surely stop here. Anyone might have sealed those cracks, lit that fire, or set those traps. She could not afford to hope.
Instead, she settled into a familiar rhythm. She got a fire going and let its warmth spread through the little shack. She boiled snowmelt for water and tea, and ate a little of her supplies. She stood outside for a while, to watch the sun slide behind the mountains and herald the long night, before retiring back inside to wait it out. Time slipped by. Majiv sat by the fire, and watched it burn before her eyes. The shack grew warmer, and she pulled away the blankets, sitting cross legged on bare wood.
She had no means of counting the hours. Her world shrank to the hearth before her and the darkness at her back. At last, she delved deep into her pack and removed a candle stub. It had burned to little more than a thumb's width of shapeless wax, but there was still enough for tonight. She lit it from the fireplace, and set it down before her, watching the tiny flame dance above a pool of melted wax.
She was silent throughout it all. She knew the words to the midwinter chant - there could hardly be a person alive who was not familiar with them. She recited them in her mind, but could not bring herself to speak out loud. In the little villages dotted around the forest and the cities that clung to the south road, people would by now be gathered around candles and bonfires, calling out to the sky. She was only a quiet voice in that crowd, but this far from home, hidden out of everyone's sight, even a small gesture was enough. It was a tiny formality, something to remind herself she was still here. She was, after all, only doing what was important.
So she kept watch, until the wick burned away and collapsed into the wax pool, and she was left with the hearth once again. Heat washed over her, like a heavy fur blanket. The hours continued to pass by.
From the door behind her, there was a knock.
Majiv didn't turn away from the fire. "You know the rules, don't you?" she said. "No weapons in a waystation." There was no reply, so she held her hands out, though they were already dry from the fire, and got to her feet. Still never taking her eyes from the hearth, she went on. "But if you're who I think you are, I don't think they'll make a difference either way. Come on in. Just know what's waiting for you."
She heard the door open at her words, felt icy air billowing into the tiny shack. The fire wavered in its wake, but did not go out. She could feel the breeze against her body, running through her hair and stroking the bare skin at her hands and neck, making the hairs stand on end. When she turned around, there was a woman in the doorway. She leaned against the frame, arms folded, and smiled. She looked young, and so lightly built that, in any other place, Majiv would have feared she'd freeze.
She didn't know if this was what she'd expected. She could try her memories, but they were old, and had betrayed her from the start. They always lurked at the back of her mind, and fled every time she made a move toward them, like dreams slipping from her waking thoughts.
"Hello, Majiv," said the stranger. The breeze ruffled her hair, and she smoothed it down. It was close cropped, perfectly straight and perfectly black.
"If you take one step in here," Majiv said, "the fire will see to you." She could only hope it was the truth, and, if not, that she could bluff well enough. "It's not time for that. Not yet."
The stranger laughed, the sound echoing amongst the snow-covered trees. "I came for your sake."
"There's nothing you can do for me."
"Your sons were here."
Majiv said nothing.
"Ah! That got you, didn't it?" The stranger jumped up from her slouch, leaning with one hand on the door frame and sending a trail of frost cascading to the ground. "I'm just here for your sake. Not for my brothers or sisters. Take me for what I am. Just a wanderer, looking out for another." She held her hands out, palms up. "You can shut the door on me, if you want, and I'll not bother you again."
Majiv could already feel the heat fading, dissolving into the frozen forest. The stranger waited. She had such green eyes, Majiv noticed, green as summer. Strange, the things you noticed on the edge...
She'd been running all her life, even if few people knew, or could see it. Sarn had been one, and Bala knew more than anyone, before she'd walked away. And to her sons, she'd given her story, as a warning. "You may fight everything under the moon with teeth or claws, as long as you avoid their blood," she'd said. "But stay away from the cold. Don't fight it, don't track it, don't make any promises to it." And if you're lucky, she'd always thought but never spoken out loud, they'll never bother you for my sake.
If Dhaymin could know what she was doing now, the air would be so thick with obscenities that she could cut it. But she'd given that advice a long time ago... and she'd never meant it for herself. I'll have one favour of you before the time comes, she thought. "Then take me to my sons," she said. "And no more."
"You know," the stranger said, "I never lie." She held a hand out, and Majiv took it in hers. Her fingers were so slim, her skin so cold to the touch...
Majiv exhaled, and her breath came in a cloud of fog. She let the stranger lead her out of the door and into the snow, where she felt the icy touch at her feet even through her boots, running through her legs and up her veins. Outside, all was silent. It was a clear night, and the moon was out, casting a faint, silvery light over the snow-blanketed land. In the road, waiting with no tether or tackle, stood the biggest, blackest horse that Majiv had ever seen. It looked up at her approach, and its eyes gleamed for a second in the moonlight.
"I suppose if it's you that takes me," Majiv said, "I might have the honour of at least knowing your name."
"That's a good question." The stranger let go of Majiv's hand, and pulled herself onto the horse's back in one quick movement. "I've had plenty. So many I've lost count." She bent down, offering her hand again. "If you like, you can call me Numbers."