Prelude: Jen's Choice
Jen uncurled himself, the heat of battle fading away. The immediate danger gone, he felt the aches seep back into his body, and he gasped for breath as the realisation sunk in. Father was gone, and so was Dhaymin. Just himself, out there on the ridge, alone. He rubbed his arm, just above the elbow, where a set of claws had torn his sleeve open, the cloth dangling uselessly. Underneath, rapidly drying, sticky blood clung to the skin. Jen wasn't sure whose it was. Mustn't be monster blood, he told himself. Can't let it mix. But it was cold, and rapidly growing dark, and the world had ebbed away into nothing but torn flesh and the ever-lingering scent of pine needles. And it would be so easy to sit here, but Father would be waiting.
He nearly called out to them as he got back to his feet, grabbing a rough tree branch for support, but no - that wouldn't work if he didn't want the thing to come back. There was still light, fading and giving away to stars, but enough to see by, if he tried hard enough. So he scrambled down the dirt slope on unsteady legs, looking out for signs. Even now, it was all too apparent. The ground lay scuffed, plants broken. The thing had turned from his father and brother onto him, and driven him up the slope. And then it had tried to crush him in its claws, and he'd curled up waiting for it to strike one more time...
...and then it had gone away.
Its blood had gotten into his. And everyone knew what that meant. But he pushed it away. He mustn't think of that yet, not until he got home. So he slipped away, forgetting it all, and he became a shadow within the trees. It was easy enough, once you knew how to tell yourself what had happened to you didn't matter. You forgot about the stupid blood, because everyone obsessed so much over blood, even if you wouldn't dare tell them that. That was all from the hidden depth voice, and you never listened to that one, because it might sound true, but it wasn't. Everyone else knew that.
And that was how he came to his father, first of all. He might have tripped over him, and for one horrible moment he thought he might be gone, but he was still breathing and, when Jen pressed his fingers to his neck, he could feel the strong heartbeat. Still a shadow, still not letting himself think too much, he stood back up. Dhaymin would have to help him get him back. If he had to pull one person, he would, all the way back home if needs be. He'd collapse later, but he'd deal with that... well, later. He could still walk, still pull one of them, and that was the important thing, wasn't it?
Except Dhaymin lay not far away, still breathing, his heart still beating, but as Jen sat there, trying his hardest to remain a shadow and see things for what they were, he knew what was coming.
Choose, said the cold, shadow-voice at the back of his mind.
Easy, said the hidden depth voice.
Cold spring sunlight glistened on the droplets of water that fell as Jen wrung out another washcloth. He pressed it to his shoulder, noticing that the bloody water that ran from underneath was paler now the wound was almost clean. The pain was still there, both the deep, dull sensation from the gashes and the stinging as he cleaned them out, but he ignored it. He was used to ignoring things.
When he was finished, he made sure everything was back in its proper place and the water properly drained away, so there was no trace of the blood. There should have been some words to say over it, he thought, as he stepped outside his room, but right now he couldn't remember what they might be.
The hallways and passages beyond were empty. Jen walked on in silence, continuing to dismiss the pain from his now heavily wrapped upper arm.
The Dhalsiv holding was an old building, one that had been built and rebuilt and added to over the generations, and it was easy to get lost in passages and stairways that didn't go where you expected them to, and sometimes nowhere at all. For all of Jen's life, this wooden maze had been close to empty as a matter of course. There had only been himself, his brother, and their mother and father. If he didn't think about the events of the day, he could imagine that nothing had changed. Outside, the sun continued to shine, appearing deceptively warm and bright through the windows. Jen walked on, avoiding the creakier of the floorboards that he had learned throughout his life would alert someone to his comings and goings. It was spring, the snow was almost gone, the world was coming back to life, and if he thought of that he could forget all about the state Dhaymin was in, or the eventual fate of their father.
Sarn, the eldest of the Dhalsivs, had always been a commanding presence in Jen's life, watching over him and telling him who and what he was. The thought that he might not be there any more was another that Jen didn't have the guts to process. So he walked on, and ignored the exhaustion, and pretended nothing had changed.
He was a coward, and he knew it.
He paused by a door, one that he'd walked past many times before, and nudged it open. Faint light and the smell of dusty old paper drifted in from the room beyond. When he was younger, Jen was always trying to sneak inside. There was nothing forbidden about the library... nothing in the books, anyway, unless you counted a few novels that had belonged to an aunt, several years dead by the time Jen was born. He'd never had any interest in the contents of those books, anyway.
Even up here in the boreal wilds, there was still a fashion for owning a library of sorts, even if it was no more than a handful of books on whatever topic or story the had managed to make it this far north. People would sometimes talk about trying to imitate the soft lives of the Toxiliviti scholar families of the south, and Sarn would never have been caught doing something so passive as reading. But it was tradition, and no Rhusavi family head would admit to an inability to read even if they never did so. But Sarn would always catch Jen trying to sneak in, and forbade it all the same. This was a room of memories, he said, not to be touched by the living.
At first it had been something of a game for the young Jen to sneak in anyway, when his father was asleep. Dhaymin had even helped out, even though he had no interest in the books himself; there was always an unspoken pact between the brothers that no matter what happened, you didn't tell on the other. So Jen would lose himself in the words. His favourites were the books that explained how the world worked, be they compendiums of creatures or plants, fanciful maps, or one especially rare volume that described the motion of Sena around the sun and showed him why summer was swift and bright whilst winter was long and dark. But eventually he would always be caught, and Sarn would be angry. Worse, he would be angry in that distant way, when he would eventually be quiet, and leave to hunt for days on end. After years of that, there had been no need for locks on the library door.
Now it was just a forgotten old room, full of dust and secondhand light. Jen closed the door, and walked on.
If he forgot all about it, this could be just another spring day.
Majiv Dhalsiv was not afraid.
She didn't have time to be afraid. The forest commanded all of her attention, pinning her to the here and now. But it was easy to retrace Jen's steps. He had been far more concerned with finding his way home as fast as possible than covering his tracks. For once, that was a good thing. The quicker Majiv followed Jen's trail, the quicker she would find Sarn.
But she was not afraid, because she couldn't afford to be. This was her home and domain, and out here, with the smell of pine needles and the crack of distant branches, she could forget what she had seen.
Dhaymin... there was nothing she could do for her eldest son. His life was with Kejik now, the nervous little healer Sarn had taken in barely a year earlier. Majiv already knew that if he survived, he would be barely half of the beast hunter he had been. Even Kejik did not think she could save his eyes. And Jen... Jen had looked fine at first glance, but she'd seen the way he kept looking at his upper arm, and the blood that soaked through his sleeve, too much to be just his. And everyone knew what that meant.
She would think of it later. Right now, everything played out as it would. She would do what was in her capabilities, and, later, let herself feel. But now was the time to keep walking.
Jen's trail led her uphill, away from the river and the more well beaten paths, and into the foothills. Spring was a sudden affair in the forest, and winter was reluctant to release its grip upon the land. Despite the bright sunshine, her breath still made clouds in the air, and small pockets of snow lay in shaded hollows. Eventually summer would win, to begin another fleeting reign, but until then the world was in the midst of an uneasy transition.
The trail remained easy to follow. Majiv headed uphill, cautious but bold. The forest may have its dangers, but Majiv was not the girl in the woods she had once been. That had been a lifetime ago, when she was young and should have known better than to walk into the cold places. There were no cold places here, only a receding winter. That they might return now, to take their price for letting her return all those years ago... no, it was not time for that. Not ever.
She had work to do. The past would have to wait.
And she was close, now. The woods were still and silent, the forest floor lit by shafts of sunlight that broke through the tall conifers, and a scent of blood caught in the air, mingling with the ever present pine needles. She saw scattered, churned ground, and a dark shape amongst the shadows.
She approached, and crouched beside him.
Later, she would let it sink in that this was Sarn. Later, she would be the one to snap open his ribs and free his breath and soul. Later, she would acknowledge that he was gone. But not now.
She was Majiv Dhalsiv, and she would not be afraid.
The world was a blur, fading from dreams to reality with no trace of the line between. Something went wrong. He knew that much, that was why he can hear people talking - his mother, his brother. That was why when he dreams he stood by his father while the monster charged, great claws spread wide.
There was no moment that Dhaymin could look back upon, to say that was the point where all that had happened sunk in. It was the slow understanding of a dulled, drifting mind, slipping from wakefulness to more dreams of claws and teeth. Day and night, dreams and wakefulness, silence and birdsong, they all blended together until they became meaningless. But he did remember touching his hand to his face, and feeling the tightly bound scars, and that was when he knew how different things now were. Kejik was good, but she couldn't save his eyes after all.
At least Jen had been there. His younger brother had been a near permanent fixture by the bed these past few days. Perhaps he needed the company too.
"I won't let her do anything," Jen said, on what was probably an evening. Neither of them needed to ask what he meant. Majiv had been scarce, and Dhaymin had not heard her voice lately. But Jen was there more often than not, and they both knew that their mother would not live with a broken son. And now Jen of all people was standing in her way...
Even Dhaymin couldn't help but smile. After everything that had happened... he'd thought, deep down, that Jen would eventually snap, but he'd never thought it would be like this. But none of them had expected anything close to this. "Then you'd better get some sleep."
"I know you're here all the time! Just because I can't... I know you're here, alright? I don't know what's going to happen, but you can't face it after sitting up three days straight."
"I'm still sleeping."
"Sitting up like that doesn't count. Look..." Dhaymin let out a deep sigh, and immediately winced at the pain that shot through his chest. "I'm glad you're here. Because... fuck it. I'm scared too. Always felt like he'd be around forever, you know?"
"He really wasn't going to be," said Jen. "But I didn't think it was going to end like this."
Dhaymin made an "mmm" noise of acknowledgment, and touched his hand to his face again. It didn't feel any different, but it was bound too heavily for him to tell. Some day it was going to feel real. Until then, there was only this dark, still place that he had yet to emerge from.
He allowed himself a smile anyway. "Didn't see that coming."
"Did you just...?"
"Yes. It was terrible. Now what about you?"
"What about me?"
Dhaymin didn't want to say it. But there was a thing Jen would do, when he would make himself small - as small as someone his size could manage - standing hunched over, arms held tight to his chest, looking down and away, and if you asked him what was wrong, he'd say "Nothing" because he was a terrible liar. And it didn't matter if Dhaymin couldn't see him doing it. He'd been around him long enough to know.
Some day that boy's going to properly snap, he thought, but it's not going to be today. Or tonight. Or whenever the fuck this is.
"Jen, something happened, and if you don't tell me, I'll wait until I can move and then I'll beat you up until you do."
It was not that Dhaymin would ever make good on that threat, and Jen knew it, but a silence descended upon the room all the same. Then a creak, as if Jen had shifted in his chair, and Dhaymin imagined him looking around, checking for eavesdroppers. At last he spoke, his voice quiet. "I think it got me."
Dhaymin wanted to say no, but it woudn't do anyone any good. "You sure?"
"There was all that blood. I got it off you, and... I was stupid after that. I shouldn't have used a blade."
"And nobody knows, I'll bet."
He should feel something, Dhaymin felt. Maybe it was all the things Kejik had made him drink to take the pain away, but nothing seemed strange any more. Father was dead. Dhaymin's eyes were gone. Jen's blood was tarnished. The world had lined up three ridiculous things, and fired them at him before he'd had a chance to react.
"It doesn't feel any different," Jen went on, as if the initial confession had loosened his tongue a little. "Maybe it's not real after all. But maybe you don't feel it, in the beginning."
Dhaymin made another little "mm" of acknowledgment. They'd both seen firsthand those people whose blood had mixed with that of a monster. Sometimes, if it hadn't been very long, they'd plead that nothing had happened. But eventually, the link took over. Both of them had come face to face with people who had ceased to be... well, people. "Going to find a way past it, then."
"I'll work something out."
"If there was a way, we'd know! He'd have known!"
"Maybe someone else does, then. So we find them. We find something."
"I suppose so."
Dhaymin felt Jen's hand brush against his arm, and he reached his own hand up to hold it, their rough fingers tightly gripping one another. "Stay here for now. We're both fucking scared."
Flames rose, embers fell, and the smells of smoke and burning flesh drifted through the air. Jen stood very still, gazing into the fire as it consumed his father, and tried to feel something, anything appropriate.
To his side stood Dhaymin, holding on to Jen's arm and leaning his weight against him. His face was still bound, though much of it had scarred by now. Firelight cast the claw marks trailing down his features in sharp relief, giving his frown an even more grim demeanour. But what Dhaymin must be thinking now, Jen couldn't guess.
Majiv, standing by Dhaymin's other side, was even more unreadable. She stood up straight, hands clasped before her, and her face was impassive as a portrait. She did not lend Dhaymin her strength, choosing to stand a little way from him.
It was Majiv who had performed the rites, Majiv who had snapped open Sarn's chest to let his spirit free so that it could be reborn, Majiv who had said the words as she set light to his remains. It should have meant something to Jen. He should have felt something befitting the occasion, but all he'd been able to think of was how terrible the smell had been. At least now the smoke masked it, and pricked at his eyes enough that he could imagine he was shedding a few respectful tears.
He stared into the flames, watching patterns rise and fall and twist into new shapes, like the distant magical lands he'd imagined in the hearth as a child. Glowing embers rose to the sky, vanishing in the darkness as though off to join the stars.
At last, Majiv spoke. "Dhaymin, this is yours now." She took something from her coat that glinted bronze in the firelight, and took Dhaymin's free hand, pushing it into his fingers. Jen leaned over to see. It was a clasp in the shape of a wolf's head, the one that Sarn had alway worn at his collar.
"This?" said Dhaymin.
"It was his."
"I know what it is," said Dhaymin, and the statement sat over a layer of questions that Jen could guess at. Dhaymin was the eldest brother, and this land, if things had gone differently, should now have been his. But that Majiv should give them to Dhaymin now, and not to her younger son, who could still fight...
Jen kept his face neutral. He had spoken barely a handful of words to Majiv since the failed hunt. It was as if they now tolerated one another in an unspoken truce, both unsure what would happen as they waited to see if Dhaymin would live.
Or perhaps he was thinking too hard, because blinded or not, Dhaymin was too stubborn to die, and she was merely giving him what was his by right all along.
"I can put it on, too," Dhaymin said, as Majiv's hand brushed against his again. He let go of Jen's arm as he removed the plain oval clasp he had been wearing previously. Any moment now, and someone was going to break the truce...
"It should never have been this way," said Majiv.
You're guilty, Jen thought. You're guilty because you let Father die. And you're guilty because you don't feel guilty.
"He wasn't supposed to do this." Majiv looked away from her sons, back into the blaze. "He spent all his life trying to stop it, and now..." She glanced back at Jen, firelight catching her amber irises. "Jen, what happened? You never told me what happened. Why didn't you tell me?"
Jen froze. Dhaymin paused, the wolf head clasp at his throat and nearly fastened. When Sarn had been alive, there were moments when, instead of being angry, he would go very quiet all of a sudden and stare off into the distance, and that was how you knew he was angrier than he could ever say. But when Majiv was so displeased, she would look at you with a gaze like that, a gaze that ended inside your head, as if she could find every guilty thought and pry it loose until you had no choice to admit to all your failings. Sarn might have given you a beating, but Majiv didn't need to. Majiv had something worse than beatings.
"I thought he'd live... I thought Dhaymin was worse off..."
"What else happened?" Majiv strode toward Jen, brushing Dhaymin aside. "Why was there all that blood? You keep looking at your shoulder. Why?"
"It's nothing! Dhaymin had it worse, I couldn't trouble Kejik when she was busy with him!" Jen stepped backward as Majiv's words drilled into his thoughts. Suddenly the world was a very small place, with only the two of them, and even though nothing he could say would break him free, everything inside him screamed to escape, to run, and maybe, just once, she wouldn't find out...
"Then you decided to put us all in danger!" She grabbed Jen's arm, where the flesh had been torn, and though it was healing, the strength of her grip made him wince. "You lied to us! You lied to me!"
"Now hold on!" Dhaymin's voice cut through Jen's isolated world, bringing him back to Sarn's fire and the night sky, and he took a firm grip on his free arm as Dhaymin leaned against him. If it was that he had no more strength to stand alone, he didn't show it.
"You knew?" said Majiv.
There was a brief silence, during which Jen discovered that the lack of eyes did not, in fact, prevent you from performing a hard glare.
"Yes." Jen found his tongue again. "I told him."
"Majiv looked away, her eyes closed. For a moment she looked smaller than usual, broken by loss after loss. "Dhaymin, get out of the way," she whispered.
"First thing he did after it happened was save my life, remember?" said Dhaymin.
And the small, tired, broken Majiv was gone, and her eyes were open, shining with firelight. "Dhaymin, get out of the way."
"Or what?" Dhaymin lunged forward, and Majiv let go of Jen's arm, causing him to stumble backwards, rubbing the spot she'd held on to. "What are you going to do, fight me? Go on, I'm sure everyone would love to hear about how you beat up a cripple." He stepped closer, bent over, his face pained but grinning nonetheless. "Or are you scared the cripple's going to beat you?"
For a moment that seemed to stun Majiv into silence, while Jen looked on, unable to make a sound. You can't do it, he thought. You're bluffing. And yet he had never seen his mother taken aback before.
"Dhaymin," she said at last, "you cannot say things about Jen that you know not to be true."
"You don't know it is true," said Dhaymin.
"What?" It took a second before Jen realised that not only had Majiv said that, so had he.
"You don't know." Dhaymin's voice was suddenly very quiet, as if he had burnt away all his initial fury and reached something deeper, a place that was both calm and still and yet engulfed with rage. "None of us saw it happen. All we've got is his word. And you know if you do anything to him, all you've got to continue his line-" he pointed in the direction of the flames - "is this cripple standing here. You want to throw away a nice, fit, healthy son? If I were you, I'd make sure I checked what I was doing first."
"You ask me to check what we're already sure of."
"And you'll do it, because you don't want to take the risk."
Majiv bowed her head, though she still stood tall. "It will take time."
"You want to be sure?"
"The best. I understand. Yes." She turned away, heading back to the doors leading inside, leaving the brothers alone together with the dwindling fire.
"Is she gone?" Dhaymin said, after a while.
"Yes," said Jen, though he kept his voice quiet anyway.
"Good. C'mere." Dhaymin practically stumbled into Jen, who let him take his arm in what was becoming a familiar gesture. Dhaymin leaned his weight against him, and Jen tried to stand as firm as he could whilst shaking. Dhaymin's words would surely come back to them someday. Nobody spoke to Majiv Dhalsiv like that. And nobody spoke to Majiv Dhalsiv like that and made her concede defeat...
"What did you do?" hissed Jen.
"I think... I think I told her to fuck off."
"She's... you can't talk like that to her!"
"Jen, you might not have noticed, but things aren't exactly how they used to be."
Jen looked back at the fire, feeling its dry, burning heat on his face. Its flamed danced a little lower than before, though it would be close to morning when it finally died. The smell of burning flesh had long since become unremarkable from exposure, and Jen realised that in all the intensity of the night, he had still forgotten to feel anything over the remains of his father. "Why'd you do it?"
"Can't fight her even if I wanted to," said Dhaymin. He was holding tighter, and Jen realised that not all of the trembling he felt was from himself. "Look at me. Wouldn't be a damn thing I could do if she wanted to hurt you. Thought if I could give her something to chase, maybe she'd leave us alone long enough that I could fight back. Besides, I'm right. We don't know it got you."
"Fuck, Dhaymin, when did you become a strategic thinker?"
"I'm not. I'm just trying things out and hoping they work."
Dhaymin was never sure how long he slept anymore, only that it did not feel like enough when Jen woke him to say that Majiv had gone. She returned that evening after a day of uncertainty, with few more words than "I'm doing what you asked."
Since then, she and Dhaymin maintained an uneasy truce, keeping their distance and barely speaking to one another. She began to vanish for days at a time, and it he could forget about everything else, Dhaymin could imagine that he was back in the old days, when she and Sarn would go hunting and leave him to watch other Jen.
Now, all there was left for him to do was put one foot in front of the other.
It was something he held onto in the early days, when the pain was too much. If he could move a little more than the previous day, then he was making progress. A few steps more than yesterday, and a few steps more tomorrow... he couldn't let himself be consumed by fear. Not while he was still needed. And through it all there was Jen, standing by his side. Majiv didn't like it; she'd never say it out loud, but there were those little words that let slip what she really felt. Words like "You know you need to be careful" and "You can't pretend things are the same." Little barbs disguised as advice, the way she knew best.
And he didn't care. Sarn was gone. Majiv might as well be too, for all she was around now. What difference did it make?
"You know what feels strangest, out of all of this?" Jen said, one night.
"Do I have to guess?" said Dhaymin. "Because I think we've got all night, but I'm still not sure you ever sleep." They were seated in front of one of the holding's many hearths, which had once been a grand gathering place for the Dhalsiv family. Or so Dhaymin had heard. In his memories there had only ever been Jen, Majiv, Sarn, and himself. Still, they would sit here together when the world was dark and cold. Dhaymin had first learnt to make fire here, and a few years later had watched Jen do the same. A small one burnt now; even in spring, the forests still clung to the last vestiges of winter.
"It doesn't feel any different," said Jen. "I always thought you'd feel different. You saw those ones he used to bring in."
Dhaymin thought back to some more of his early memories, the ones that didn't involve warm hearths but chains and beasts and ragged men, and Sarn saying that these were the people who took his family. None of them were anything like what he'd call... well, people. "They'd been gone a long time."
"I know. But I still don't feel anything."
"Maybe I was right. Maybe you were lucky."
"Do you think so?"
"Don't want to say." The ones that were too far gone... well, what Sarn used to do to them was going too far. Even Majiv had said as much. But if you made the end quick instead, it was the best you could do. The ones who still had a bit of themselves around them, they were the dangerous ones, gone enough to command their beasts but smart enough to know the damage they could do with them. And, once in a while, Dhaymin had accompanied his father to someone who had called upon them specifically, after blood had gotten into a bite, to end it now before it got too worse.
There were stories of remedies, of course. Dhaymin had learnt the old line "you find them out with seawater, and you staunch the wound with hot stones and the blood of your emblem" all his life. Well, there were no wolves anymore, so their blood was worthless, and hot stones... well, if Jen asked he'd not be able to say no, but it hadn't come up. And neither of them were said to work forever. You just brought more and more time, in smaller and smaller packages.
The only thing Dhaymin could say for certain was that it was a blessing for Jen that Sarn had died when he had.
"She's gone out to get seawater," said Jen. "That's why she's been away so much."
"Then she needs to go to the damn sea," said Dhaymin. But no matter how long Majiv was gone for, there was a common thread to the way she spoke with Dhaymin, always asking about Jen without ever mentioning him by name. She was nervous, too nervous to commit to such a long trip whilst leaving Dhaymin with a monster. He imagined her sticking close to home, roaming the Dhalsiv lands in case someone might come by selling jars of the stuff for just that purpose. Most of it wasn't from the sea at all, but if anyone could tell the difference, it was Majiv.
Whatever she was doing, she could not save Jen. If there was a way out, Majiv would be the first to know. The idea stirred a few thoughts in Dhaymin's head.
People didn't, as a rule, see Dhaymin as a thinker. He barely saw himself as a thinker. But when all you could do was lie on your back, you suddenly found yourself with a lot of time for it.
"Maybe she's not going far enough," he said.
"What do you mean?" said Jen.
"Suppose it was real. Suppose you didn't get lucky. We couldn't stay here, she'd never let it happen. Might as well pack up and bugger off."
The seat creaked, and Dhaymin felt it shift as Jen fidgeted. "I'm not exactly thinking that far ahead, I mean... I don't know if I can. Where would you go?"
"Anywhere it looks like we'll find help. And what's there for me here? She won't kill me, but I know what's waiting. I get a wife, we keep the bloodline going, and once I've done all I'm needed for I get to walk out into the snow. I'm useless for anything else, aren't I?" He turned his hands together in his lap, fingers pressing into the skin. "Fuck that. I'd rather go with you."
Another silence, and one in which Dhaymin could guess what Jen was thinking. He thought of another time, years ago, when a then fourteen year old Jen - just the right age for crazy plans - had some strange notion of fleeing south in the hopes one of those Toxiliviti scholar families would take him in. It hadn't worked. Sarn had tracked him down alongside the traders he'd taken a ride with, and burnt everything they owned in revenge. Dhaymin had been nearly as furious; you never, ever deserted the family, that had been drilled into them all their lives. But looking back, he had to admit that, somewhere deep inside, Dhaymin's seventeen year old self had wished his brother good luck on the road.
As for Dhaymin, maybe you should never desert the family, but even the most loyal of hunting dogs may still bite.
"We're going to make sure, first?" said Jen. Make sure it's for definite? Because if I did get lucky, then... I'll never let her touch you, either."
"Course I would, Jen. I meant what I said."
"Once I know," said Jen.
"I know," said Dhaymin. It would be a while, but they had all of summer left to go.
The stairway to Dhaymin's room had creaked for as long as he could remember. They were older than monsters, the holding having been here long before they arrived. Those creaks had been another background sound in Dhaymin's life, be it a hiding place, a promise of rest after a long day, or his longstanding suspicion that Sarn had given him the room so that he would always be able to listen out for danger. There were, after all, plenty to choose from.
As he reached the top he brushed his fingertips against a wall panel riddled with round holes, each about half the width of a finger bone and at least as deep. They'd been there all of Dhaymin's life, and when he was young he'd been told not to touch, in case remnants of the poison needle spray were still lodged within. To Dhaymin now, they were just another means of reminding himself where he was. Nobody told you how to be blind. Maybe they did in those fancy parts Jen was always thinking of, but not here.
Maybe someday he'd find out.
Summer had blazed on, midsummer arriving all too quickly and departing without fanfare. Dhaymin and Majiv's truce was strained enough, and nobody wanted a repeat of Sarn's pyre. So summer had begun to fade, and Dhaymin grew restless. The safe window for travel would soon close, trapping them with winter's snow.
When he entered his room these days, he was all too aware that he might soon spend his last night here. It had never been an elaborate place. There was a bed, a hearth, and a couple of travelling chests that Dhaymin kept his few possessions inside. They wouldn't be any use to him out on the road now. Instead, he reached up to a shelf and removed the one item he kept there. It was high enough that even Dhaymin had to stretch to reach it, and he was hardly a short man.
It was a carved wooden box, just small enough to hold in both hands. It let out a dull rattle when shaken, and Dhaymin had often wondered what was making the noise, but he would never dream of opening it. Instead he sat down on the bed and ran his fingers over the carved surface, its contours smoothed by years of curiosity. It didn't matter that he couldn't see them; he'd had years to memorise the patterns.
Sarn had always been prone to outbursts and proclamations, and one night he had pulled a young Dhaymin aside and given him the box, stating that it should only be opened when the family was in its greatest need. Even now, when he couldn't bring himself to care what Sarn thought, Dhaymin still honoured his request. The box remained closed. But curiosity had never been Dhaymin's strong point. Jen might have come up with a million different stories about what was inside, but Dhaymin knew an abundance of curiosity usually left you dead.
But Sarn was gone, and when there was nothing to do, sometimes Dhaymin would find himself here, with his finger over the catch.
Outside, the floorboards creaked, in fast succession, and Dhaymin put the box aside. "Hey Jen. I wasn't doing anything." Nothing important, anyway.
It wasn't Jen outside the door, but Kejik. "Yes? You can talk." Kejik had been a scarce presence, even before the hunt and everything that followed. Dhaymin had grown used to thinking of her as if she wasn't there, and he suspected she preferred it that way. He stood up, making to open the door for her. "What's the problem?"
"Your mother has returned."
"You found it, then."
"And it really is..."
"Do you think I wouldn't know how to tell if I'd been sold real seawater?" The jar was big enough that Majiv held it in both hands. She had arrived barely a moment ago, still dressed in dusty outdoor clothes. Now Jen faced her in the open hall, watching her with that odd detachment that he'd always slipped into when he heard raised voices.
Dhaymin would have fought back. Dhaymin would have wanted Jen to fight back, too.
He rubbed his hand over his shoulder. "Come on, then."
Dhaymin knew the holding well enough to be confident in a run, but even if he hadn't, it would barely have slowed him down. Down stairs and through doors he ran, through the twisted and unplanned maze build up by generations of ancestors. He didn't think of what would be waiting for him at the end.
He slowed down as he approached his destination, faint voices becoming clear to him. Now he was deep inside the holding, outside the inner chamber where the most important events of life took place, away from the changes of day and night. His fingers twitched with agitation, jaw clenched as he tried to listen, but he couldn't make out words. The walls and doors were thick here, the better to block out the world and create a space free from time.
A better man would have weighed his options and come up with a plan, but Dhaymin was not a better man, and he pulled the door open. "What's wrong? Didn't bother to invite me?"
He'd been expecting... something. Not silence, broken by the sound of dripping water echoing from the chamber walls, empty of meaning, full of fear.
It was Jen who broke it. "Fuck..." he whispered, his voice shaking, as though he were shivering. "I'm sorry... I'm so fucking sorry..."
A weight fell on Dhaymin's stomach, a weight he tried to lift in his mind - no, she made a mistake, it wasn't really seawater, I shouldn't have trusted her! - but they were all lies, and he knew it. Majiv wouldn't make mistakes.
"I said this would happen, Dhaymin." She was close by the door, standing near his side. He flinched at the feel of a hand on his shoulder, and took little comfort from the realisation it was hers. "I said-"
"Leave us alone."
"I said leave us alone!" Dhaymin pulled away from his mother, his footsteps loud and ringing within the echoed chamber. "Just give us some time. I know what you've got to do. Just not right away. I need some time."
He'd expected to feel different when he knew for sure, but the thing that surprised Jen the most was that nothing had changed in his mind. It was as if he'd already accepted it long ago, and no formality was going to change anything. He had become shadow-Jen again, slipping through life and doing all that was required of him, nothing more.
Then Dhaymin had come barging in with such haste Jen believed for a second he could rip the door from its hinges, and the look on his face as the dread sank in had been the turning point. And now, against all self preservation, he was listening to Dhaymin, because he couldn't put him through that again.
Feeling the weight of the pack he now carried after Dhaymin's hurried insistence that they leave now, he reminded himself that this was something they had planned, something they'd already talked about. He'd had time to contemplate it... no, he'd had time, but he hadn't thought of it. He'd tried running once before. It hadn't worked.
But that time, he hadn't had Dhaymin with him.
The last light of day was starting to fade. Outside, the first winds of autumn blew from the mountains. Jen imagined he could feel them now, running through the trees, through dappled light and jagged branches, not quite cold enough for frost but bearing its promise for the near future. The last burst of summer was fading, and he was about to set out on the road, and he was still shadow Jen, thinking nothing of it.
The lights of their lanterns danced and wavered in the waning daylight. It occurred to Jen that he should be curious why Dhaymin carried one. "Dhaymin?"
"Yes?" Dhaymin's voice was low and quite, the tone he took when he was taking a hunt seriously.
"I don't know how to say this, without saying stupid, but... the lantern?"
"Because it's getting dark."
"Ah." No doubt there was a reason, but it seemed Jen would have to wait until later to find it out.
Later was not a word that came easily to Jen's thoughts these days, until they entered the hall.
When they'd been young, Jen and Dhaymin would play under the dim ceiling and wonder what lay beyond its murky beams. When they were a little older, they would climb the stairs to the gallery that ran over the doors and watch for their parents coming home through the dusty old windows. Once it had been a gathering place, but in their memories it was no more than an empty space, holding onto faint traces of what it had been. A painting here, a carving there, all of them told a story, but for Jen and Dhaymin, stories were all they had ever been.
The faintest beams from the last of the sun lent shape and form to the expanse. Dhaymin didn't wait, and Jen was close behind him. He was fourteen again, and running away, treading lightly because he knew what parts of the floor would make noise and draw attention, and this time Dhaymin was here too, and they were going to make it.
He stood back as Dhaymin ran his hands over the massive doors leading outside, finding the latch and pushing it open. He held his breath as he felt cool night air wash over his face. It didn't matter that you didn't go outside without a good reason, without knowing what you were doing and telling someone where you were going. Those were all rules for another world. Now Dhaymin was holding the door for him, and he could see the outer wall and its gates. Dhaymin was waiting, and it occurred to Jen that he ought not to leave his brother in silence. "Thanks."
There should have been something else there, something deep and meaningful, but it was more than had passed between them the last time Jen had tried to run.
He was about to step out of the door and into the night when he heard it.
Always listen for danger, he'd been told. Never stop listening. And so, there was a part of him that noticed, before he was aware of it, that something had changed in the background of the world. He whirled around, only to see Majiv at the far end of the hall.
"Dhaymin!" She didn't waste any time running across the distance, grabbing her elder son by the arm and dragging him from the door, which slammed behind him with a heavy, echoing thud. The cold night air was gone, replaced with no more than a cloud of dust. "You can't do this!"
Jen felt his shoulders sink under something more than the weight of his pack. Majiv knew. She always knew. There was never any sense in pretending otherwise.
"I can!" Dhaymin tugged away, trying to free himself from her grasp. "Last I knew, I was Lord Dhalsiv. But that's got nothing to do with this."
"Dhaymin..." Jen began, but he shut up as Dhaymin held up his free hand, the one with the lantern.
He'd stopped struggling too, though Majiv did not loosen her grip. "I already honoured your wishes," she said. "I didn't kill him. If you'd rather let his mind fade in the forest... if you'd rather let other people die for this..."
"That's not going to happen. I made a promise, a long time ago."
"That doesn't matter anymo-"
Dhaymin didn't wait for the rest. With Majiv off her guard, he slammed his free hand into her stomach, knocking her backwards, sprawled onto the floor and struggling to take in breath. It gave him time to reach out to Jen, who, without stopping to question it, grabbed his arm. "You made me promise to look after him!" Before Majiv could get her breath back and get to her feet, Dhaymin flung the lantern down, glass shattering and oil and flame pouring out over the dry wood floor.
Jen felt a rush of dry heat wash over his face, only for Dhaymin to pull the door open again and let the cold night winds blow once more. This time, he didn't hesitate. With Dhaymin holding onto his arm, he turned and put one foot in front of the other.