A hundred years, a thousand, who knew anymore? Weiss had been struggling through the mud for more lifetimes than he could count when he bit down on the notion that he would not get out. Every step he took towards the mountains shaved away a little more of his strength, and behind him the leaden Deedsweight sheared off great sheets of it. It was full dark now, with only the feeble light of a crescent moon above, and over and over Weiss lost his footing, fell, tore himself loose from the clutch of the muck and clambered upright. Sometimes he fell again on his very next step, and the clinging weight of the mud that coated cloak and boots and jerkin and all added its strength to the weariness and darkness and Deedsweight in trying to put him under the mud for good.
At last he found himself on a hummock and could not go on. He lay still, eyes closed, his feet still soaking in the slough, bowed under a despair so strong he could not even weep. He only opened his lips to whisper, “Elionae…” He felt he had no right to ask for help, even to say that name, but help came nonetheless, for after a few long and silent minutes, a light bobbed into his view.
“Here!” cried Weiss, not caring if it was Aldous, Signa, even the Geridspolice—any face would’ve been welcome. “Help me, please! Help me!”
“Weiss?” said a voice, and Weiss’s veins lit up with gold, for it was Mare. He scrambled to his feet, splashing water about him as he headed for the light. When he came to her, she grasped his arm and pulled, and he came loose from the mud with a sick squelch, stepping up onto the broad flat stone on which she stood. He only stood for a moment before he felt his knees buckling and he lowered himself quickly to sit at her feet.
“How did you come to be so lost?” she said, crouching beside him. From a pouch at her hip, she pulled out a strip of sweet-spiced dried meat and he ate gratefully.
“By following your directions,” said Weiss, less crossly than he would’ve if he had’ve been speaking to somewhere other than Mare.
“But did you not look for the steps? They’re marked on your map. There is little enough influence we have out here but Elionae sends workers out to keep the way clear when it is possible.” She lifted her lantern and Weiss saw in the flickering light that there was indeed a path, large stones at intervals to make a bridge through the mire.
“I forgot to pay mind to the map,” he confessed. “There was another with me but he turned back at the marsh, and I went on without stopping to mark my way.”
He was ashamed of himself, but she said only, “Well, you are not the first, and you will not be the last to lose his way in this place.”
He gathered up his strength with the help of a little wine from a flask she carried, and they went on together, slowly and painfully, as the mud dried on his clothes and the stars tracked across the sky.
“How came you to be here?” he asked as they journeyed.
“I had meant to carry on into the city, but it seems there is a price on my head in Aiken now. Word got out that I had convinced you to leave, and you know that is against the rules.” She spoke seriously but not as if she were frightened. “My Gathering decided it was best for me to make myself scarce before the Geridspolice—or worse—came hunting for me. I am to stop in one or two villages and then wait at the safehouse for my Gathering to meet with me on the other side of the pass.”
“Then we can journey together?” said Weiss with a leap of hope in his heart. And then, suddenly—“’Word got out’ about me? What does that mean?”
“You should know better than I, should you not? Who knows that you have left, and why you have?”
“Signa,” said Weiss slowly, moving around the outside of what he knew to be true, “and a sailor who I roughed up the night I left, and… Aldous.”
“And I am right in thinking that you suspect Aldous.” It was not a question.
“My sister,” said Weiss. “But who would she tell? She came after me herself, with Signa. She has no friends. She was worried I would disgrace her; she takes great pride in her undissenting reputation.”
“Nevertheless she must have told someone—and not, I think, just a friend. You and I will not travel together, I think. I must stop in the villages, for I have work to do there, but more to the point, if the Geridspolice find you alone, they will give you mercy, take you back to Aiken, and you might someday be able to slip away again. If they find you in my company, they will execute us both on the spot. We can camp together tonight, our lead is enough to keep us safe ‘til Signa gets back to the city. But tomorrow we had best go on alone.”
Weiss’s heart dropped its hope and fell like a stone into his feet.
“But what if they find you alone?” he said.
“They will execute me, of course,” said Mare, raising her chin to look at him. “But Elionae will take my spirit to his city if they do, and if they do not, then I will go on as I have.” Simple, arrow-straight. It was hard, but it was easy. Weiss bowed his head in a nod.
“If the Blind Eye find us though…” she shook her head, and then said, “Pray that they do not.”
“You will… rein in Vana?” said Aldous to Cressus. They were in a public house in the Racketeer’s Quarter, and Aldous was worried about it in the back of her mind, for it was not the sort of place an upstanding undissenting would be found hanging about, but in the front of her mind, broad and warm and windblown as the plains, there was only Cressus. They were sat near enough together that she could smell him, a dusty tang of smoke and hyssop and metal and leather. She had known him for not-quite twenty-four hours, but already she was wound into him like a braid. He spoke to her as if he were the first person alive who had ever seen her, and she could feel herself rising to it like cream, bold and level. Though perhaps that was just the alcohol. She’d already drunk much more of it than she was used to.
“She is busy with another project just at present,” said Cressus. “but anyhow I wouldn’t send her after your brother. Vana never does well with a mission that doesn’t involve putting a knife in someone, preferably a Thron.”
Aldous flinched inwardly, but it had been twenty-four hours she had known Cressus, and she had already taught herself not to flinch outwardly.
“So who will you send?” she said. Level. Bold. Broad as plains.
“Terrick,” he said at once. “He can talk as well as kill, and I think he can put your brother off-course enough that we can convince him to come back.”
“You don’t know Weiss as I do,” laughed Aldous bitterly.
“If he’s anything like his sister,” said Cressus, rough heart singing against Aldous’ heart just come out of its cave, “he will show a pleasing steadiness of purpose but will not be able to ignore reason, in the end.”
“You don’t know Weiss as I do,” said the back of Aldous’ head, but the front of it was broad and windblown and those were the thoughts holding the reins.
“Should you like to meet Terrick before I send him out?” said Cressus. Their eyes met. That, Aldous thought, was the strength of it, like an undertow. He looked at her and knew that she wanted only to be with him. She looked at him and knew that he only wanted to be with her. She shook her head, and he ducked away to another corner. A few moments after their hushed conversation, a middle-aged man slipped out into the street and there was a sound of horse’s hooves, an urgent clatter across the cobblestones outside. Then Cressus sat down again, just a little nearer than he had been before.
“Aldous,” he said softly, “will you tell me what it was you were thinking of so wearily while you listened to Slava yesterday evening?”
They were weaving together like a braid.
Mare was gone before Weiss woke, stiff and sore and cold and filthy by the ashes of last night’s fire. He made a poor breakfast of water and dried meat, helped along by a few roots he knew how to find amongst the reeds. He ate those as he went, moving slowly but as steadily as he could. He was weary, bone-weary, but Mare had said the Blind Eye might be hunting him already. Weiss knew enough about the Blind Eye to be shaken by that thought.
He tried to read from his book, but mostly the day was just wan gold reeds and wan gold sun and the mountain pass getting closer only in the most reluctant and painstaking fashion.
At length, though, the ground began to rise, and the shapes of villages rose up amid the foothills. It was the first time in all his life he had been out of the vast carpet of marshes that surrounded Aiken. He was afraid he was rather gawping. The mountains were so astonishingly present.
Weiss was wakened from his watching by a smell of roasting meat that almost bowled him over. A little ways ahead, sitting by a fire lit off to the side of the road, there was a middle-aged man, dressed not quite like a Thron, but certainly not like a man of Aiken.
The man hailed Weiss. Weiss could feel the plain hunger stamped on his face such that courtesy would’ve demanded nothing less of the man.
“Hi, traveller!” the man called, “You look as though the road has been less than kind. I’ve taken a rabbit with my sling and would be glad to share in return for company.”
Weiss sat, rather faster than courtesy demanded, at the fireside, and failed to keep his eyes off the spitted rabbit and on the face of his companion.
“Eh, never mind the formalities,” laughed the man, when Weiss in his distraction missed the man’s outstretched hand. “I’m Terrick, and you’re hungry. That’ll do well enough.”
For some blessed minutes, Terrick let Weiss absorb himself in the business of clearing every scrap of meat of the leg of the rabbit.
“I’m more in your debt than I can say, mate,” sighed Weiss at last.
“Don’t mention it.” Terrick waved it away airily. “Must be some journey you’ve had. You look as though you’ve been wandering the marshes for weeks! Where are you going that you’ll slog on through such misery?”
“No greater misery than that I’ve left behind,” said Weiss, suddenly serious. “I am for Jesh’s Land beyond the pass in the mountains. For the joy I am promised ahead, I’d endure more than a rough few nights out on the marshes—for the shedding of this Deedsweight.”
Terrick seemed surprised.
“Aye, now. To be rid of a Deedsweight is a joy indeed, but to journey to Jesh’s Land by the pass? Why, the mud and weariness of the marshes is nothing to the hardness of that way! Wild beasts, places of gloom, hunters with spears, and hunger that will make your hunger this day seem child’s play; that’s all you’ll get by that road. I’ve heard many a story of that road in my fifty-odd years, mate, and I tell you whoever counselled you to go by that road as good as sent you to your death.”
“Nonetheless,” said Weiss stubbornly, “it would take a good many terrors to outweigh the crushing of this Deedsweight.”
“So be rid of it,” said Terrick. “But not by going to your death. You’ve had a hard journey, but I can show you a quick end to it.” He shook his head in disgust. “What kind of cruelty, to send a man blind into all kinds of peril when there’s a simple remedy right at hand?”
And so Weiss found himself following Terrick to the village over the rise, where it seemed there was a man, a mage, who had skills to remove Deedsweights and to heal and comfort a battered body, too, which, the further they travelled, the more Weiss felt need for. The muscles in his legs were knotting in protest and his step was leaden. He was dismayed when they went off the broad track to the village and onto an overgrown trail.
“Patience, mate,” said Terrick brightly. “’Tis a short way. The mage’s house is just outside the village, ‘round to the north.”
But as the way grew rougher, Weiss began to doubt. The path was craggy and steep now, and he slipped often on the scree underfoot. Then, very suddenly the path opened to a plateau, and Weiss stumbled back as Terrick suddenly turned on him with a strange light in his eyes. Above the plateau, the eastern side of the mountain was visible, and it was smoking and shining with a dull red glow, and great boulders were breaking loose all the time from the mountainside and hurtling past.
“What is this place?” cried Weiss. “Where have you taken me?”
“Ach, you’re a fool.” Terrick spat on the ground, unshaken by the boiling mountainside that hung above them. “Perhaps now you’ve seen with your own eyes the blackness of the way you’ve chosen, you’ll turn back with me. Indeed, anyone with the wits of a dog would keep away from these paths. But,” and he strode determinedly at Weiss as he spoke, “Mark me, if you won’t see reason, I’ve made well sure to walk you far enough to take the fight out of you, and if I have to bundle you back to your sister by force, well, my horse will take your sorry carcass without complaint. But one way or another, turn back you will—“ and Terrick leapt at Weiss as he backed down the rough trail, and caught him a hard shove directly in the chest that sent him sprawling into the rocky bracken. His Deedsweight pulled him down, and pulled him down.