“Mare!” Aldous jerked awake, startled to find herself in an unfamiliar place. It took her a few moments to place herself, the strange bed with its strange smell. But Cressus asleep beside her felt anything but strange. She watched him in the half-light, steadying her thoughts. It had been an unsettling dream. Weiss, falling down a steep slope on a backdrop of fire, and it had been her hands that pushed him down, and yet as he fell, instead of the dark, angry red swallowing him, golden light swept up from the valley and welcomed him. She had tried to call after him, but she felt her feet planted, her back suddenly bowed by the weight that she had borne on her back since the day she was born. No words had come.
“Just a dream,” she told herself, but she was worried about Weiss. Cressus had promised that Terrick would talk Weiss home, but after all, the Blind Eye was known for their kills, not their diplomacy.
Aldous’ stirring woke Cressus, slowly, and he cupped her face in his broad hand, and said, “It’s early.”
“I had a dream,” she said.
“Tell me,” he said, and as he lay on his back, listening in that deep way no one ever had before, Aldous told him.
“It is not your hands hurting Weiss,” said Cressus when she was done. “You’re trying to help him.”
Aldous nodded and tried not to wonder if it were true.
“Who is Mare?” added Cressus after a moment.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “It was just what he said as he was falling.”
She came running up the path, breathing hard, her face set, her red dress a banner. She clutched a staff of wood as she ran.
“You shall not have him!” she cried, and Terrick spun to face her. The triumph that died on his face at her cry flared up again when he saw her slight figure. Even to Weiss, her long black braid tossed by her steps looked ridiculously childlike as she ran, but her dress was a banner, her mouth, her eyes, and he struggled up the slope even as the weeds and saplings he tried to anchor himself with came up by the roots in his hands.
“Mare!” he said, but she did not slow or look at him. She sprang at Terrick with the staff already a blur. Terrick whipped a short sword out of a sheath at his thigh and Weiss’s world seemed to distill down to the racket of wood against metal. His Deedsweight pulled him down and pulled him down but he pulled up to level ground and felt for his own long knife when the sound changed to that of wood against flesh and bone, a dull thud, and Terrick fell. Weiss was in time to put the knife at his throat as Mare kicked away his sword. With her staff braced against his chest she said again, with a fierce joy, “You shall not have him.”
“Check his arm,” she told Weiss, nodding at Terrick’s left arm, and Weiss pushed up the sleeve to reveal a blind eye slashed top to bottom picked out in black ink on the skin of his forearm.
“Oh,” said Weiss in a small voice, and then he was angry.
“What is this place?” he demanded of Terrick, but it was Mare who answered.
“Tirsin,” she said. “Oh, Weiss, I told you to make for the pass in the mountains; how came you to be here?” Her face was no longer a banner, but a cold rain.
“He told me it was a safe way,” said Weiss. He was afraid again, suddenly; he knew not why, but that there was something dark and brooding lurking in the fire beyond the mountain.
“A safe way? Tirsin? There is naught but death here!”
“Aye, death and woe aplenty,” sneered Terrick suddenly. “But I’d ha’ brought you back to your sister safe and sound alright if not for this bloody Thron’s interference. It’s only them that won’t see reason nor surrender in a fight that I give to the Lady,” and he cast a significant backwards glance towards the fiery mountaintop.
“’The Lady’? I don’t understand.”
“Let us deal with this man first,” said Mare, “and get away from Her, and then I will tell you.”
“She is old, very old,” said Mare, “and very hungry.” Terrick was tied to a tree. Mare had explained conscientiously that he would not be left there long—the Blind Eye would be sure to follow his trail when he did not return to the city. “So he won’t,” she had said, “die of exposure or hunger here.” Weiss would’ve muttered something to the effect of ‘better if he did’ but Mare’s voice leaned shame on his.
Now, looking back to the mountain, Mare told him of Tirsin, the name of the mountain and the name of she who lived inside the mountain, which in the old tongue meant ‘Weight’. She was a dragon of the old kind, wingless and blind, stirring up the stones, humming with fire. An open maw, waiting for souls to stumble in, or be stumbled. All this Mare explained in a few vivid strokes that left Weiss breathless with his narrow escape, and trembling with his weariness.
“But how did you find me?” he asked then.
“Though Aiken may be full of people who wish you off your path,” said Mare, “Elionae’s wish is for you to go on, and he is not easily gainsaid. I chanced to see you as I was leaving the village, up on the ridge as you followed that man.” And ran all the way up, thought Weiss, disgusted with himself. He was weary and weak, but Mare had seemed strong before. Now she, too, walked with a leaden step, and there was a long, shallow cut along her arm. She would not let Weiss look at it.
“The Blind Eye are tailing us now. I have one more village to go to, and I cannot stop. When I am safe in the stronghold they will treat it; it isn’t deep. As for you, make all speed for the pass, and beyond it—“ she pointed to his map markedly, that, he supposed, he might not yet again part from the way—“Caethron.”
Aldous passed the afternoon peacefully in Cressus’ room at the Ravenshead Inn. The noises of the Racketeer’s Quarter—horses, bartering, coming-and-goings—were very different from the noises of the Queen’s Quarter where Aldous lived, where quiet murmurs prevailed, punctuated only by the marching boots of the Geridspolice.
She had spent the afternoon copying leaflets for Cressus in her precise, sloping hand. It pleased her that there was something she could do for him, so much so that she did not take much notice of the words she was copying. Precise, sloping hateful words about the Throns, precise, sloping sneers at the Queen, at the police for their lack of action. She savoured the rhythm of the quill and the ink and the scratch on the paper, and as dusk began to settle, Cressus came in and kissed her shoulder. He pulled her upright as she turned to kiss his mouth, and for a moment she was lost in that tangle, but then he said abruptly,
“Terrick hasn’t returned.”
“Weiss wouldn’t…” she said at once, and then stopped because she didn’t, after all, really know what Weiss would or wouldn’t do. Brother and stranger. “So what happens next?” she said instead.
“Vana and I will go find him and see what’s happened.”
“Why Vana?” It had come out as more of a whine than she’d intended, but she didn’t trust Vana.
“Because if Weiss did overpower Terrick, he may not have been alone. I’ll be with her,” said Cressus, lifting Aldous’ chin to meet her eyes. “I won’t let her hurt him.”
“Very well,” replied Aldous. His eyes on hers had bloomed a sudden purpose in her chest. “But I will be with you as well.”
And so it was that she found herself on horseback, with a black cloak and knife in her belt, riding between Vana and Cressus out into the marshes that rustled their dark secrets under the arch of the stars.