Weiss found himself waking from a long, dreamless sleep, into slanting sunlight in an unfamiliar room. His muddy clothes were heaped upon the floor, strange and foreign amids the clean linen sheets, the tall arching windows, the fluttering white drapes, and the smooth white stone floor. Cool mountain air drifted in the windows, but Weiss was more interested in the smells drifting in through the bedchamber’s door: rich, meaty, hearty smells that set his stomach rumbling with an urgency that brooked no argument.
He dressed himself in a brown robe that hung beside the bed, and despite feeling rather awkward in its loose folds, he made his way out into the hall.
“Good morning, traveller,” said the man from the gate last night, who was stirring pottage over a cheerful fire in the common room. He rose to press Weiss’ hand sincerely, introducing himself as Hallan, and then gestured him to a place at the table and served him: pottage with red beans and mutton, thick slices of bread, cheese, and then cream and berries, and steaming tea. Weiss ate and ate, until looking down at his place he was suddenly quite ashamed of how much of this good man’s food he had eaten and what poor company he had been throughout.
“Nay, nay,” said Hallan mildly when Weiss apologized. “There’s few come through here that aren’t in need of a good sleep and a better meal, but you looked more in need of them than most.” He nodded in the direction of a large mirror that hung to the left of the table and Weiss, giving his reflection the attention that had previously been fully taken up with food, was shocked at how gaunt and dirty he looked.
“I wonder you were willing to put me in one of your beds in this state,” he said, shaking his head.
“Sheets wash clean,” shrugged Hallan. “And I keep the beds for travellers. Now tell me, Weiss, how came you here? Who sent you? And what became of you on the way, that you were so worn and dirty?”
So Weiss began at the beginning, meeting Mare on the plains, his struggle in the marsh, how Signa turned back. The man and the mountain and the flight from the Blind Eye.
Hallan listened silently, sympathy dancing across his face as Weiss spoke, but he interrupted once to ask, “Where is Mare now? I’d have expected her to reach Caethron by now.”
“She said she had one more village to visit,” said Weiss. A little knot of worry danced into the air off Hallan’s brow, and Weiss swallowed it, and would nurse it for all the rest of the morning and evening.
“Well, the way you’ve come by has been the death of many, and it will be the death of many more,” said Hallan soberly when Weiss finished his tale. “Thanks be to Elionae that you have come so far in one piece.”
“I should never have done if not for Mare,” said Weiss. “And I was so witless every step of the way, forgetting the map, falling for tricks, that I am ashamed to even stand talking here. And yet—“ he looked ‘round at Hallan earnestly—“I could not be gladder to be here.”
“Your shame need not weigh you down,” said Hallan. “Here there is no reproach. Only help.”
Together, they passed the afternoon in extraordinary peacefulness, drawing water from a mountain stream to warm for a bath for Weiss, and then to wash his clothes. Standing in his room as he readied himself to dress in his sun-dried breeches, jerkin, and cloak, Weiss ran his palm along the strict cording of the Deedsweight where it cut into the skin of his shoulder. Unbreakable. Everyone had always said so. Just something to live with. And beyond through the wide stone arch of window, Caethron lay in the valley, a little cluster of white stone houses, small amidst the crags and grasses, and it was hope. Weiss squared his shoulders, and it was as if his heart was running, sprinting and leaping through the open window, down, down the rocky slope, to the village, and to what was beyond it, to the way that would lead him—must lead him, for what else was there?—to the Breaker of the Unbreakable Cord.
“They will find us, I know they will.” Aldous said it quietly, into the scrub grass, so neither the Thron nor the farm worker could hear. She knew she ought to sleep; it was still a few hours before day and she could use the rest for the journey ahead. The mountains were cold, though, and her heart was colder with fear. Vana and Cressus would’ve gone back by now, to the spot where they had left her guarding the prisoners, and they would’ve seen her treachery, and they would be hunting. Cressus, she thought, might give her mercy, but Vana would not be reined in, not after this. And when she thought of Cressus’ fierce glee, breaking the staff and binding the women and pounding away after Weiss, she was not even sure he would give her mercy. She shook like a leaf as she lay wrapped in her cloak, and not only for the chill of the ground.
Yet she had not been able to say no. Mare—that was the Thron—had asked her why she wept, and a thousand thousand grey days had tumbled open and left Aldous’ heart bare. It was like a blind creature from a cave, white-eyed and feeble, that husk of a heart, but Mare had spoken balm to it. “Why stay here,” she had asked, “to steep in such misery for the rest of your days?”
Aldous had cried. By the Queen, she had cried harder than she could ever remember crying, till her cheeks throbbed and the skin around her eyes was dappled red and her nose ran like a neglected child’s, and Mare had lain patiently on the cold ground until the storm was passed and Aldous was ready to saw the ropes loose and help Mare and Arris, the villager, to their feet.
Her cave-creature heart had held onto Cressus. It was still holding onto him, truth be told. Amid the roil of fear and hope, there was a little warm nucleus of memory, his skin against hers, their lamplit tenderness—it was clutched against her as close as his real body had been, where no one could touch it. Yet she had betrayed him. He would despise her.
Dawn came, greying then gilding the sky, and Arris stirred, and woke, and began building a fire while Mare slipped off into the brush to gather food. Aldous felt she should help, but she didn’t know the first thing about building a fire nor foraging, so she sat awkwardly off to the side instead.
“Come get warm,” said Arris at last, tersely. She was older than Aldous, her skin lined and tan from her work in the sun in a way that made Aldous’ own pale skin look almost babylike. She had kept aloof from Aldous so far, which, considering that Aldous had been her jailer not twelve hours ago, was fair. But now, as she fed the fire with chips of dung from her pack, Arris made a space for Aldous, who came forward gratefully to warm her cold-clumsy hands.
“He was quite a man,” said Arris without introduction, and it was a question.
“I did not know he could be cruel like that,” said Aldous plaintively, beseechingly. Arris looked back at her with steady eyes, unyielding, and Aldous’ voice dropped into a murmur: “He was so very kind to me,” she said.
“And now what?” said Arris. “Will he still be kind?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Aldous watched the flames leaping up, the ash dancing across the cool white gold of the sky. “Vana would happily kill us all, no doubt.”
“Vana would,” agreed Arris. “And what of the man they went after?”
“My brother,” said Aldous, her heart soft and sick suddenly. “I don’t know. Vana wasn’t sure they’d be in time to catch him at the gate. I can only hope. I expect they’d kill him after what he’s done—they were only going to keep him alive for my sake.”
“They were not in time,” said Mare, coming up behind them. “I do not think they could’ve been, for I saw the purpose in his eyes when last I was with him, and he would’ve moved sure and fast. And I do not believe Elionae would let him die so near the haven.”
“What could Elionae do?” asked Aldous, half-hopeful, half-suspicious.
“His hand is in all, though we may not see it,” said Mare. “Hallan was keeping the gate and he would’ve seen Weiss in safely. I just do not think they were in time.”
She was comforting, her smile, her hands, her voice, in a way that was peculiar for the youngest of the group. Mare looked closer Weiss’ age, perhaps twenty-four, and yet Aldous at twenty-eight and Arris, who must be into her thirties, were drawing from her, turning their faces to her as new seedlings follow the sun.
Mare spread a leather roll before the fire, in which was dried meat, and dustbread. Beside it she deposited cress, and breadroot, and mushrooms, nuts, and a handful of round blue-black berries Aldous didn’t recognize.
“Eat well, sisters,” she said, “We’ve a race ahead of us before we’re safe in Caethron.”
Aldous plucked, half-unconsciously, at the black cord of the Deedsweight that cut, taut as a bowstring, the baby-white skin of her shoulder.