The way out of Caethron ran south, through the mountains. Heavy crags walled it on on either side, so that the way was clear and narrow, for which Weiss was glad. “No chance of going astray,” he nodded to himself as he set off, armed with a stout staff from Seto and a packet of dense, fragrant oilcakes from Ovesa. He felt he had had straying enough these last days for one man’s lifetime.
Weiss’s rest had done him good, and he made good time through the mountain range, travelling steadily, reading his book by firelight in the evenings, downing a few birds by sling, singing half-remembered snatches of songs Ovesa had sung. It was not till he came through the foothills on the third day that his strength began to flag again. He had always been a man used to the outdoors, but the mountains were not like the marshy plains, and the rations were thin, and it seemed with each step, his Deedsweight dug a little deeper into his shoulders. It was a tongue of despair, lapping away at his resolve, and against it warred the map Mare had given him, for every step took him closer to the place marked in gold letters: Jesh’s Land, and beneath, the name Salavus. So courage and weariness tugged at him from both sides for a day and a night, and then, late in the morning, nearly on level ground now, the narrow path opened quite suddenly into a wide valley.
In a threadbare brown robe, side-by-side with Arris and Mare, Aldous washed her clothes in the basin behind Hallan’s house. It was not a task she was accustomed to—her aunt and uncle had kept servants enough for that sort of work. She tried to copy Arris’ expert scrubbing with only mild success, but accepted it as her best effort in the end, and wrung out her clothes and spread them to dry on the grass alongside Mare and Arris’ when they were satisfied with their own work.
Perhaps it’s for the best, a sly thought crept through her head. They might still smell of him.
Cressus! The thought of him still needled at her. These were the clothes she had taken off with him, hesitant at first but then hungry. The rumpled clothes she had put on the next morning in the peace of his empty chambers. Smoke, hyssop, metal, and leather. She had ridden in the night close against him, and now this wall between them forever. Surely she could hold onto the smell of him, only, without shame?
“Your way lies on ahead,” said Hallan, as they broke their bread at noonday. “Down through the village to the Interpreter’s house. And beyond that—to Jesh’s Land. I cannot take you there, not today. With the Blind Eye hanging around somewhere outside the gate, I’ve got to stay close to hand to open it for any travellers in a hurry. But you’ll find the way clear enough: down into the valley and at the south end of the village, a long house with many windows.”
“I will stay too,” said Mare. “For I’ve a wound to the shoulder that could use more rest, and after that—“ she looked at the Gate through the window. “There are many more who need to hear the words of life,” she finished softly.
Aldous suspected that Arris was no more pleased than she was at the prospect of making traveling companions for one another. The same destination they might have, but Arris was a villager, a laborer, terse, strong, uneducated, a woman of action. Aldous was a city-dweller, a scholar, a thinker, a fine lady from the Queen’s Quarter. They would have been ill-at-ease with one another even had Arris not mistrusted Aldous.
Still, they set out, back in their own garments (still slightly damp) but with a few provisions from Hallan to bolster their meager supplies: dried meat, dust-bread, slings for hunting which Aldous could only hope Arris knew how to use. Aldous had tried to return Hallan his book, but he pressed it back to her.
“Keep it,” he smiled, “and read it daily for the courage and grace it will speak to your heart.”
So Aldous tucked it into the pouch at her belt, and followed Arris down the winding path from the Gate to the village. There were trees here and there, scraggly poor things but still bigger than what grew on the marshes. Sheep bleated. Aldous tried not to let her breathing get too ragged, but Arris set a pretty hard pace. Sweat stung at Aldous’ eyes and she kept them trained down, focusing on the next step only: down, down, down. It could not be too far. It was a short way to the village. Just a little ways through the little village and they’d be at this Interpreter’s house and she could rest. Down, down, down—and then she was stopped short by slamming into Arris’ back.
Aldous snapped her head up and there, blocking their path, was Vana, and a strange grey-faced figure. Nay, even Vana was strange and grey-faced.
“Hello, Aldous,” she said with menacing cheer. Aldous whipped her eyes to Vana’s knife belt, but there were no knives. Vana’s hands danced around at her sides; thin and bony, they seemed, and grey, and with the nails sharpened to a point.
“Vana?” Aldous voice was heavy and uncertain, and Vana grinned wolfishly and nodded.
“Vana and not Vana,” she answered. “When Cressus proved too soft for the task of halting you, I took things, as is always best, into my own hands. Perhaps you did not know of the lore—a little place near to that thrice-cursed Gate where the Soul-Eaters make their home?”
Aldous had heard stories of the Soul-Eaters, silly tales told late at night in the dark among youths, stories for the superstitious. Arris had evidently heard them too, for her stony determination evaporated suddenly into a childish shriek. She scrambled backwards, stumbling against Aldous, who fell in turn. The Soul-Eaters were at them in an instant
“Sometimes,” whispered Vana, bending over Aldous almost tenderly, “even the Blind Eye isn’t enough. One can always upgrade one’s membership, and fortunately—“ Vana opened her mouth wide to a gush of cold air, revealing a mouthful of grey serrated teeth—“the Soul-Eaters are welcoming to ambitious women such as myself.”
“Your ears, your ears, cover your ears,” shouted Arris, who had a bony he-Soul-Eater hanging over her. Aldous snapped her arms up to cover her ears, and as she shut out Vana’s voice, her mind seemed suddenly clearer, and Vana less terrible.
Still, Vana only smirked, and, clasping Aldous’s wrists, gave a mighty yank.
“Come now, Aldous,” she said. “You were never lacking ambition yourself.”
Was that true? Had Aldous been ambitious or only aimless? She couldn’t remember now. Your ears, cover your ears, she remembered, and dutifully put her hands back up. Vana pulled them away again. Aldous felt more and more wooly.
“Join us,” coaxed Vana. “You weren’t really going to go all this way, leaving everything behind, fighting through hardship and enemies and cold, not when what you want could be yours if you’d only stop fighting…”
Aldous shook her head, slow and confused. She made to put her hands up, but Vana pushed them down again triumphantly. She knew she was winning—
but Aldous’s hand danced across the book tucked in at her waist—
The valley beneath Weiss was slant-lit by the sun, and it might have been a place of beauty, but its serenity was marred by two blemishes: a great torture-tree splayed out on the near slope with gears and barbs coiling across its blood-blacked wood, and at the bottom in the gully, the gaping mouth of an open tomb.
A shudder ran over Weiss, but it was not a shudder of horror only, for he knew this place—he had read, and re-read the portion of his book concerning Salavus. Jesh’s suffering, Jesh’s shame, taken not for his own crime, but for the legal debts of anyone, man, woman or child, who would surrender their guilt to him. The agony, the rending of bonds, the cruel bloody torture-tree claiming him as a just punishment. And then, the burial, the closing of a purely legal transaction, the mouth of the tomb sealed over. And next— no wonder Weiss shuddered!—that insatiable mouth burst and toothless, the light breaking slanted across the valley, Jesh himself, alive again and triumphant, the way to Elionae’s city opened, the toothless tomb, aye, the tamed tree!
The tremor that shook Weiss was not horror only, but wonder, and grief, and a curious feeling like a child meeting suddenly in the flesh those characters that had peopled the legends and stories he heard around the fire all his life. It was real! It was his! And Weiss felt a sudden wrench as the legal rectitude of his Deedsweight bit deep as knives into his shoulders, for the cords were drying and shrinking like sinew in the sun. They tightened until he thought he could not bear it, till almost they were ready to draw blood, and then, breathlessly, they gave a mighty twang and—let go.
The shot-grey capsule slithered out from beneath Weiss’s tunic and crashed into the rocky ground at his feet. Weiss skipped back to avoid it and it leapt off, thrumming off rock and hurtling over turf, end over end, down, down, and down, until with a great leap it cleared the slope and plunged headlong into the open mouth of the tomb.
Weiss stood for a long moment with his own mouth wide open, and tears standing in his eyes. Then, he staggered and dropped down to the grass, staring at the valley spread before him, weeping and laughing and saying over and over, “Thanks be!” and “Jesh, Jesh, Jesh,” and marvelling at the lightness with which he drew breath and the freedom with which he could move himself, and the extraordinary gladness which bloomed across his body at the absence for the first time in his life of the pressing presence of his deeds. It was the first rain lashing down into a land that had always been dry, and dusty, and without life.