Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Ten

            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.

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Nine

            The village, if it might be so called, of Caethron, nestled down between the mountains in the valley below the Gate. The houses made a little cluster, like mushrooms sprung up overnight, with whitewashed stone walls, thatched rooves, little gardens, and workbenches and washboards and the occasional sheep or chicken giving them an industrious air.
            “Who lives here?” Weiss asked Hallan as they walked.
            “Just a handful of us,” shrugged Hallan. “Most of us greyheaded now but all of us glad to serve Elionae by guarding his keep here. We are a rest for weary travellers—a simple task but welcome, I think.”
            “And I am to meet the Interpreter?” Weiss’s curiousity had been piqued at the title, the weight which Hallan had given the name as they set off.
            “Yes. He is a Loremaster and a wise man, and he gives all the travellers who pass through here such lore as will be helpful to you in your journeying.”
            The Interpreter’s house was different from the other cottages, long and broad with small windows cut at intervals in the stone. Hallan rang a bell that hung at the door, and for many minutes, the two stood waiting on the stoop. Weiss listening to the birdsong, the sheep bleating, the wind rustling, and tried not to fidget. Then the door creaked open.
            Hallan’s description of ‘greyheaded’ was apt. The man and woman who greeted him matched the mountains, granite-haired, their skin creased and scored, their features craggy. They smiled, though, with a welcome that was ageless and bright.
            The woman was dressed in a long robe, red as wine, with her grey hair wound in a crown about her head. The man wore a pure white tunic belted at the waist, and a fur collar. They both had a regal look, and Weiss felt very solemn.
            “You bring us a new pilgrim, Hallan?” said the Interpreter.
            “This is Weiss, lately of Aiken,” said Hallan, putting one hand on Weiss’ shoulder.
            Weiss bowed, and then was not sure if that was the done thing. It was all rather new to him. When the Queen passed by he and his friends used to do very low, mocking obesiances, but he had never felt so particularly awed by someone before, and the gesture felt as ridiculous as a simple nod or handshake would’ve felt irreverent.
            “I am Seto, called the Interpreter,” said the old man formally, “and this is my wife, Ovesa. Please, come in.”
            The room was long and low, and the sun that shone cool and watery seemed to come in no further than the outskirts, despite the rows of windows. Weiss followed his host and hostess a little ways into the room, and then they turned together and Seto said,
            “Now.” His voice reminded Weiss of the storytellers in Aiken beginnning a tale, and he turned and saw that Hallan had not followed them in. “Weiss, lately of Aiken,” continued Seto, “why have you come here?”
            “Hallan told me that you could tell me things that would help me along my way,” said Weiss. He folded his hands in front of him as he spoke, and then felt like a child and unfolded them.
            Seto nodded gravely.
            “Come in, then, traveller, and I will show you that which may help you along your way.”
            Seto was very serious, but as they walked down the long room, Ovesa turned back to Weiss and smiled, a smile of anticipation, of reassurance, and perhaps a streak of mischief.
            Before he could wonder what it meant, his guide stopped suddenly, between the last two support pillars that arced up into the ceiling, and lifted the candle in his hand.
            The pillars were painted, vivid blue and pine green and blood red, with the figure of a man. The images were almost childlike, and yet with a depth behind them. They showed the man clinging to the book of Elionae, pleading in the face of destruction, overshadowed by a crown of gold.
            “The Man who is Mother,” said Interpreter. His voice was low and sacred in the dim space and Weiss bent closer to the paintings. A thunderhead of awe began to gather inside him.
            “The Man who is Mother, one in ten thousand,” sang Ovesa, her voice dusky-slow. “Travail with child does he, and suckle the children he bears, the children of the Master, unfolding the darkness to the darkened, holding the hands of the children as the children learn to walk in the way.”
            “Watch for him,” said Seto. “Watch for him as you walk in the way.” Weiss nodded mutely. “Now come in,” said Seto, and they passed through the door at the end of the hall.
The next room was lit by a skylight, which shone a square of light on a painting swirling across the floor. It showed a woman, strong and smiling, bringing water to wash a room where a man swept violently, stirring thick dust into the air. The simple image was yet so vivid that Weiss’s throat tickled just to look at the spattered dust.
            “Euvan, the Grace,” said Interpreter, and Ovesa sang again:
            “Thick the dust of deeds lies upon the heart, heavy the weight. Tirsin, tirsin, the stirring of that dust is worse than the lying of it. But here! Here the sweet water of Euvan lays the dust, washing it away; rest she brings, and order, making the way for the good and the great.”
            “Tirsin…” said Weiss, remembering. “Tirsin was the name of the Lady in the Mountain.”
            “Tirsin, which in the Old Tongue means ‘weight’,” said Seto. “A dragon of the old kind. But we tell not only the fact of a thing, but the meaning of it, too. Here we have painted the meaning of Tirsin. Soon, little brother, you will meet the meaning also of Euvan.”
            “Who makes the pictures?” said Weiss.
            “We do. Together.”
            “And everyone comes to see them?”
            Ovesa laughed.
            “For all your beard and and sun-rough face, you are a boy yet!” was all she said.
            “I’m twenty-five,” said Weiss, a little wounded, having always considered himself rather a hardened man of the world. And then her merriment made him laugh.
            “’Tis only that you watch everything with such wonder,” she placated him, and that made Weiss pause. How long had he been looking for wonder and been unable to find it?
            There were many more pictures they showed Weiss, and after took him to a pleasant sunny room and read to him from his book while Ovesa made red-leaf tea and Seto stoked up a fire. Weiss fell asleep in his chair listening to them read and had a dream of a fire that would not go out, and a palace on a hill, a man in a cage, two children waiting in a room—all vivid green and blood red and blue as a lake in autumn.
#
            “Stay low,” hissed Mare, unnecessarily, for Arris and Aldous had already pressed themselves flat as they could against the cold rocks. Below them, Vana and Cressus crouched in the pass. The horses were tied up a little way’s further in, their heads low and their ears down. It looked as though they’d been ridden all night—from the Gate back to the place where Aldous had been guarding their prisoners, and then back to this place in the mouth of the pass, Aldous supposed.
            Cressus’ head was low and discouraged, too, and Aldous realised he must think her captured. Of course he wouldn’t assume she’d betrayed him. Her heart gave a fierce twist within her, and almost she wanted to stand up, call to him to come save her, let him believe that she had been overpowered and held captive. She stayed low against the rocks.
            The three women had agreed to take the rougher way over the hills, instead of approaching the Gate by the road, where they would be nearly certain of coming across Vana and Cressus. Now it was proving to be a wise choice. They would’ve walked right into the pair, had they taken the road.
            “Move slowly,” said Mare. “One rock dislodged could be all it takes to let them know we’re up here.”
            They began moving along the lip of the pass in a slow, painstaking creep. Occasionally, they had to double back to find a new path, for the steep slope above the pass offered little in the way of cover and easy places to walk. Aldous looked longingly at the road below.
            “Couldn’t we go down now?” she asked, when they had put Vana and Cressus behind them around a few bends.
            “Suppose they scout up the path a little ways?” replied Mare. “As long as we’re off the path, we might be anywhere in these mountains.”
            “Not anywhere,” Annis objected. “They must know we’re making for the Gate. If we don’t come into the pass before long, I should think they’ll move to the Gate itself, and they we shall have no choice but to face them.”
            “We could make better time on the road,” mused Mare.
            So they made their careful way down and, at a swift trot now, journied on. Every noise made Aldous start, every shifting rock sounding like a horse’s hooves and every whistle of wind the voice of a pursuer. When the Gate was in view at last, Aldous broke into a ragged city-raised run, forging ahead of Mare and Arris for a few strides before they fell back into step with her. Up the stairs, her legs screaming, her side stitched, Aldous nonetheless matched her two work-hardened companions step-for-step all the way up the stairs to the Gate. Or perhaps they matched with her. Chest heaving, leaning against the stone wall, she wondered if they reallly wanted her with them, their erstwhile captor slowing them down and bringing her assassins along behind them. She hardly listened while Mare knocked, caught in a swirl of confusion, and then as the gate swung open, Vana’s voice cut clear and sharp across the air.
            “Cressus, Cressus, I have them!” Vana called, and Cressus thundered out from around the bend, kicking his horse wildly to pass Vana.
            “Aldous!” he called, and Aldous froze, staring at him. He thought she was a captive. He was coming for her. He was pouring his heart and soul into coming for her.
            Dimly, she was aware that she was alone on the step, that Mare was calling her name from inside the gateway, but chiefly she was aware that Cressus had dismounted and was running up the steps to her.
            “Aldous!” he said again, and she took a step back. He slowed, confused, and for the space of two breaths his eyes held hers. She tasted in memory his sweat and desire; she was riding beside him under starlight, dancing her fingers across the creases around his eyes; he was listening to her, listening as no one had ever listened. Aldous opened her mouth to speak, but there were no words. She turned and passed through the gate, and the gatekeeper swung it closed behind her, with a sound of iron.
            That night, after they had rested and eaten, Aldous sat alone on an outcrop of rock, watching the gate with her knees pulled tight against her aching chest. The sky behind the gate was crimson and orange, and somewhere down there Cressus knew she had left him. She started at the feeling of a hand on her shoulder.
            “I beg your pardon, do I disturb you?” It was Hallan. Aldous shrugged. “I am here to care for all the travellers that pass through here,” he said gently, “and I cannot help but see that you mourn for something. This is meant to be a place of refuge.”
            “Aye,” said Aldous, sudden and bitter, “and I was not meant to be here. Mare was bringing Arris here. I was their enemy. I am the enemy. I turned my back on my lover for the sake of something I have no part in.”
            Hallan shook his head.
            “You are in good company here,” he replied. “We none of us have any right to this refuge.”
“What do you mean?”
            “I know the sign your lover wore on his arm,” said Hallan. He was laying something before her, something heavy and grave. “For I myself once wore it. In those days I was called only ‘The Executioner’, the swiftest and strongest in the Blind Eye. The last Thron of many to die by my hand, he spoke aloud the words of Life even as I burnt him slowly to death.” Hallan’s face was drawn in lines of pain and disgust, but Aldous had turned from the gate and was hanging on his words. “I could not forget his words even after he was burnt to ash. I could not forget. I knew I had no right to their beauty—yet here I am, guarding the King’s gate. Nay, Jesh makes the right– you have only to come, traveller. Come before him shrinking that you have no part in his kindness, but come before him bold, knowing that he has bid you come.” Hallan pointed to the east, down past the village to where a long, straight road stretched out between the narrow walls of the mountains. “If it’s a view you’re looking for, try that one. That road takes you straight into Jesh’s land, and there’ll be more joy there than can be found in a hundred lovers or all the power in Aiken.”

 

 

 

 

 

            Aldous turned herself to follow his hand, and gazing down into the valley, she said, “Thank-you,” softly. Hallan slipped away, but he left behind him a little book, bound in leather and illuminated in gold. With her face set towards Jesh’s land, Aldous began to read the Song of the Living.

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Eight

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.

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Seven

            They were a matched set now, Aldous moving east from the city in the wake of Cressus and Vana, and Weiss moving east from the village in the wake of his own credulousness. On horseback, Aldous was making better time than Weiss, but they had to swing far to the north to get around the bog that had almost swallowed up Weiss, and so for the remainder of the night the distance between them was not much closed.
            By dawn, though, Weiss was stumbling again, slow and weary and weighted, and Cressus and Aldous switched horses so that Aldous with her slight form could give Cressus’ mount a respite. They reached the first near the tenth bell and it was there, tied to a tree, that they found Terrick and heard his story. Weiss, travelling in the company of a Thron woman. Terrick was given a horse, and Aldous rode with Cressus. She could feel the anger crackling through his skin. It was whirring and buzzing against her chest, and she liked that, though it frightened her too. Weiss, Weiss, what are you doing?
            At about midday, as Aldous was sharing dustbread and a flask of whiskey with Cressus, his electric anger suddenly hardened into glass before her eyes. She followed his gaze and saw two women travelling along the road out from the village. One of the women wore the simple belted tunic and linen headscarf of a farm worker, but the other was a Thron. You could see it even at that distance. Long black braid down her back, skin even darker than the tanned skin of the village woman. She wore a strange, loose-draped dress of deep coppery-gold, and she was leading a village woman away from her home. Aldous barely had time to register all this when Cressus and Vana wordlessly kicked the horses into a gallop. Aldous was clinging to Cressus’ back but she could feel everything in him flowing forward, reaching furiously for the Thron and her victim, and she thought in surprise that if she fell off the horse now, Cressus would likely not even notice.
            Despite the bright midday sun, everything felt strangely cold and crystalline. Vana was low on the neck of her horse, a black river with her black hair and black tunic and black knifebelt. Cressus was a mountain, an icy height, craggy and howling with wind. Aldous shrank back into herself. They were riding to kill.
            The pair saw them dawn the road and ran, although there was nowhere to go. They ran as animals run, zigzagging wide-eyed through the scrubby grass at the roadside, and Vana and Cressus without speaking herded them towards the gully of a mountain stream that crossed under the road ahead. When they had their quarry at the edge, they both suddenly slowed to a crawl, pulling up the horses and dismounting with a menacing, leisurely grace.
            “Hello,” drawled Vana, thumbing her knives.
            Cressus’ boots crushed through the grass, and the Thron stepped to face him. She held a wooden staff and braced it towards Cressus, but Aldous thought, “Cressus will snap that like a twig,” and so he did, darting forward with unexpected speed, wrenching the staff away, and casually breaking it in two across his knee. He tossed it into the gully and said lightly, “I’m going to enjoy this.”
            The Thron woman moved quickly, slipping in front of the village woman, and barring out her arms as if she could somehow protect the woman from Vana’s knives and Cressus’ bearlike arms.
            “Oh, don’t worry, we won’t kill you quite yet,” said Vana. Kill them? thought Aldous, a twist of horror contracting across her belly, and she made a half-hopeless gesture. Vana looked pointedly at Cressus and jerked her head back towards Aldous.
“Aldous,” murmured Cressus gently, coming over to her side. His breath danced over her neck as he bent very close to her ear. “Aldous, please keep quiet,” he begged. Vana’s back darted tongues of black, disapproving fire. Aldous’ eyes were wide as a child, and she had them locked onto Cressus’. She was holding onto him, the warm, rough skin puckered around his eyes, the set of his shoulders. “I will be quiet,” she said. She did not feel sorry—yet.
#
            He was under the shadow of the mountains now.
“Caethron.” Weiss said it aloud, feeling the urgency and weight of it as Mare had said it before she parted from him. The gate. The safehouse. Carved into the very mountain, it was a way between where no pursuer could follow, and yet it seemed to Weiss that, wretched as he was, it might also be a bar for him. He kept strictly to the path on the map. The few travellers he met, he did not even acknowledge. He kept his head down, and his feet somehow moving, one before the other, and he was under the shadow of the mountains now.
When he came to the steps up to the gate, broad, shallow steps roughly cut into the mountainside, he looked foolishly up at the gate, and down at his map, and up again, and down again. The plains and Aiken where he had lived all his life were behind him, but with an effort he managed not to look back at it, and he breathed deeply and started up the steps.
He did not look back when he heard the dull thunder of horses’ hooves, the commotion of following that rummaged along the trail behind him, did not even look back when two strange voices, one of a woman and one a deep, booming man’s voice, called his name, growing in strength as the horses neared, telling him to stop.
The gate between the mountains was before him, and Weiss said, “Caethron,” in quiet wonder, and he raised his hand in a fist to knock.
A small door slid to, opening a window in the stone gate, and a face hovered in the opening. It was the face of a man about forty years old, slender and lucid, and it’s owner asked gravely who was there, and whence he came, and what did he want at Caethron.
“I am Weiss, of Aiken, looking for passage to Jesh’s Land and to Elionae’s City beyond that. I was sent by one called Mare to find refuge here—if you are willing to let me in.”
There were footfalls on the steps behind him but Weiss didn’t turn; the urgency in the eyes of the man behind the gate was enough for him, and his hands reaching out to pull Weiss in as he swung the gate open. Weiss stumbled into the courtyard as the man slammed the gate shut behind him, and the great iron bar of it fell with a knell of strength. On the other side of the gate, the great man and the woman in black shouted their fury into echoes of the mountain.
#
Back at the mouth of the pass, Aldous paced nervously between the two women bound back-to-back on the ground, and the horse tied to a tree. Her hands fluttered through the air, through echoes of Cressus snapping the wooden staff like a twig, his warm skin, of Weiss grave and determined out on the fields, the courage in the eyes of the Thron woman at her feet, the grey bank of a thousand thousand days of her life in Aiken, and she found herself torn down the middle, crying silently.

 

 

 

 

 

“Woman of Aiken,” said the Thron woman, her voice an arrow cutting clear and straight through the mountain air, “why do you weep?”

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Six

Chapter Four

“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.

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Five

            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.

Writing Wednesdays: Conventicle, Chapter Four

            Signa and Weiss eyed each other for a long moment. It was true that they were friends, and yet their friendship was long, whey-thin, founded more on drinking together than talking together. Here in the rustling silence of the marshes, with nothing to loosen their tongues, they stared at their hands or the mountains, trying to form words. Weiss spoke first.
            “I’m glad you’ve chosen to come,” he said. The sincerity clung awkwardly to his shoulders, but he was glad. “If I could only paint with my words, as Mare did, even Aldous would’ve come.”
            “Mare is the Thron?”
            “Mare is the Thron. She was…” Weiss shook his head, and sighed. “I don’t know. I can understand far better than I can speak. She was right, like a straight street. The first person I think I have ever met who was neither mud-brown or cold grey.”
            “Tell me, what did she say to you that was so moving?”
            “She told me of Jesh, and Elionae, and gave me this book and this map.” From inside his vest, Weiss pulled out a little leather-bound volume. Books were scarce in Aiken, but a book as fine as this was even rarer. Illuminated in gold, frail with age, it was wonder enough just for the beauty of it, and Weiss already considered it as fine a treasure as he had ever owned. But the greatest wonder, the one that made Weiss hollow with awe, was the mark, stamped in the inside cover: the seal of Elionae, intricate and organic, almost as if it had grown there instead of been marked.
            That was the first thing Weiss showed Signa, but as they walked deeper into the marshes, he showed him more, lit from within like a lantern. He showed him the map, the spires and gates of Elionae’s City, the mountain pass that lay on their horizon. He read passages from the Book: the Song of the Living, the measurements of the walls and gates of the golden city that gave a ring of truth to that faraway place, the prophecies of destruction on Aiken and on many other cities. Jesh’s Lore. The dawning of the world, and the dusking of it.
#
            “There also you shall meet with thousands and ten thousands that have gone before you to that place. None of them are hurtful; all are loving and holy, and every one walking in the sight of Elionae, and standing in his presence by the Acceptance of Jesh, given freely to all truly willing to have it.”  Weiss was still reading, rapt and alive, as they trekked, when he noticed very suddenly that it was getting hard to see. The sun at his back was low and red, and Signa lagged a few steps behind him.
            “Might be time to make camp,” said Weiss. Signa merely grunted. Weiss peered back at his companion and realized something was amiss. “Signa?”
            Signa made as if to wave him off, but Weiss hurried back to him. Signa’s face was sharp and pale, and his hands trembled.
            “You’re ill, man,” said Weiss. “Here, let’s find a clearing and make camp.”
            “I’m fine,” said Signa irritably. “It’s just your fool of a sister rushed me out of the house this morning with not a single packet on me.”
            Weiss dropped his hands from where they hovered around Signa’s shoulders and said, “Oh. The hyssop.” He had known, idly, that Signa used hyssop-and-achanes; many of the dissenting did, or black drop, along with their drinking. It felt a faraway knowledge, now, vague and unimportant in the face of what lay ahead. But Signa evidently did not think it faraway or unimportant. He mistook Weiss’s sudden silence and stumbled forward again, casting over his shoulder,
            “I know you always thought yourself such a pillar of virtue, using philosophizing in the place of a good tincture, but you needn’t bother looking down on me.”
            The reeds closed behind him as Weiss stirred himself to answer, and for several minutes he could not catch up to Signa. He began to wonder if he had gone amiss. The sun had suffused into evening now, and it was hard to tell the path amid the reeds. At the same time he noticed the ground growing spongy, sucking at his feet. And then, suddenly, it was sucking at his knees, thick black mud with water pooling up around it. Weiss dragged forward to a hummock of grass and called out for Signa.
            “Where are you?” came Signa’s voice, and Weiss tried to struggle towards it. He felt heavy as a stone; the Deedsweight lashed to his shoulders seemed a biting, pressing force shoving him down towards the mud. Once he fell, getting a mouthful of foul siltiness.
            “I don’t know, I don’t know,” Weiss called, half to Signa and half to himself. “Ah, Signa, keep talking, let me find you!”
            “Keep talking?” Signa’s voice was a snappish shriek. “Is this the bright happiness you promised me? Eli’s damnation, I can scarce walk straight!”
            “It’s the withdrawal,” said Weiss, trying to call loudly and gently at once. “Think of everything I spoke of this afternoon.”
            “Damn everything you spoke of this afternoon!” It seemed to Weiss that Signa’s voice was fading towards the west. “If I find my way out from this thrice-cursed muck, you may possess your brave country alone!”
            “Signa!” called Weiss. “Signa!” But there was nothing more after that. Knee-deep in the mud, Weiss was forced to acknowledge himself alone.
#
            It was late when Aldous emerged from the bath-houses down the street from her uncle’s, respectable once again with the wildness of the swamp scoured away and her damp hair combed back into a braid, but she did not want to go home. To go home would be to face the scandal of Weiss’s second night away from home, her uncle’s scolding, her aunt’s damp smiles. Anything would be better than facing damp smiles. So Aldous left the bath-houses and her heart was open like a raw wound.
            If not home, where? The question had been dragging its feet through her mind for the last hour as she soaked in the warm water, combed the tangles from her hair, eyed the window as if it were an enemy. She had an idea, perhaps even a good one, but it harried her like a hound.
            The Blind Eye. They might be able to bring Weiss back. Their mark was everywhere, sprouted up overnight like mushrooms when the news of the Thron camp arrived in the city. The Geridspolice were ruthless with Throns, scrupulously upholding the Queen’s word that no Thron should speak to a citizen of Aiken, on pain of death. But the Blind Eye were not satisfied with such devotion. They were hunting the Throns down, daring by their very name for the Geridspolice to do other than turn a blind eye. The Geridspolice would probably not stop them. Nobody liked a Thron.
            Aldous had seen their symbol scrawled on the signalboard at the square: the white outline of a blank eye, slashed top to bottom with a stroke of white paint. Underneath, in a quick, careless hand, was an address, a house in the Racketeer’s Quarter. Aldous felt a little sick to her stomach when she found herself at the door of that house.
Aldous knew as soon as she entered the house that she should leave. A woman dressed in black was flinging knives with deafening precision at a crude human-shaped target with the word ‘Thron’ scrawled across the head.
But Aldous did not leave. Poison seemed a better alternative than suffocating inaction. The black-clad woman turned idle alcoholic eyes on Aldous she passed. Aldous glanced away very quickly, training her own paled eyes on the back of the slave who escorted her.
The slave led Aldous to a spacious common room that held an eclectic group of about forty people, some of them obviously in no better shape than Weiss or Signa, some of them as obviously very wealthy and undissenting. They stood in knots around the room, talking amongst themselves. A few turned and examined Aldous with the same detached precision that the black-clad woman had used. Aldous thought that poison was very hard to face. She shrank into herself and wanted to leave. Her body dilated. A sharp-bodied man- also dressed in black- climbed up onto a platform built on one end of the room. He seemed to look right through Aldous’s throat as he asked everyone to please sit down as the meeting was about to commence. Aldous took a seat in the back, removed from the crowd. Her breath came quickly from fear.
            The meeting was not so different from the many political meetings Aldous was wont to attend. The owner of the home, a man called Slava, was calling for action against the Throns. People came to such meetings, she thought, to hear that other people thought as they did. Most of the audience was nodding and frowning righteously. But there was one there who was not. Seated behind Slava, in the shadows of the drapery, so still that for the first long while Aldous didn’t notice him there, was a man. He was big, broad of shoulder and well-muscled with a rough-shaven head, and he sat as if waiting for something momentous; his legs were firmly planted and his hands, with leonine grace, rested on his knees. These things Aldous noticed mutely, but what was chiefly important was that he was watching her. Watching her not idly or vacantly, but with a steady purpose. Whenever her eyes caught his, they seemed to change imperceptibly, as if asking her to acknowledge his staring. At length, she did, lifting her chin and holding his gaze for a few seconds that seemed to drag themselves achingly into minutes. He seemed satisfied and did not watch her any longer, but when Slava had finished his invective and the audience had broken back up into inflamed knots, she found he was at her side, and behind him the woman who had been throwing knives when Aldous entered.
#

 

 

 

 

 

            Aldous left the house in a strange twist of thought. Memories stuck into her like pins: the pliant hatred on the tongue of the woman, Vana. The deadly simplicity of it all, how she had just stated as if it were nothing, “I need you to get my brother back from the marshes to the east. Alive, if possible.” The equal carelessness with which the two accepted the assignment along with her coin, and then pushed forward into talking of the Thron problem. The vivid roil of her breath and body at the man’s hand on her bare arm, when Aldous had made a motion of protest at some particularly vicious words from Vana. Cressus, his name was. It had been a long time since anyone had touched Aldous; longer still since it was a man. She could not even recollect the last time. Aldous was frightened; Aldous was tasting poison, but she could still feel the burning imprint of a man’s fingers on her skin, and Aldous was not lonely anymore.

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Three

At the doorway to Signa’s apartments, Aldous hesitated. What she intended to do was not illegal or dissenting but nevertheless it was not Done. Not by the good families, the Queen’s people; not by Aldous. Still, the whispers that would go ‘round about her if it got out that she’d been travelling the city alone with a dissenting man would be easier to bear than the ones that would go ‘round if news got out that her brother was himself a dissenting, and banished from his aunt and uncle’s home. Signa was the nearest thing Weiss had to a friend, as far as Aldous knew, and odds were they had been drinking together last night. Aldous held her head a moment as if it might burst, and then rapped smartly on Signa’s door.
There was no answer, which of course she had expected, so she sharpened her tongue and her eyes and entered. Signa was sprawled snoring on a low sofa amid a squalid mess of bottles, rags, the burnt-clover smell of discarded packets of hyssop-and-achanes.
“Good morning, Signa.” Aldous didn’t raise her voice, yet her tone was pitched to shard through the tangle of the room and Signa’s ale-soaked head. He groaned and rolled over.
“If it’s still morning,” he mumbled, “then you aren’t welcome. Whoever you are.”
“I assure you this isn’t a pleasure call,” returned Aldous, her voice getting crisper by the word—she was enjoying this, rather, in a sort of ashen way. “I’m looking for my brother Weiss.”
“Jesh and Elio!” swore Signa. “It’s not my watch where he is,” and he rolled over to face away from Aldous.
“Have it your way,” Aldous murmured, and walking round the sofa, threw the shutters wide. Late morning sun flooded the room, striking Signa full in the face, and he swore again and rolled off the couch, thudding ungracefully to the floor.
“Damn you, woman, shut them and I’ll tell you anything you want to know!” he growled, one hand shielding his eyes.
“Better.” Aldous dimmed the room again and crouched sternly at Signa’s shoulder. “Tell me what you know about where my brother is.”
#
Signa was still muttering about how it wasn’t his watch where Weiss was when they made their way out the Peddler’s Gate—Aldous shot a look at the guards that dared them to question her—and onto the marshes in the direction of the reported Thron camp. Aldous, for her part, was too self-controlled to give voice to the steady stream of curses that was running through her head, but inside she was using every oath she knew. Throns! She couldn’t imagine a more scandalous choice for her scandal of a brother to throw at her. She held up her silvery skirts from the squelching mud that lined the highway out of the city.
“Do you mean to search the whole marsh?” said Signa after a time. “Weiss only said he were leaving; he never said where to.”
“I’ll find a Thron and make them tell me,” said Aldous imperiously. Signa scoffed but she ignored him. She was angry as a blood orange; she would find a Thron and make them tell her if her very head burst in the attempt.
As it turned out, they hadn’t to try very hard. The smoke of the Thron camp was still a smudge on the horizon when they noticed to the east of the highway the smoke from a single fire, and a path crushed through the reeds. Aldous raised an eyebrow at Signa and he nodded sullenly. The sun was only just beginning to dip into its afternoon descent when they reached the empty camp. There was a smouldering heap of ashes that had not long since been a fire, and beside them Weiss’s fingerless gloves lay neatly stacked, as if discarded on purpose. There were signs of two trails leaving the clearing; one ran southwest towards the Thron camp, and the other straight east, for the mountains.
“Why would he go east?” mused Aldous, looking from one trail to the other. Signa shrugged in the corner of her vision and she pounced on him with vexed satisfaction.
“There’s talk, that’s all,” said Signa. “If he’s talked to a Thron, it may be… There’s talk of a way through the mountains, a poor road, a dark road, the Throns be calling the ‘King’s Highway’.”
Aldous formed her mind quickly into a white still wall as she made the coronate sign, three fingers raised and pressed against her shoulder: Long live the Queen. King’s Highway! She almost spat.
Aldous was weary from this trek out into the marshes, used as she was to attending political meetings, sleeping late, the ordered, unhurried life of an undissenting. But anger and worry gave wings to her feet, and Signa’s complaints made her stalwart, and about three-quarters of an hour later, she saw Weiss ahead of them.
“Hi, Weiss!” she hailed him, refusing to give vent to the rather sharper words that had formed in her head at the sight of her brother’s reprobate enthusiasm wading through the marsh reeds.
He turned, mouth agape for a satisfactory moment, and then shook his head as if to clear it.
“Aldous, Signa? What are you doing here—and together, no less?”
“Signa has very kindly agreed,” said Aldous in a sweet hiss, “to help me find you and bring you back from whatever fever or madness has afflicted you.” She knew how he would answer, the pine-green scribble of his wilderness lapping on the disdainful shore of her uprightness, and she was surprised when he was instead simply grave and earnest.
“Aldous, I cannot. Aiken is behind me forever, sinking as it is into sulfur and broken stones. Come with me.” He turned also to Signa and said it again, a silver fish of strangeness: “Come with me!”
His very tone goaded Aldous into a contempt such as she had never felt before, even at the most disgraceful of his antics.
“Madness…” she said softly, a grey crystal catching the light and killing it. “Have you left no sense, man? To leave Aiken for some wild fear put into your mind by a wandering Thron? To invite us along with you, urging us to leave homes and safety and pleasures—and for what? To walk headlong into lonely, forbidden death with you? Oh, Weiss—“ she almost purred it—“Weiss, even you cannot be so very foolish as that!”
“It is not death to which I travel,” said Weiss, still maddeningly grave, “but life. Life such as I had never dared imagine before yesterday. Come with me, and prove my words.”
“What is it you expect to find on this thrice-cursed ‘King’s Highway’, that you will leave everything sane behind you for it?” said Aldous, drawing back from him a little.
“Peace and light and colour,” said Weiss. “A city unbound, unfading. Here; I was given a map—” but Aldous pushed his outstretched hand away from her as if it were a snake.
“Back with your map!” she scolded. “Tell me plain, will you come back with me today to Aiken, let me reason with our uncle and save yourself from disgrace?”
His set face was answer enough.
She waited, two heartbeats, three, four. No plan suggested itself to her. Certainly Signa could not have taken Weiss by force even if he were not suffering the effects of a night’s carousing, and Aldous had no words to give combat to that still certainty that seemed to have made a stranger of her brother.
“Come, then, Signa,” she said, turning her back on Weiss. “We will go back without him. He has been taken for a fool by a Thron’s fancy and thinks himself wiser in his own eyes than seven men that can render a reason.”
But Signa did not move.
“Brain-sick as the other,” she said at last, scornfully. “And why should I have expected better of one such as you?”

 

 

 

 

 

She walked home alone through the tunnel of reeds, and she did not cry, by Jesh and Elio! She did not cry. Her fierce shoulders and her furious head made a coronate sign of her body as she walked unhindered past the guards, who knew a Queen’s woman when they saw one, even were she walking muddied and hot in from the marshes with her hair a pale halo around her skull.