The Wish Cycle
Table of Contents
My mother has been waiting for my father to drop dead from unnatural causes since he was sixteen. He’s an Artist, you see.
Perhaps you don’t know what an Artist is, so I’ll tell you. An Artist is a person who can do amazing creative things that a normal person can’t. They’re born, not made. Some call it magic, others call it a gift from the Muse. And some call it a curse.
If any other mother had found a piece of paper shoved under her daughter’s bed, they probably would just have given a lecture on throwing things away when finished. Or a lecture on wasting expensive resources. But not my mother. She had to look at it first. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except for what it had on it.
“This…what is this, Mizna?” she asked, smoothing the paper. “And why is it under your bed?”
I kept my mouth shut. She would see soon enough; no point in hastening the inevitable.
She flattened it against her hip until it was smooth, and then lifted it up so she could see. I realized I was holding my breath, and slowly let it out as she held it up to her eyes. If her eyesight had been any better, she would have realized much sooner what she held in her hand. As it was, she dropped it like she had been scalded, and took a step back, an expression of horror on her face.
It wasn’t anything bad, I promise. Just shocking to my poor mother.
“Mizna, why didn’t you tell me?” she asked in a whisper. She had gone completely white, and her hands were shaking. I didn’t answer, and I didn’t look at the paper on the floor. I didn’t want to see it. I’d known what it was, and what it meant, almost since I’d first put pen to paper. And I wasn’t any happier about it than she was.
It was a drawing, done in ink. It was a face; a face I’d never seen before, but imagined. When I first started drawing, it was just because I wanted to know what the face would look like in real life, not just in my imagination. I got the paper, a scrap, from old man Gort, the bookmaker down the street, and started to draw.
The face came easily, and in great detail. Some things didn’t turn out quite right, but I was able to fix them. After the first few lines, I knew.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” my mother asked again. She couldn’t even say the word.
“Because I don’t want to be an Artist any more than you want me to be,” I said.
My mother has been waiting for my father to drop dead from unnatural causes since he was sixteen. He’s an Artist, you see.
Perhaps you don’t know what an Artist is, so I’ll tell you. An Artist is a person who can do amazing creative things that a normal person can’t. They’re born, not made. Some call it magic, others call it a gift from the Muse. And some call it a curse.
An Artist has natural talent for most art forms, like painting, drawing, dancing, music. But in order to hone that talent, a young Artist has to be taken to the Academy, far to the north. It’s in an abandoned country, a lonely place, bitter in the winter and brittle, like old ice, in the summer. At the Academy, there are lots of teachers, all of them Artists. Some leave in the summer, to find people like my father and bring them there for study.
Once a young Artist is found and taken to the Academy, they’re trained by all the teachers in the many arts. Sometimes there’s a teacher for the art of war, sometimes the sword, sometimes choreography. But an Artist learns from them all.
And then, one day, an Artist will feel a burning desire to do something. There’s no telling what that something will be before they begin, but once they start, there’s no turning back. It is always a piece of artwork, be it a book, a painting, or winning a battle. But the Artist’s Masterpiece is always their final work. They expend their life-force in the making, and once it’s completed, they die.
My father is an Artist. I’ve known it since I was old enough to understand. But it wasn’t until recently that I first realized that my father was different from all the other Artists.
I’ve seen some Artists before. Every once in a while, one will pass through our town looking for young Artists to take to the Academy. I’ve always been struck by how young they all are. And they’re young because most Artists complete their Masterpieces before they reach their thirties. The few who don’t are the teachers. Their Masterpieces are their students, and some have even died from old age, rather than life-force expenditure.
My father is different. He is not a teacher, but he’s still alive. He is the oldest Artist in the world that does not claim teaching as his Masterpiece.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me when I undertook my first creative process. Maybe I should have expected it to be easy. I don’t know. But as soon as I saw the finished drawing, I crumpled it up and hid it. Not very well, obviously, or she wouldn’t have found it, but I didn’t want to look at it. To be an Artist is a sentence of death. To die for your Masterpiece is a great honor, but it’s an honor I don’t want.
I stared at my mother as she looked back at me, her great eyes haunted by what she’d found.
“I need to tell your father,” she said softly. “But I hate to do it. You know he’d hoped you would escape it. And so did I.” A tiny sob escaped her, and she put a hand to her mouth as she fled the room.
I bent and retrieved the paper from the floor, and turned it over so I could see it. His face stared back at me. To this day, I don’t know who it is, or who it was supposed to be. All I knew was that I hated him. He had changed my life. If he had never come into it, I would have lived out a long, happy life with a natural end. Maybe married and had children.
I crumpled up the drawing and threw it at the wall. Then I sank to the floor, and looked under the bed. Thank goodness she didn’t find the others. If she had found the others…
I cut off that line of thought, and crawled for my drawing. I snatched it from the floor, and stared at it for a moment, thinking. Then I spread it out as my mother had done, and set it tenderly under the bed. I hated him, but I couldn’t throw him away.
The others, the drawings that had poured from my pen like water ever since, seemed to welcome him with their eyes, eyes I had drawn, that looked strangely and eerily alive.
I knew it was only a matter of time before my father came home. I sat on the floor, looking at the pictures I no longer needed to hide, until I heard the opening and shutting of the door. It was followed by low voices.
I set the picture in my hand aside, and listened.
It could only have been my father, coming home from his work in the book shop with old man Gort. No one else ever just walked in except for me and my mother, and my mother hadn’t left the house. I would have heard the door open if she had.
No, it was Father.
I listened as hard as I could, but strain as I might, I could hear only muted mutterings.
They must have known I would be waiting for this, I thought bitterly. They knew perfectly well how easy it was for me to hear what went on in the kitchen from my room. They had never tried to keep their voices down like this before.
I stacked my drawings up like I’d had them before, and set them under the bed, close up against the wall. Then I stood up, shaking my skirts so they would hang straight, and walked to my door, which was closed. I pressed my ear against the wood and tried to listen.
The voices had stopped.
I frowned. Why had they stopped? Surely there was more to discuss than a few words could cover. But I heard the door open, and then close once more. The voices did not pick up again, and I could only assume someone had gone out.
What was going on? I wanted to go out and see who had left, but the thought of facing either parent didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. They might want to talk about my impending journey to the Academy, and I didn’t want to think about that, let alone talk about it.
So I sat down on my bed again, and stared out the window. It didn’t face onto the street, so I couldn’t see who had left that way, but I could stare at the cloud formations while I waited. It seemed like I had been waiting for the inevitable to happen all day. First it was the picture, then it was my father coming home, and now it was for whatever was going to happen next.
I wasn’t sure what form it would take, but I had the distinct and unpleasant feeling that it was not something to look forward to.
The scene outside the window was the same as always; the pine trees swaying in the wind, the hard, dry earth waiting for the rain that had been threatening all afternoon. The dark clouds piled up in the sky like a stack of dirty laundry. The wind picked up again, and the tall pine bent; if I’d been outside I would have been able to hear the creaking, and the rushing of the wind.
The cold season was just around the corner; the weather had been cooling for weeks, though the sky had yet to dump any moisture. The ground was still dry and cracked from the summer. The past few days the ground had been coated in frost, and the air had turned cold. Not cold enough for snow; not yet. But it was cold enough for me to start wearing the scarf and knit hat hanging on the peg at the end of my bed.
It was almost time for the Artist to arrive.
Ever since my father had been found here by an Artist that had gotten lost on his way back to the Academy, the other Artists on rotation had made a point of stopping by once a year to see if any of the local children had evidenced budding artistic talents. But they always came late in the year, on their way back to the Academy for the winter, when it was too cold and dangerous for travel.
We had been expecting the representative to arrive any day now. And now, there was every chance in the world I would go with him.
My hands clenched into fists as the pine outside bent again, blown sideways by a particularly violent gust of wind. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be an Artist. I didn’t want a Masterpiece, and I didn’t want to die when it was completed. But now I wouldn’t have a choice.
I heard the slamming of the door once more, and the murmur of voices. Then footsteps.
I scrambled to my feet, in the grip of some plan to face my fate standing. It didn’t make much sense, but it seemed a far better way to face something I hated than sitting.
I stood like a statue; a strange, demented statue, as if preparing for a battle. I was quite sure the expression on my face was fatalistic, as if I was expecting whoever came through that door to kill me and I wasn’t planning on going down without a fight.
The door opened, and my father stepped inside.
He was hunched over from his long hours in the book shop with Gort, and his eyesight was quite as bad as Mother’s. He had a perpetual squint from looking at the tiny print of books that needed fixing, and he had scraps of paper stuck to his trousers. In one long-fingered hand he held a book.
My eyes were drawn to the book at once; could he have left home and gone back to the shop for that? And if so, why?
He motioned for me to sit down. Now that he was facing me, I could see that he was as unhappy about it as I was, and the sense of staring down a monster determined to eat me faded. I sat.
He remained standing, and shifted the book from one hand to the other.
“Mizna,” he said, and then paused to clear his throat. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I asked.
“That you have to live with this, too. I know it’s…not what any of us wanted. But now that we know, it’s best to face it. Over the years we’ve only ever really talked about the bad there is in being an Artist.”
I briefly considered tuning him out, but decided against it. It sounded like he had thought long and hard about this, and he looked as uncomfortable as I felt. So I listened. He moistened his lips with his tongue, and continued.
“But there is good, too,” he said. Now he sounded eager, as if he wanted very badly for me to believe it. “Artists are great people, mostly. They do things that can change the world, inspire people. And their Masterpieces last forever in the Academy.”
“Do you want me to be happy about this?” I asked incredulously. “How can I ever be happy with this? Look at what it’s done to you!”
He sighed, and rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “Mizna, I’m not telling you to be happy about it. I’m trying to tell you that there are good things about it, too, and there’s no reason for you to…to worry about it, or be unhappy because of it. There are good and bad sides to everything in life, and I feel like you’ve only ever heard the bad about this particular one.”
I looked away from him, out the window at the tossing pine. What could I say to that? I was sure there were good things. But could they ever make the bad ones disappear? Or easier to bear?
“Anyway, I just wanted to give you this.” I turned back to him, and looked at the book in his outstretched hand.
“A book?” I asked.
“Yes. The…the Artist will be here soon, to take you to the Academy. And…you’ll be one of the older students.”
He didn’t say it, but I knew what he was talking about. Most artists were found relatively young. I would be in a class with children half my age. But what did that have to do with this book? I met his gaze with a question in my eyes.
“I wanted to give you a chance to start your training early, so maybe you won’t feel like you’re starting so late. So that you’ll – maybe – be a little ahead. It’s part of an exercise the Artists have you do to work on your writing,” he explained. “Here.” He flipped the book open, and showed me the blank pages. “You write in it. Anything you want.”
He closed the book again, and held it out to me. I stared at it for a moment, and then held out my hand. He set it in my palm.
“I’m sorry,” he said again before he left.
I took the book, and flipped it open in the middle. For writing? I couldn’t write. The only person I’d known that could write was long gone.
His name was Yent, and he had been the only other Artist living in our town. He’d been a famous author, but he hadn’t liked the bigger cities further south. He had moved here when I was sixteen, and bought a house to live and write in.
Yent had told the most wonderful stories. But the only one I could remember was the one he’d told me about the Academy. Father was right; they had given similar assignments to the one he’d just given me. Yent had told me about it.
“They give you an empty book, Mizna,” he’d said, a sparkle in his eye. “And tell you to write anything you want. Anything. A story, a poem. When they first gave me mine, the teacher told us all that everyone has a story worth telling. But I didn’t know what mine was, so I went to him after class was over, and asked about it. He laughed, and he told me that every person has at least one story; the story of their life. And then he said that if I wasn’t sure what to write, I could write about myself. My story, my feelings, my experiences. So that’s what I did. It’s the only book I’ll never let anyone read,” he’d finished with a laugh.
I turned the book over in my hands. Well, maybe I could do what Yent had done. Write about what was happening to me. But not now. I bent over and slid it under the bed next to my drawings. I didn’t feel like writing. I didn’t feel much like anything.
I went back to watching the pine tree waver through the window.
It was only a few days later that the Artist came.
I was turning my new, empty, book over in my hands again. It was like the blank pages of a person’s life before it had been lived. I labeled it an Artistic idiosyncratic habit; the desire to not put anything in there that wasn’t worth the paper and ink it would take to write it.
I could feel the words in my mind, waiting to be written. They roiled like herbs in a pot of boiling water, not ready to be written, not even ready to be thought out in an organized fashion. My fingertips touched the tooled leather cover, following the designs. My father and Gort had worked together to make it, though I doubted my father knew the purpose to which it would be put.
I picked up the waiting pen, and dipped it into the bottle of ink. Then I held it over the blank page, waiting for something to come out. Something that made sense. Maybe something life changing, although the thought that anything I could write might fall into that category made me smile.
The pen hovered over the page, waiting for me to make up my mind.
Before I could work up the courage to blot the paper, a flash of motion caught my attention.
I was in the sitting room, one of two rooms in the house that looked onto the street. The hard, wooden chair I sat in was beneath the window, and I turned to trail the splotch of color dancing down the street. It was a child, I decided. Too small to be an adult, or even a teenager. My book lowered into my lap, and I set the pen back down on the angled desk. I craned my neck to see where the youngster was going. It was a girl, surely. No boy in town would be caught dead in such a color. She was running as fast as her short legs could carry her.
I brushed the lace curtain out of my way, and she suddenly resolved into the neighbor girl, Marsa. Her braids were flying out behind her, and she was running toward…
My hand faltered, and the curtain slipped back into place. I hurried to catch it again, for what good reason I couldn’t have said. I really didn’t want to see.
He was standing in the middle of the street, his flamboyant clothes bright in the gloom of an approaching winter, standing in stark contrast to the naked, black trees on every side. His cap, a fat, useless thing, was tipped off to one side, and his cloak was thrown back over his shoulders so his clothing could be clearly seen.
I snorted in disgust. Any article of his clothing could have been sold to feed to excess my own family for months. He was young, like so many others that had come through over the years. He couldn’t have been much older than me. Twenty-five, perhaps.
As I watched, a crowd of young children gathered around him, bouncing up and down and tugging on him. He took it with a smile, one point in his favor, and even picked up one of the smaller ones, who promptly pulled the hat down over his eyes. This made me smile, as unwilling as it was.
This man would take me away. He would take me far to the north, away from my mother, my father, my home. Perhaps he would even be one of my teachers. My fingers felt suddenly cold, and I released the curtain. It fell back into place over the window, not quite blotting out the riotous color of the Artist in the street.
I’d been expecting this, of course. My bags had been packed for some time, with the new winter clothes my mother had paid for from her savings so I wouldn’t freeze on the journey. I had little else to bring with me. But now that he was here, I wished they could stay on the floor where I had dropped them, and gather dust. The thought of donning the new fur-lined cloak and pulling on the heavy winter boots made me feel nauseous.
I turned away from the window, and noted with some surprise that the book had slipped through my fingers and fallen to the floor. Had I let it go? I bent to retrieve it, and while I was bent double, I saw my mother’s feet come into view, the leather of her shoes worn and darkened with age.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“The Artist is here,” I said, straightening.
I saw her throat work as she swallowed. “Oh,” was all she could manage. Her hands clasped in front of her, and she turned her eyes down to the floor. I looked away. A moment later, I heard her retreating footsteps.
I rested my elbow on the desk, and stared at the house across the street. How long would it be before I could do this again? The Artists rarely stayed for more than a day or two. They would ask around for talented children, tell stories or sing songs all night, and then leave in the morning. Just enough time for the new Artists to gather their things.
I rested my forehead on the upward slope of the desk, and shut my eyes. The cool of the wood seemed more real than the thoughts tripping through my head.
We went to the bonfire, of course. Everyone did. Everyone always did. Ever since Yent had died, the only Artist in town had been my father, and he never told stories. He refused to play an instrument, and only ever sang at home, when he was happy. They got no entertainment from him.
We walked down the main street, dressed in our warmest clothing, a string of three spread across the road among the other families. The sun was nearing its resting place below the horizon, sending the last few slivers of warmth out over us as we neared the bonfire clearing.
The houses, made of logs, looked dreary in the half-darkness, and the woods lurked behind like creatures with long, twiggy fingers. A few people carried lanterns, making the shadows dance in the dark. Dead leaves crunched under my boots, and skittered away in the cold breeze.
My parents said nothing, and I didn’t break the silence, either. We had been a quiet family for as long as I could remember. Perhaps other Artist families didn’t feel the Masterpiece looming over them like we did; perhaps they had more laughter in their homes. But for us, my mother and I, we knew that one day my father would die. And now, I knew I would die as well. Probably before I could fall in love, marry, have a family. Someday, perhaps sooner, perhaps, later, my mother would be a widow, and her only daughter would leave her, too.
I pulled my hood closer about my face. If it was possible for my thoughts to be clearly seen there, I didn’t want anyone reading them. But I had other reasons for not wanting my face seen.
I had seen my father emerge from the shop and beckon to the Artist shortly before leaving for the bonfire. They had spent a few minutes in conversation, and the Artist had nodded before walking off to prepare for his performance. My father would have told him about me; he would know who I was.
It was irrational, I guessed, since he would be seeing me every day for quite some time. But I didn’t want him to see me. I wasn’t ready for him to see me. I wanted one more night of anonymity. One more night before I had to face it all.
I fell behind my parents as we walked to the clearing, until I was following a few steps behind. Perhaps it was an unspoken desire to take as long as possible to arrive, a futile hope that if I delayed it long enough it would fade away to nothing like a dream. Whatever the reason, I still stepped into the clearing only a few heartbeats after them.
The bonfire had already been lit, and the orange light flickered on the branches of the sleeping trees. It showered warmth on those close enough to feel it, and turned pale faces red with heat and expectation.
We found a place on the edges of the gathering, and chose a seat on a log felled for the purpose. The fire was ringed by such logs, and many were filled with other cloaked figures; families, like ours, out for a night of performance by the visiting Artist.
I huddled between my mother and father, like I had every year, and waited. There was chatter all around, laughter, and I could even smell the scent of freshly popped corn. Someone had brought a snack with them. It smelled as if it had been scorched, and I wondered if a younger daughter had had her first try tonight. But there wasn’t just popped corn; I saw barrels of soup and steaming tea. The housewives had been busy. The meager basket of bread on my mother’s arm seemed very small.
Someone had brought bowls and spoons, and many of the townspeople were fetching their supper from the communal barrels, steaming in the cold.
It was a slow process, getting the town settled. There were lines to the food that had been brought, and much moving around as friends and family vied for seats together. But, at last, everyone was seated. There was a long moment of silence. It stretched from seconds into minutes, until I saw him.
He was just beyond the ring of light from the fire. I had missed him before, because he was no longer dressed his finery from earlier in the day. He wore all black, and the only sign of his obvious riches was the silver clasp at his throat. His ridiculous hat had gone, to be replaced by a more practical hood.
He was standing out of the way, nearly hidden behind a tree, as though waiting for a hidden signal. I stared at him, wondering why he was hiding. After a few moments, my mother and father turned to see what had captured my attention.
Whatever signal he was waiting for seemed to have arrived, because he stepped swiftly into the light. The questioning murmurs faded at once. He gave an elaborate bow much more in keeping with his previous costume, and surveyed his audience with a serious expression.
“My name is Merwent,” he said. He had a deep, rich voice that was surprisingly pleasant. I thought he would be an excellent singer, and wondered if that was his preferred method of performance. “To entertain you tonight,” he continued “I’ve chosen a story to tell.”
I felt a pang in the vicinity of my heart. That was how Yent had begun his storytelling sessions. Maybe all storytellers from the Art Academy began this way; but whenever I heard it, I would always hear it in Yent’s voice.
“Some artists would choose a bright, merry tale,” he went on. “Something to make you laugh. Something to help you forget the coming winter and its hardships.” He began to pace as he spoke, and I felt my interest quicken. This sounded different. “I’ve chosen something else.”
Here, he paused. I’d seen such a ploy before. It was a dramatic pause, for effect. But rather than tell us the title of his tale, he launched right into it.
He spoke far into the night, the firelight dancing on his face. He became the Muse, the dark spirit, and the martyred hero. He lived their lives, he feared their fears, and, toward the end, died their deaths. The people forgot the soup they held in their hands; the housewives’ labor was wasted as it grew cold. Young children stilled their fussing to watch as he prowled around the fire, weaving his spell. Adults became so absorbed that the fire began to die for lack of fuel.
When he rose from the ground at the end of the story, I discovered that tears had spilled over onto my cheeks. He looked once around the circle, and bowed before vanishing into the darkness. The crowd was silent after his sudden departure, but when they came to themselves, as if waking up, they began to cheer. Many stood up, clapping phantom hands together in the darkness left behind by the dying embers of the fire.
I stood in silence, and realized my hands had gone numb from cold.
“The gift of an Artist,” my father murmured as he led us home.
Yes, I agreed. A gift for others. Never for us.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I heard his voice in my dreams, saw his animated face as he acted out the last moments of the martyr. And I heard my father call it a gift. I saw my pile of belongings, mocking me, waiting for me to gather them up and leave.
When I awakened, I didn’t feel rested. I felt as if I had fought off my personal demons all night, and my knee ached when I stood up. I must have slept on it wrong.
I slipped into my warmest clothes, shivering in the cold. My breath plumed out in front of me like smoke, and I fancied I could see my future play out in it. When I had put on my old boots – I left the new ones in their place, set in a corner like a child in time-out – I left my room.
I went down to breakfast, dreading what I would find. I wondered if my mother had fixed a special breakfast for my last day with them. She did things like that sometimes, like when I was little. My father had taken me out in the woods for an ‘adventure’ as he called it, and we were to be gone for two weeks. My mother had fixed a special breakfast the morning we left. When I was younger, I had thought it wonderful; a special beginning to a special day. But I knew it now for what it was: a way to say goodbye.
The kitchen was much warmer than my room had been, dominated as it was by the large stove. It was going full blast, and hit me with a wave of delicious heat. I hadn’t realized I had been bracing against the cold until that moment, when my muscles released.
My mother was there, like she was every morning, bent over the stove. I watched her for a moment, puzzled.
I had expected a breakfast of flapjacks, or some other food we rarely had, like bacon or eggs. But she was stirring a pot of our usual hot cereal. By the smell, she hadn’t even added cinnamon or milk. I frowned, but schooled my face to blankness as she turned around at the sound of my footsteps.
“Good morning, Mizna,” she said.
“Good morning, Mother,” I replied.
Before I could phrase a question properly to find out what had changed, why she was fixing our usual breakfast, the door swung open. My father stepped inside, and closed the door on the chill. The cold seeped across the room, and then vanished, vanquished by the heat of the stove and my mother’s industry.
“Smells delicious, Kii,” my father said, crossing the room and dropping a kiss on my mother’s forehead.
“You say that every morning,” my mother replied, smiling to show the dimple in her right cheek.
“And I mean it,” he said “every morning.”
I looked from one to the other in confusion. Where had the melancholy from the night before gone? Had they really adjusted to this so quickly? I felt a flash of indignation. How could they have gotten used to the idea of me leaving before I had even accepted that it was true?
“Mizna, can you get the bowls?” my mother asked.
I moved to do as I was bid, feeling cold despite the warmth of the room. Had they decided they were glad to be rid of me? No, no that couldn’t be it. Could it? I set the bowls in their places at the worn table, and then went after spoons. I aligned the spoons carefully with the table’s edge, focusing on that, and trying not to think of the figurative storm cloud swirling above my head.
My father sat down, and motioned for me to do the same. I did so, sinking into my chair, which rocked back and forth on the one leg shorter than the others. By the time I had settled it so it wouldn’t wobble, my mother had dolloped my bowl full of the cereal, and had moved on to Father’s bowl. I stared at my father through the steam, and waited. If there was something he wanted to say, he would say it soon. I’d never known him to delay things.
He waited only until I had lifted the first bite to my mouth.
“You’re not going with the Artist,” he said abruptly. I’m sorry to say I nearly spewed my mouthful across the table at him. By the time I had forced the scalding slop back where it belonged, he had continued.
“I spoke with him last night and this morning. He says the passes north should still be open for another week, and I plan to take you myself in three days.”
I found my tongue, discovered it was burned, and spoke anyway.
“Why?” I asked. “Why am I not going with him? Don’t you have work here?”
“You’re not going with him because it would be just you and him all the way north,” my mother said firmly. “And your father’s already spoken with Gort.”
I took her meaning at once, and leaned back in my chair, making it wobble alarmingly. So there were no other Artists in town this year? No wonder they weren’t letting me go with him. A young woman, alone with a young man? And a man none of us knew, at that. I raised anther spoonful to my mouth, taking care to blow gently at it to cool it first, the memory of my first bite seared across the tip of my tongue.
At first, all I felt was relief. They weren’t glad to be getting rid of me after all. Then my anxiety returned. I would still have to go. My journey was delayed, not removed. And only for three days. Three more days until I left my hometown for the Artist Academy.
I ate my breakfast in silence, down to the last scrape of spoon on wood. Then I shoved back from the table.
“May I be excused?” I asked. My father nodded his consent, and I left the table.
I fled to my room, and sank onto my bed. I was unsure what to think of my temporary pardon; to be relieved that I didn't have to go right then, or unhappy that I would have to endure looking forward to it for three more days.
I stayed in my room for a while, but the air grew too close and stuffy, in spite of the cold, and I had to leave. Being locked up with myself for too long was the kind of self-inflicted punishment I couldn't endure. So I went to the sitting room, my new, and still untouched, book in my hand. Maybe I could think of something inspiring to put on its pages. I snorted. Unlikely.
But still, I sat on the hard bench by the desk, and set it out before me with my pen and ink. I would probably be staring at empty pages to the end of my days. They mocked me, like my stack of belongings waiting to be taken on their first journey. I rested my elbows on the surface of the desk, and cupped my chin in my hands. Some of the heat from the kitchen had seeped into the sitting room, and the cloud of my breath was gone. So I focused instead on the curtains.
It took me a moment to realize what was happening on the other side of the window.
"Are you certain about this?"
I refocused, and suddenly the image on the other side of the window loomed up, rather than the curtains. I recognized the bent figure of my father at once, but the second was amorphous, like a statue seen through the fog. It didn't turn into a recognizable shape until the voice spoke again.
"The passes through the mountains might close up by the time you get there."
It was the Artist.
I leaned forward. I was aware that eavesdropping wasn't an ideal occupation for a young lady, but at this point I was hesitant to claim that particular title for myself. I certainly didn't feel like a young lady. And, I realized with a twang of guilt, I wasn't acting like one either. But I pushed my better judgment aside and listened.
"I'm aware of that," my father said in a low voice.
"You could both come with me; I'm willing to wait another few hours."
"I understand, and I'm grateful to you for that. But I need to do this myself. There's not much I've been able to do for her; she's lacked a lot of things growing up that the other girls had. I just...I need to do this for her. I know she doesn't want to go. And I don't want her to go, either. But I think it might be easier for us both to have each other for that little bit longer."
I put a hand to my mouth, and blinked away tears.
For my thirteenth birthday, I had wanted a new dress. There had been a new fabric in the cloth shop; it had been a dark blue, my favorite color, with threads of gold and silver worked in leaves. I wouldn't have cared about the dress pattern, if only that cloth had been used. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I had told my mother how much I loved it; how much I wanted a dress from that material. When my birthday came, I wished, I hoped. I knew the fabric would be expensive, but I had so much faith in my mother's ability to scrimp and save that I mistakenly believed she could do it with what we could afford.
When my birthday came, there was no dress. But my mother had known what I wanted, and had dipped into her savings to buy a single strip of the material. She had worked hard on that little strip, hemming the edges with as pretty a stitch as she could manage, with thread that almost matched. It was a very pretty hair ribbon, and I loved it. But I couldn't hide my disappointment. I knew better than to say anything, but I knew they could tell. I had tucked that cloth away, never worn it. It was still in my room, pressed between the pages of my favorite book.
I had never asked for anything for my birthday again.
I wiped a stray tear from my cheek.
"I see," the Artist said. I saw him duck his head. "I may not ever get to have a daughter, much less meet her, so I can't claim to understand. But I think I have an idea. I wish you the best of luck, and weather. I hope your journey is safe, Fortez. I'll see you when you arrive."
"Thank you," my father replied. They clasped forearms, and the Artist inclined his head to my father. With a swirl of his cloak he was gone, leaving my father alone in the cold.
I scooped up my book again and scurried for my room. I didn't want to be in the sitting room when my father came in.
The sky was slate gray when I said good bye to my mother. The first flakes of snow floated down, spots of white swirling overhead, as I kissed her goodbye. I pulled my hood up over my head, and stepped out into the cold. I went to the end of the walk, and turned back. In the somber gray and brown, the open door of my kitchen glowed welcoming reds and oranges like a beacon. My father held my mother in his arms for one brief moment before leaving the warmth behind.
As he joined me at the roadside, he turned to wave once. My mother raised her hand in farewell. We turned, and walked down the street toward the edge of town. We passed homes with windows alight with the fires inside. I saw no shadows at the panes, watching as we went. No one had come to see us off, but this didn't surprise me. It was cold. I pulled my gloves higher up over my wrists, and followed as my father took the lead.
The homes faded into pine and cedar as we left the outskirts of town, and despite the hour it was dark as twilight. It was not yet noon, but the angry clouds overhead blotted out the sun. In the first hour, the snow increased. Soon I could feel it piling up in the folds of my winter gear, and stacking up on the pack I wore on my back. I thought of the warm fires at home, and the silhouette of my mother in the doorway. I was heading into a wintry freeze for a future I didn't want.
I huddled in my hood, watching the laboring back of my father a few steps ahead. His foul-weather gear was old, unlike mine. It was a remnant of his own journey to the Academy; he had taken care of them, and worn them only rarely since his return home. They were worn, nonetheless, but he seemed to think they would be sufficient. Either that, or the purchase of materials for my own gear had so depleted their funds that they couldn't afford anything more. This brought another sigh. All of this effort and sacrifice for something I didn't want — would never want. It seemed such a waste. All the things my mother and father could have done with the money that had gone into this stupid journey.
I stumbled, and fell to my knees with a grunt.
"Mizna?" My father turned around. "Are you all right?"
I struggled to a half-kneeling position under my burdens, and brushed off what snow hadn't already melted and soaked through my trousers. "I'm fine," I called back. "Just tripped."
He turned to come back. "No, I'm fine, don't worry about me," I said, waving him off. He ignored me, and trudged through the snow to offer me his hand. I took it with a sigh, and he hauled me upright with surprising strength.
The wind blew in a gust, tossing up the snow in a cloud as I found my footing. While I had been ruminating over my situation, the storm had increased its fury.
"It's getting pretty bad," my father said, squinting skyward. "Maybe we'd better stop soon."
"We haven't gone very far," I said. We had to yell to be heard over the wind.
"If it gets any worse we'll get lost, and that won't do us any good," he replied. "We're a few miles from town. Even in this, if we can find our way, we should be up in the pass tomorrow or the next day."
"So you want to wait and see if it clears up?" I asked. "What if it doesn't?"
"Then we find our way tomorrow, snow and wind or not."
The wind screeched in the silence before I answered. "Where are we going to stop?" I asked, defeated.
"We'll go until we find somewhere a little more sheltered," he answered. "Then we'll set up camp."
I nodded, and he turned to continue on up the road to the pass. If that's what he wanted to do, then I wasn't going to argue. I might complain a little, though. We had been climbing a gentle slope, and the snow had deepened to such an extent that snow had managed to work its way down into my boots from my fall. It had melted there, making my feet damp and cold.
"Will we be able to light a fire?" I asked.
"Maybe," he said. "If we can find some wood that's not too wet to light."
Not too wet to light? I looked around. There wasn't a dry twig in sight. I sighed. There wasn't anything I could do about it now.
I huddled in my jacket, watching my father work.
We had stopped by the side of the road and gone a few yards into the trees so we would be sheltered from the driving wind and snow. The snow was still thin enough that he was able to shove it to one side, and he was currently stacking the wood we had gathered in the center of the depression. He was bent over the stack and working with his flint and steel. He had ripped a few pages from a book in his pack, and was trying to light them.
I had offered to help, but he had set me to work clearing space for us to pitch our tent. I had already done this, piling the snow in a semblance of a wall to offer some sort of windbreak in addition to the trees. I had even struggled alone through the pitching of the tent. And still he bent over the unlit fire.
So I had crawled inside the low tent and set up our brazier, ready and waiting for solid fuel and flame.
My fingers had gone tingly when he let out a shout of triumph. A tiny tongue of flame was eagerly devouring the paper as he added a few leaves, and then small twigs, to fuel it. The mound of snow around the fire protected it from the wind, and it continued to grow.
With a sigh of relief, I stood up and walked closer. He shifted to one side so I could join him, and I held my hands out to the tiny glow. The heat was barely perceptible from that distance, but any heat at all felt like a boon to my fingers. I curled and uncurled them as my father continued to add wood in larger and larger chunks.
"We should be all right for a while," my father said, looking at the trees above, screening the gray sky with dark green and brown patterns.
"How long do you think we'll have to wait?" I asked.
"At least until the snow slows some," he answered. "Getting lost in this would be a fatal mistake."
I nodded I understood.
The snow continued all day, which I only realized was ending when I could no longer see my own hands when I held them away from the glow of the brazier. When I opened the tent flap a crack I could see that snow still spiraled from the sky, but the wind had lessened, so that it landed like feathers rather than spinning like hailstones. The wind had died completely now, and the moon could be seen through patches of cloud as they moved across the sky. The pale light illuminated the fallen snow and trees, making it look like a surreal painting done in black and white. I felt the stirring desire to put the image down on paper, and promptly released the flap of the tent. I didn't want to draw. Not really. A tiny voice in the back of my mind whispered that I wanted to capture the moment because it was beautiful. I huddled in on myself, thinking that the warmth of my mother's fire was far more beautiful than any frozen thing, but the tiny voice continued to whisper.
The next morning dawned bright and cold, and we left before the gray of the sky had fully faded to the pink and gold of sunrise. We cleaned up our campsite and packed our tent with chilled fingers, and then set off down the road once more. The storm had stopped, leaving the forest looking as if it had been dusted liberally in sugar.
I don't know how long we trudged through the snow, only that I wished we were going in the opposite direction — home. My clothes grew damp again quickly, and they chaffed at my skin. My boots were heavy, the soles uneven with snow clumped to the bottom. I had to pause every few steps and shake the ice loose.
We ate a quick, cold lunch around noon, and pressed on toward the pass. When we finally stopped, my nose had gone numb, my hands were shaking in my gloves, and the moon had risen. I had been so studiously not looking at the snow and moon, and ignoring the desire to capture the images on paper, that I ran into my father.
"Are we stopping?" I asked, catching myself on his coat.
"Yes," he said, a ghost of a smile flitting across his face when he saw my relief. "Let's go this way," he added, pointing to one side of the road.
As I turned to follow him, I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and I stopped.
We had been climbing into the mountains steadily for some time, and I could see the village spread out below. My breath caught. The mountains circled the village like protective arms, and every tiny house within was alight. Golden beams fell from each window so that the valley looked like a crowd of gleaming fireflies.
I stared for a moment, forgetting my determination to completely ignore anything that might inspire artistic expression.
"Mizna?" my father asked, his eyebrows cocked in a question.
"Coming," I said, turning from the sight. As I tore my eyes away, it was like a physical pain. But as I followed my father into the trees to set up camp once more, I could see it in my head, every tiny detail. I knew that if I wanted, I could replicate it exactly. I could almost feel the pencil in my hand as I pitched our tent.
I caught glimpses of the village through the trees as I worked; it was framed by snow-covered branches glistening in the moonlight. Even when my face was turned away, the image seared like a brand, and I knew I was lost.
The instant camp was set up, I sought out a mostly sheltered place under a tree, scraped the ground clear of snow, and fished my blank book from my pack. With numb fingers I retrieved my ink, and set it by the fire.
My father watched in silence as I waited for the ink to thaw.
When it was ready, I flipped the book open, and began to draw.
The image in my head leaked out onto the paper, bit by bit. It was rough, I could see, but it captured what I had seen. It was no more than a sketch, and something that hadn't occurred to me before appeared in my mind as a half-formed thought. At the university, they would teach me to perfect this. My hands stilled after completing the final tree. At the university, I could learn to paint. To use colors. I bit my lip. If I could just add some deep blue to the night sky...no!
No, I thought. This was good enough.
"If you smudged this bit, here, it would look more natural."
I jumped, and the pen fell from my hand, splattering ink over the snow. My father was leaning over my shoulder, watching. How long had he been standing there?
"I didn't mean to startle you," he said, abashed. "I should have remembered..."
"Remembered what?" I asked quickly, turning my book so the picture was obscured.
"How easy it is to get caught up in your art, when there's an image begging to be made," he said. "Sometimes, a picture just sticks there, and it won't let you rest. It's a strange compulsion, and hard to resist," he added with a faint smile.
He returned to his place tending the fire, leaving me alone with my drawing. I checked to make sure he was thoroughly involved in the fire, and then held my book out at arms' length. The scene was spread over two pages, and smudged where my hand had rubbed the ink where it wasn't quite dry.
I sighed. It was close enough to recall what it had actually looked like, but it wasn't as close as I'd hoped. That branch was up too high, this one had too many needles. The snow didn't sparkle, and the moon didn't shine. The houses and their lights had no warmth.
I snapped my book shut, not bothering to make sure the ink was dry, and retrieved my pen from where I dropped it. I shoved all my things back into my bag, and huddled into my coat.
A tear trickled down my cheek, and I brushed it away impatiently. Stop crying, I ordered. It's a picture that didn't turn out the way you wanted it. It's not a tragedy.
Our meal that night was a silent one, like much of the journey so far had been. It weighed like a wet blanket; a secondary layer of quiet over the snow. I didn't break the silence, and wasn't certain I wanted to. So I made to curl up and sleep without saying a word.
"Mizna, would you like me to teach you some of what you'll be learning at the academy tonight?" My father's voice cut through the night.
"I...no. Not really," I managed, my back to him.
"Oh," he said. "Very well."
I thought I detected a faint sadness in his voice, but I did not turn to see if his expression revealed more. Instead, I wrapped myself up and closed my eyes.
"A chill swept down my spine. Is this how the Artists expired? My eyes widened, and I felt myself leaning backward."
My eyes flipped open, my body thrumming with adrenaline. I froze. Something had awakened me from a deep sleep, but I didn't know what it was.
My eyes met the dark weave of the tent, tinted red by the brazier. The faint glow of the fire was a dim, warm presence off to one side. I strained my ears for any sound, but nothing broke the frozen silence. I had just begun to relax, lulled by the warmth of my clothing and the fire, when a sound like a whipcrack in the quiet snapped through the air.
My body went rigid once more as I threw myself into a sitting position, looking toward the fastened tent flap, my heart pounding.
"Father!" I hissed. The dark lump on the other side of the fire stirred as he sat up, bleary-eyed.
"What is it?" he asked. I opened my mouth to answer, but the snapping sound repeated — and continued. My father turned wide eyes on me, and then struggled to his feet, picking up his gnarled walking stick and holding it across his body like a weapon as he unfastened the tent flap and threw it wide.
"Who's there?" he called out into the night.
The crackling intensified, and I recognized the rhythm of footsteps.
"Someone's coming," I said in a whisper.
"Who would be out in this weather?" my father asked, also in a whisper. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and point out that only people who were crazy, like us, would be out in this.
"Who's there?" he repeated.
I stood up slowly, wondering why I didn't have something to defend myself with. My hands felt frighteningly empty, so I clenched them into fists. I knew how to throw a punch, at least. I made to join my father at the tent opening, but he held his arm out to stop me. I could see the trees over his shoulder, and the gleam of the moon on fresh snow.
"Who...who is that?" came a weak voice from the western side of our campsite. An instant later, a figure shrouded in a ragged cloak stumbled out of the trees. He stood there for a moment, shivering. Under his hood I could see the shining silver of a beard, and a bulbous nose. He took another step closer, and his legs gave out.
"Please," he said, his voice breathy and cracking. "Please, I need help."
My father and I exchanged glances, and then my father left the tent. I noticed that, though my father wore a look of concern on his face, he neither relinquished his walking stick, nor relaxed his rigid stance. The man sounded weak, and though he wore a cloak, I could see that he was not dressed nearly warm enough for the weather.
My father helped the man to an upright sitting position — and let out a cry as his stick dropped to the snow.
"Mergall!" my father exclaimed.
"Fortez, my friend," the man replied, sounding relieved, holding tightly to a cloth-wrapped package in his arms. "I am glad I found you. Your wife — she said you had gone this way."
"Mergall, what are you doing so far north? You're going to catch your death out here — especially dressed like that!"
As he spoke, he ushered Mergall into the tent, brushing past me. He settled the elderly man near the brazier, and draped a blanket around his shoulder. I fastened the ten flap once more.
"I have already caught my death," Mergall said. He didn't touch the blanket my father gave him, only clutched the package in his arms more firmly.
"Father," I said. "What's going on?" I looked from one man to the other, my brow puckered.
"This is an old friend of mine from the academy," my father said. "Mergall and I were in the...the same year."
I looked closer at the portion of Mergall's face that was visible, and looked back to my father. "I don't understand," I said. Mergall's face was creased with wrinkles, and the skin of his cheeks and and jaw were sagging. His bare hands were veined and spotted with age.
"I'm an Artist," Mergall said with a wheeze. "I've almost completed my Masterpiece."
A chill swept down my spine. Is this how the Artists expired? My eyes widened, and I felt myself leaning backward.
"But that doesn't explain why you're here," my father persisted, unaware of my reaction. "I'll get you something warm to eat, but you should explain."
As my father bustled around the tent, gathering the various food items we had put away earlier, Mergall shrugged deeper into the folds of the blanket, and, without releasing his bundle, began to speak.
"Fortez, I need your help."
"It is yours," my father said. "Of course."
"No, Fortez, you don't understand," Mergall said. "I'm dying, and I need you to take my masterpiece to the academy. It can't stay in the south!" At these last words, he bent double, wracked with a cough that sounded wet and unpleasant.
"That's where we're going," I said hesitantly.
"Of course we can take it with us," my father said, setting a kettle and tripod over the fire. His voice was pitched like he was talking to a frightened child. I'd heard that tone before. But unlike when I was young, I could hear the undertone as well. His back was taut as a bowstring.
"No, no, you don't understand. You have to leave, Fortez. We're all in terrible danger."
Was he delirious? I glanced at my father, who was still calmly preparing warm food for his friend.
"All right, then, why don't you tell us about it, from beginning to end?"
The food set to warm, he settled next to his friend. I watched from the other side of the fire as the Artist loosened his grip on his bundle, and set it on the ground before him. As he unwrapped it, I realized that it had been better prepared for rough weather than he. As the various layers fell off, I saw a large tome, thick as my wrist and with covers of carved wood. It was huge. Opened, it would have covered my lap with an overhang of several inches to either side.
"A book, Mergall?" my father asked, drawing his brows together in confusion. "When last we met, you were a stargazer, an astronomer."
"To that I hold," Mergall said. "This is all the knowledge I have accrued in my time in the south. It has taken me many years, and I now have but the final pages to complete before I go to my death. I have delayed it as long as possible, but my fingers ache. I must finish either tonight or tomorrow. I cannot stand the fire in my bones. It consumes me from the inside out."
As he spoke, his eyes seemed to burn with fire and passion, but, the brief moment over, he slumped once more.
I clasped my hands together in my lap; they were shaking. Was that what it was like? Would I become a shell of my former self when the time came? Would I be reduced to a doddering old woman, prolonging the inevitable in the hope my life force would have been spent in a way that might benefit others?
"Why do you flee?" my father asked gently.
"Far to the south, in the cities of Marmoth-Tal, there was a religious sect who waited for a heavenly body to appear. Their legends state that it was powerful in ways our peoples have forgotten. It was said-" here he lowered his voice "-that when this heavenly body is in the sky, those who know how can harness its power and learn sorcery."
There was a moment of silence where all that could be heard was the crackling of the fire, and the falling of snowdrifts deep in the woods.
"Some of the ancient sects haven't died out," Mergall continued. "They are weaker than they were. They remember the legend, but don't know when it will appear. During the Southern Wars, that piece of information was lost to them. I was able to discover the time of its return based on other records — astronomical records. I've calculated it to within twelve hours. Somehow a sect of Marmoth-Tal discovered this, and I have been running ever since."
"Which sect?" my father asked. "Who's hunting you?"
Mergall stared at my father for a moment before speaking. "The Falye," he said at last. "The fallen kings of Marmoth-Tal."
"The people call them Marth," my father said.
"Death," Mergall translated.
The silence was filled with the crackling of the flames, and the rustling of bedding as I shifted uncomfortably. I seemed to have been forgotten. Mergall might not be aware that I had no idea what he was talking about, but my father knew all too well the shortcomings in my education. I recognized the name Marmoth-Tal, but Falye was strange to me.
Surely Mergall had come unhinged? He certainly looked mad, his bright, fevered eyes fastened on my father as his restless fingers plucked at his book.
"And you think they'll kill you for this piece of information?" my father asked at last.
"They will," Mergall said. "I have reason to believe that the accusations of witchcraft and spirit dabbling that ended their reign are connected to this heavenly body. Were they to learn a way to track it through the heavens, they would be returned to power."
There was another silence, filled with the crackling of the fire.
"The Falye wouldn't be hunting you in this, surely," my father said at last, waving vaguely. "They're a desert people. They have no experience with cold, or snow. Mergall?" The fading man was shaking his head.
"They will follow me," Mergall said. "Even through the snow. It might buy some time, but very little."
"What is it you want us to do?" my father asked cautiously.
"Take this book. When I've finished, take it to the academy. It will be safe there. I would take it myself and spare you the danger, but my time is running out in more ways than one." Mergall's lips twisted. "My fingers itch, Fortez. I won't be able to take it for much longer. I'll have to finish, and then..."
My father nodded quietly. Mergall clutched the blanket around his shoulders, and closed his eyes. My father looked up at me and cocked an eyebrow. 'Do you believe him?' he seemed to ask. I shook my head.
Surely his friend was raving? This couldn't be true. Why would some...sect...from the south be after a book? He had to have found the information somewhere, and that meant they would have been able to get it without hunting him this far north.
"We'll do it, Mergall," my father said. "Just finish it, and don't worry. We're going that direction anyway."
"You don't believe me," Mergall wheezed. "This is dangerous, and you don't understand."
“No,” my father said gently. “I don't. But we'll take your book safely to the Academy.”
Mergall stared at my father, and I wondered what he was thinking. He looked quite mad, and I wished my father would wave him back to the village. Someone there could care for him, and we could take his book, like my father had promised. I felt as if I was an intruder in a scene from a play to which I had lost my lines.
“You will be in danger,” Mergall said weakly, as if he couldn't understand my father's willingness.
“Finish your Masterpiece, Mergall,” my father said. “We'll see it gets safely where it needs to be. And if there are Falye pursuing you, then we should be able to shake them off this far north. I know the land, I know the weather, and we're prepared for it. They won't be. Rest easy, old friend.”
Mergall licked his lips, and then, slowly, he sighed. “Have you pen and ink?” he asked. My father nodded, and turned to me. I fumbled with my pack, thrusting my hands inside, looking for the smooth chill of my ink bottle. When my fingers found it, and the pen close by, I pulled them from my pack and set them in my father's waiting palm. The dying fire shone a red gleam on the bottle, and it looked like blood.
They thawed the ink by the fire as I stacked more wood atop the coals. Once it had thawed properly, Mergall opened the book across his knees, a reverent expression on his cragged face. He took my pen in his hand, filled it with ink, and began to write.
My father sat down beside me, and watched in silence as Mergall's hand traced words, sentences, across the parchment. He wrote so feverishly that the scratching of the pen sounded like sandpaper on wood, and I wondered how badly his handwriting would appear when he had finished.
I don't know how long we sat and watched Mergall write, only that I had to add wood to the brazier before he set down my pen.
“It's finished,” he said softly. “Fortez?”
“Will you help me outside?”
In only the last few moments, the wrinkles on his papery skin had deepened. His voice was weaker, raspy, and his hands shook like dead leaves in a chill wind as my father took them and heaved his friend to his feet. He opened the tent flap and the two men stepped outside into the darkness.
I appeared to have been forgotten, and laced my fingers together in my lap. I suspected Mergall was going to his death any moment, though, and decided not to follow. His glazed expression and aged skin haunted my memory as it was. I shook my head to rid myself of it, and my glance landed on the book my father had given me. I had dumped it on the ground in the search for pen and ink, and it lay now, open, with flickering red light dancing across its pages.
I picked it up, and looked at my drawing. The determined, crazed expression on Mergall's face as he wrote flashed in my mind's eye, and suddenly I felt sick. I ripped the pages violently from the book and tossed them into the brazier. Perhaps I acted too hastily, without real thought, but it was too late now. The spidery lines of the trees vanished in gold and red flame.
I was still staring at the curled, blackened paper when my father returned – alone.
“He's gone,” Fortez said softly.
“Why didn't you send him back to the village?” I asked.
“He never would have made it,” my father replied. He would not meet my eyes, though I watched him as he sank back onto the place where had slept. He looked at his hands, as though seeing them for the first time. “I was years older than Mergall when we took classes together,” he said to himself.
And at the end, I thought, he looked old enough to be your grandfather. I shivered, and the sparks from my burned drawing rose from the brazier. I fancied they were like my own pleasant memories, tiny bright flecks in the air, but ultimately their light extinguished by smoke.
“What are we going to do now?” I asked softly.
“We'll leave him here,” my father said, rousing a bit from his stupor. “When we arrive at the academy we'll send word to the village so he can be given a proper burial.”
Margall's book, still open, drew my eyes. “And that?” I asked, nodding at it.
“We'll take it with us,” Fortez said. My father sounded very tired, and there was a weary look in his eyes I had never seen before.
“What about the-the-” my tongue stuttered over the unfamiliar word “Falye?”
“We'll keep our word,” my father said, his voice stronger now. “Artists near the end of their life can hallucinate, especially if they try to delay the completion of their Masterpiece.” He paused here, frowning. “I don't think everything he said was madness.”
“He was raving,” I said. Perhaps the words were more hope, wishful thinking, than truth.
“He certainly sounded like it,” my father replied. “But why else would he have put off finishing his work? He would not have been mad before the delay. Something made him do that.”
“You think there really is some murderous religious sect after this?” I asked. My voice rose in pitch, and my father looked up at me.
“I think it's possible,” he said.
I stared at him. “Then what are we going to do?” I asked helplessly.
“We'll sleep through the night and leave early in the morning,” he said.
“That's it?” I asked.
“We'll decide what to do in the morning,” he said. “We can make better decisions after a good night's rest.”
I wanted to object, but I also knew he was right. We would make better decisions. But I had discovered a vat of simmering panic somewhere in the region of my stomach. He thought the Falye might be after Mergall's book. The Falye were an apparently dangerous religious sect that people called Death. And we had Mergall's book. Not only did we have this book that Mergall said they were willing to kill for, but we were just going to curl up and sleep while they hunted for it.
I, naturally, did not much like this plan. What if they found us?
I gave myself a shake. He was crazy, I told myself. But I must not have believed it, because my father curled up and fell right asleep, but I sat awake, staring at the walls of the tent, illuminated by moonlight, and jumping at small sounds. I finally drifted into an uneasy sleep sometime around dawn. I dreamed fitfully, an image of myself aging rapidly while I started at myself in a mirror was interrupted by my father shaking me awake.
“Start packing up,” he said in a whisper. “I'll get breakfast.”
I nodded, and he went to stoke the brazier for cooking. I gathered together my bedding, rolling it tightly and putting it safely in my pack. I hesitated when it came time to pack my pen and ink. These had last been touched by a man who was now dead. I pushed down the superstitious feeling and put them in my pack anyway. That left Mergall's book. It was lying, open, as he ad left it.
I picked it up, and the wrappings Mergall had kept it in fell off in pieces. It weighed
heavy in my hands, and I could feel the grain of carved wood against my skin. I closed it for a better look at the cover. It was a deep, rich mahogony, smooth as silk. It had a gleaming pearl in the center, and the wood around it was carved like ripples in still water. The gleam of the wood caught the firelight, making it seem to have depth, as if I could dip my fingers into it. I ran my fingers across the cover, and found myself tucking the tome into my pack with my bedding.
My father handed me a bowl of hot cereal a moment later. He saw the book in my pack, but said nothing.
“We're going to behave as if we're being chased,” he said as we finished our meal. “That way, if we are, there will be less chance of us getting caught. Better to rush and not need to than to take our time and be caught.”
I wanted to point out that we'd already lost hours of time in the delay it took him to choose this strategy, but kept my mouth shut. Instead, I moved about our tent, gathering our gear and packing it safely.
We set out as the sun peeked over the pine trees, casting a blinding reflection off the snow.
Our first few hours went without incident as we were finally able to make decent time. The sun, free from the clouds, warmed the air and earth enough that the snow began to melt, and we no longer had to brace against the wind.
We were nearly to the pass when it happened.
We had stopped for a brief rest before we pressed on through the pass and down the mountainside. My father was a little ahead of me, scanning the road ahead, and I was leaning against the rough bark of a towering pine. The melting snow had mixed with the earth and made a sticky mud that clung to my boots. I was scraping the mud from the soles with a stick when I heard a strange sound, like the buzzing of a very angry bee.
I looked up, puzzled.
“Mizna! Run!” my father yelled. In that instant something long and thin thunked into the wood inches from my face. I reeled away from the tree with a strangled gasp.
The forest erupted around me.
Figures cloaked in black rushed from the trees. One carried a long, curved staff – no – it was a bow. With a terrible lurch of my stomach I realized he had shot at me.
I, of course, couldn't figure out which direction was “away.” There were figures everywhere, holding flashes of light in their hands — knives – and grimaces on their faces. They swarmed out of the trees behind us. I saw a flash of color from the corner of my eye, but I could not look away from the archer. As if in slow motion, he pulled another arrow from the quiver strapped to his back, and fitted it to his bow. I could feel his piercing gaze on me, and I knew with chill certainty that I was his target. My father was further away – I would be the easier mark.
I wouldn't be able to get away in time. My breathing increased in speed until it sounded like a hurricane in my ears. I was going to die. I'd never get to see my mother again, I'd never even have a Masterpiece to show for my death -
Something hard fastened around my arm and yanked me backward. I stumbled over a fallen log as I struggled to right myself, tree branches flashing by as my feet sank into cold, wet puddles of melting snow. I fell awkwardly to my knees, spending up a splash of mud. I couldn't hear over the pounding of my heart as I was yanked to my feet.
At last, able to see where I was going, I could run. My father's hunched form hurtled through the trees, dragging me into the woods. His hand was clamped around my upper arm, ensuring I did not slow. Arrows whizzed through the air, and my father zigzagged through the underbrush, trying to avoid them.
Mergall hadn't been mad, I thought as I tried to keep up with my father. Mergall had been telling the truth.
My breath huffed in my ears like a bellows. My legs and lungs burned, twin pains informing me that my body had not been prepared for this. But the arrows still flew. If I slowed down or stopped, surely they'd be right on us. I pushed my legs harder, gasping for breath as my father's grip tightened on my wrist.
“Don't slow down,” he ordered.
A tree branch slapped me in the face, dumping slushy snow into my eyes. I tripped clumsily after my father and tried to swipe the snow from my face. My father's grip changed suddenly, and he started pulling me sideways.
“Turn, turn,” he said, a frantic tone in his voice. He grabbed my wrist with both of his hands and tugged.
That was when I noticed the ground giving way beneath my feet. My eyes flew open in spite of the snow. I looked out across an expanse of snowy forest. Below my feet – far, far below, ran an iron gray line – a river.
The world tilted.
My father cried out, and I dropped.
There was a searing pain in my shoulder, and for a moment I couldn't feel my father's hand on my wrist. The pain in my arm overwhelmed everything else. But I realized, through the haze of pain, that I was no longer dropping.
I was dangling by one arm down the side of the cliff, my father's hand wrapped tightly around my wrist. I looked up, and the motion radiated downward into my shoulder. I couldn't stop the groan.
My father was on his belly, his shoulders out over the ledge. He grimaced in pain.
“I've been hit,” he gasped. He looked down into my face. Don't let me fall, I wanted to say. I could hear the sounds of the Falye approaching through the woods, footsteps: the crunching of ice, and the soft sliding sound of displaced snow.
There was panic in my father's eyes.
“You have the book?” he asked in a whisper.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Mizna, they're coming,” he said. “I can't pull you up, I'm not strong enough.” He was speaking quickly, in a whisper. “There's a gentler slope, I'm going to try and swing you that way,” he said.
“What?” I asked, my voice a screech.
“Mizna, please.” I met his eyes. “I can't protect you up here. They'll kill you for sure. You'll have a chance, if I can just...”
I was shaking badly by now, my teeth chattering together. Was he going to drop me?
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
I stared up into his face for what seemed a very long time.
“Yes,” I said at last.
“You must try to land on your feet,” he said. “Keep your knees bent, and cover your head.” I nodded, a little jerk that sent pain through my shoulder. “I'll be swinging you to your right. Try to find a place to land.”
He didn't wait for my reaction. He started moving his arm, swinging it back and forth. I ground my teeth together to keep from crying out at the pressure on my arm, and looked instead for a place to land.
“Look for Merwent,” he said. “Follow the river. He shouldn't be that far ahead of us.”
I was swinging wider now, and the pain from my arm and shoulder were making my eyes water. I wiped the tears away, and saw the slope he'd mentioned.
“Try to roll further down,” he said. “So it looks like you've fallen. When they get here, pretend you've died from the fall. That should buy you some time.”
I heard a shout. My father looked over his shoulder, and when he turned back, I saw that a tear had streaked down his cheek.
“I love you,” he said.
Then he let go.
I swallowed a scream as the bare earth of the cliff flashed past. The spot I'd chosen to try and land vanished in the stomach-lurching fall, but I remembered to bend my knees. I lifted my uninjured arm and curled it over my head, and an instant later I hit the ground with a bone-jarring impact. I toppled to my side – which was a mistake.
My father had thrown me toward a gentler slope, yes – but it was still a slope. My world righted itself for only a moment before I was rolling downhill, bashing knees and elbows on anything that got in my way.
I tucked into a ball and squinted my eyes shut as the earth battered and bruised my body, my hurting shoulder now just one hurt among many. My pack made the roll even more jarring, if that were possible, and the hard items inside dug into my back as I went.
I don't know how long I rolled. It seemed an age, and I remember wanting to cry not long after it started. I couldn't recall experiencing such all-over pain in my life, and it didn't seem to have an end.
Just when I was starting to fear I would roll until I splashed into the river, I collided with something large, and far more solid than myself. Pain blossomed from my stomach, and my breath whooshed out in a poof. I tried to fold in on myself, but the obstacle was in my way. I forced my eyes open.
Something rough and brown met my gaze. A tree, I recognized. I rolled so I was facing up. A pine tree. I wanted nothing more than to stay still. And, now that I was no longer tumbling downhill, I remembered what my father had said. I looked toward the cliff, ignoring the flares of pain all over my body.
I let my head loll, not certain I had the strength to lift it. This turned out to be a good thing.
On the cliff, two of the figures in black stood over my father. One was looking my direction, and I remembered abruptly that I was supposed to be playing dead. I stared carefully at once place, and indulged my desire to hold perfectly still. It was far less comforting than what I'd hoped, considering I was hardly in a comfortable position and could feel snow seeping through my clothes, but there was nothing I could do about that now.
My father was up there, with them. I could feel myself starting to panic again. Would I have to watch, playing dead, as they killed him? I struggled to keep my face blank, and fought the desire to blink as my eyes started to burn.
No, I told myself. If you can't pull this off, you'll both be dead. Just don't freak out.
The robed figure that was looking at me turned toward my father, and I allowed myself a blink as the two grabbed him, and dragged him out of sight. A yell split the air. I sat upright, ignoring my aches, and stared in horror at the place they had vanished.
They had killed him.
I buried my face in my hands, and felt tears forming in my eyes. I didn't blink, unwilling to admit that I was crying when I should be leaving this place, looking for Merwent like my father had ordered. The tears filled my eyes until I couldn't see, and then, finally, I blinked. They cascaded down my face, streaks of heat on my chilled cheeks as I struggled to my feet.
I had to get out of here. Once they realized he didn't have the book, they'd come looking for my body, and once they saw that I had moved, they'd know I was alive. I didn't have time to mourn.
I limped off in the direction of the river, trying to put as much space between myself and the cliff as I could. I walked into the trees, each step a dull pain.
I arrived at the river shortly, and turned to follow it as my father had directed.
As I walked, slowly, painfully, the tears continued to fall. I had to get away, to find help. But my vision was blurry from crying, and I couldn't bring myself to think about what I would do when night fell in only a few hours. I walked. That was all I could do, now.
But when the sun began to set, I had no other choice. The colors stained the sky, and I found that they seemed paler, somehow less than they had been before. There was a stirring in my heart at the sight, and I knew, objectively, that the sunset was beautiful. My fingers twitched as I watched the sky, and I knew that some part of me wanted to draw it. But that part was now very small, and I had no urge to go in search of pen and ink.
The distraction of the sunset turned my mind to more urgent matters.
My father had had the tent and brazier with him. Though I had some food, I would have no protection.
I couldn't afford to stop moving. If I did, I would die. Even if the Falye didn't find me.
It was then I realized that it had been several hours, and I had neither seen nor heard anything of pursuit. I looked behind, scanning the riverbank and trees. Nothing moved in the darkening shadows of the forest. They should be coming after me any moment. They should already have been after me.
I limped forward again, faster this time.
There would be time to mourn later, if I survived. And, I now realized, I intended to live.
I had to find Merwent.
Father had said to follow the river, and that Merwent shouldn't be that far ahead. He'd left days before we had. Maybe I could catch up – if I didn't stop to rest, which I couldn't do anyway. And the storm the first day out must have stopped him, too, so perhaps he didn't have as great a lead as I feared. Maybe I had a chance after all.
I made to take my pack off and set it on the river stones, but found that it pulled my shoulder, and I hissed in pain. What was wrong with it? Could I get my pack off with it like this? I had no desire to eat, but my stomach was an empty hole, and I knew if I didn't eat soon I would be in trouble.
It took me some time, several tries, and a lot of pain before I finally slipped it off. It fell to the ground with a thud, and sent river stones flying. I lowered myself gently to my knees, very aware of how bruised they were, and lifted the flap.
The first thing I saw was Mergall's book. I froze. Then, without hesitation, I pulled the book out, and, hefting it in my hands, strode to the edge of the river. I raised it over my head to throw it into the stormy gray waters. I stood there for a long moment, my arm raised. The moment stretched into minutes as I stood, grateful there was no one there to see my face contorting into various masks of misery. This book had killed Mergall. It would probably kill me. It had already taken my father. It should be destroyed, dropping to the bottom of the river where it could never claim another life. But I couldn't convince my arm to swing and release.
Finally, I let my arm drop, and the book slipped from my numb fingers. I fell to my knees beside it, and hugged my chest as best I could with one arm as the tears came again.
I couldn't do it. I couldn't destroy the book. The one way I had to avenge my father, and I was too weak to do it.
What was ironic, I thought, was why I couldn't do it.
It was a Masterpiece. A man had given his life to complete this book, and I was just going to throw it away like trash? A man's very soul went into it. Hadn't I watched as Mergall willingly gave his life force to bring this book to completion?
I scooped the book to my chest.
My father had given his life for it, too. Perhaps it was selfish or inhuman for me to think so, but my father's life seemed the greater sacrifice.
I returned to my pack, and tucked the book safely among my bedding. My fingers touched something smooth and square. Heart pounding, I pulled out the book my father had given me. Once again, I couldn't stop the tears. The picture I had burned – I should have kept it. It would have been a reminder of my father, of the time we spent together before his death. I slid the book inside my jacket and dress, where it rested against the skin of my chest. I didn't have the heart to put it back in the pack.
Then I pulled out all the provisions I had, and stuffed them in my pockets. I wasn't going to be stopping for a meal for some time.
After some more careful maneuvering, I had my pack back on, though my shoulder ached fiercely, and with every step the pack bumped against bruises. I forced myself to eat a handful of dried fruit, and followed it up with a hard piece of dried meat that I chewed carefully as I walked on through the deepening night.
The moon rose, and the shadows on the snow were blue. The trees cast twiggy shadows, black as ink, across snow and stone.
I was walking much more slowly than I had hoped; my sleepless night was catching up with me. But the dropping temperature kept me awake. I could see my breath on the air, and I had to stop again to wrap myself in more clothing to help keep warm.
As the night wore on, it got colder, and clouds blew in to cover the moon. Fat snowflakes fell lazily from the sky, eerily quiet. The river rushed by on my left, a black mass glimmering in the dim light. My father's book bounced against my chest, and for a time I convinced myself that some part of him, the part that loved and protected me, could still be present in his final gift to me. I knew it was delusional, but I accepted it anyway. I needed what warmth and encouragement I could find on this night.
The river went on forever, without end. After a few hours of stumbling wearily through the dark, it seemed as if nothing was going to change. I would be walking along this dreary, snow-crusted bank for eternity, unable to sleep, unable to escape, or find help.
The same part of me that labeled my beliefs about the book as delusional informed me that I was too tired to think clearly, and that grief was not helping. But I did know that I was still awake, still moving forward. If I could be grateful for anything, it was that my discomfort kept me alert enough to stay mobile.
But even so, I thought the glow of a fire was a hallucination.
It was faint, so faint that at first I thought it was a trick of my tired eyes. But after I rubbed them and squinted back to be certain, it was still there. I stood in the snow for a moment, thinking. It took me longer than normal to come to a conclusion – exhaustion combined with the cold to slow my thinking. Snow piled slowly around my ankles as I stared at the vague orange glow.
Then I shuffled forward, snowflakes catching in my eyelashes.
The glow was coming from the direction I was already headed. Once I got close enough, I would check it out. If there was any chance of finding help, I was going to take it. And if someone was there, and they had a fire going, with something more edible than the fruit I'd been gnawing at for hours, then I wasn't going to complain.
As the light drew closer and closer, I realized that I could see more details of the area around me. I looked upward, toward the east. The sky was lightening with a gray dawn. If I didn't hurry, I wouldn't be able to see the glow to guide me for much longer. I urged my legs to go faster, but they seemed heavy, weighed down with stones.
A few minutes later, I walked through a thin line of scrubby trees, and came out into a campsite. I blinked stupidly, staring at the tent. It took a moment for the thought to form properly, but when it did, I scrambled forward, trying to croak out something coherent as I went.
Not a hallucination.
“Help,” I managed, my voice hoarse. I tried again. “Help!” I stumbled up next to the tent and fell roughly to my knees just as its flap was thrust open. A pair of wide, dark eyes stared back at me in astonishment. I almost didn't recognize him without his hat.
“Merwent,” I said.
“What's happened to you?” he asked, pushing the flap open further. He grabbed my arm to help me up, and the pain in my shoulder, which had subsided somewhat, throbbed painfully. I cried out, and he released me at once. “Come inside,” he said. He sounded concerned.
I crawled inside the tent, and the warmth washed over me in a wave. I expected it to be more pleasant than it was; I was so cold that the heat hurt.
“We have to go,” I said.
“What happened?” he asked me.
“There's no time,” I said. “The sun is rising. If they stopped for the night they'll be moving now, and-”
“You're the girl,” he said. “The one I was supposed to bring with me.” He hesitated staring at me. “Where's your father? Where's Fortez?”
Why wasn't he listening to me?
“He's dead,” I said, as harshly as I could manage. “And we will be, too, if we don't move now.”
His face paled. “I need to know what happened,” he said. “You look exhausted, and cold. Unless there's a very good reason for packing up and leaving right this second, you're going to warm up and sleep first.”
“The Falye,” I said. “They're hunting me. Or-” I floundered for a moment. “This. They're hunting this.” I struggled to slip my pack off, and once he realized I was having trouble, went to help me. He set the bag before me, and I pulled out the book, which I handed to him. He frowned as he took it in his slender Artist's hands.
“Where did you get this?” he asked, looking up.
“My father's friend – Mergall. It's his Masterpiece. He found us after we left. He said...he said that the Falye are after it. I didn't believe him, but they attacked us, and now my father's dead, and we have to leave-” I didn't realize I was babbling until Merwent held up his hand.
“All right,” he said calmly. “We'll pack up and go, but you need to calm down and try to warm up while I do. There's some food on the brazier. While you eat you can explain why, exactly, an ancient religious sect is after a book on meteorology.”
“And then I'm going to look at your arm,” he continued, as if I hadn't spoken. “You look as if you've been run over by a wagon,” he added, glancing up at me, a quirk in his eyebrows, as he began rolling up his bedding.
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically. “I rolled down a cliff and I've been walking all night – after watching my father get shot. If you expect someone to look like a beauty after all that I'm afraid you're more delusional than I am.”
“My apologies,” he said. I thought I detected a note of mockery, but I wasn't sure.
I scowled at him. “We need to leave,” I said. “We don't have time for this.”
“You're right,” he said. “Except that, unlike you, I am preparing to leave. You could assist me by eating the leftovers on the brazier, and putting your book away.”
“It's not my book,” I protested. But it was weak, and we both knew it. Instead of complaining further, I did as I was told. My brief surge of energy was gone, and I found that I really didn't want to argue with him. Besides, whatever had been cooking on the brazier smelled much better than the fruit in my pocket. I gave him more details as I served myself a bowl of food from the brazier, and he nodded thoughtfully, a frown on his face, as I spoke.
"You seem remarkably calm for what's happened to you," he said at last.
"I know how to handle my grief so that I can still function," I said flatly. "I have...experience."
He nodded as if he understood. "That experience may be the only reason you're still alive," he said.
I wanted to tell him how hard-won that experience was, but I couldn't bring myself to say the words. Instead, I finished my meal, and moved to help him pack up the rest of the camp.
I wasn't much help, though. Every wrong twist I made sent a jolt of pain through my shoulder, leaving me with only one good arm. Fortunately, Merwent seemed to know what he was doing, and was obviously used to doing it himself. I ended up standing outside, idly opening and closing my fist, as he collapsed the tent.
My belly was full, and I was slightly warmer than I had been an hour before, but my eyelids were still heavy, and felt rough — I could feel them scraping with every blink. My arms and legs felt heavy, too, horribly heavy, as if I had been weighed down with stones.
“So they hadn't discovered you were alive when you went looking for me?” Merwent asked, bundling up the pieces of the tent.
“No,” I answered. “At least...I don't think so.” He frowned at this, but didn't pursue the topic further. He strapped the tent to his pack, and approached me. I watched him warily.
“Let me see your arm,” he said. I didn't think there was anything he could do, but I figured he couldn't make it any worse than it already was, so I held it out – at an awkward angle — for his inspection. His frown deepened, but he wasn't looking at my arm; his gaze was fixed on my shoulder.
“Lie down,” he ordered.
“We don't have time-”
“We don't have time for you to be injured like this if I can help with the pain,” he cut me off. “You're not going to be able to defend yourself at all if you can barely move your arm. Lie down.”
I did as ordered.
“On your back,” he directed. “Then hold your arm out.”
I didn't know what he was doing, but I assumed he knew, and it was supposed to help somehow. He took my arm firmly in both his hands and started to pull.
“What are you doing?” I asked, squirming and trying to pull my arm free.
“Your shoulder is dislocated,” he said, tightening his grip. “I'm going to relocate it. That should reduce the pain. If you try to get away from me, it's only going to make it worse.”
He started pulling again, and I ground my teeth together. The pain, which had lessened to a dull roar, rose again to a shriek. My shoulder was already in pain, and he was forcing it to move in a way that didn't feel right. It grew even worse as he pulled, and my breath hitched in my throat. He didn't relent at my complaints, only continued to pull, a look of concentration on his face. Just when I thought I couldn't take it anymore, and I was going to have to ask him to stop, I heard a pop, my shoulder slid back into place, and the pain suddenly lessened. I gasped.
“There,” he said.
“It...it doesn't hurt as much,” I said. A bead of sweat trickled down my temple and into my hair.
“The bone is back where it belongs,” he told me. “Now come on. We need to get moving.” He glanced back down the road as I gathered my pack and slid my arms through the straps.
“Try to avoid moving your arm if you can,” he said. “We don't want it to pop back out again.”
“It can pop back out?” I asked, sounding very small.
He said no more, but returned to his pack, which he put on.
Dawn had come while I ate and he packed up camp. Clouds still filled the sky, so the day was as formless as the night, though the colors had changed. I'd found help – but now what? The Falye, if they had stopped for the night, would be moving now.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“We're making for the Academy,” he said. “They can protect you there. They have a collection of Masterpieces as well, so they'll be equipped to take the book. Once we get there, we should both be safe. Full winter isn't far off, and the Falye are desert people. If they don't go home or find a place to stay for the winter, they'll die. We only have to stay alive until then.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“About as sure as I can be of anything,” he replied.
We walked on the road in silence for a time as I struggled to keep up with his long strides. I wasn't a small woman, but his legs were still longer than mine. I was blinking very slowly by now, and after realizing I had been walking with my eyes closed for longer than was safe, I force them open and decided that I needed to do something to keep me awake.
“Tell me about the Falye,” I said abruptly.
“You haven't heard of the Falye?” he asked.
“Of course I've heard of them,” I snapped back. “But I don't know anything about them.”
“I don't see how you could have heard of them and not know anything about them,” he said. “The Falye are the fallen kings of Marmoth-Tal. They ruled the deserts for generations. But they fell a few centuries ago. They were accused of witchcraft – sorcery. They lost power, and they've been weak ever since. When they fell, of course, their empire collapsed into tribes.”
“Mergall said that he thinks the heavenly body he tracked in this book is linked to how they fell,” I said.
“If they ever had that kind of power, they've lost it now,” Merwent said. “They're just vicious mercenaries. Some of the more powerful tribe chieftains in the south hire them as assassins. It's all they're really good at.”
“Assassins?” I said, sounding tired, even to myself.
“Yes,” Merwent answered. “They're called Marth.”
“Death,” I said.
“Can we really get away from them?”
“We're going to try.”
I stopped in the middle of the road. “Should we try?” I asked, looking over my shoulder. The road twisted and turned back up into the mountains, a pale ribbon in the trees. Somewhere in there were the Falye, and somewhere further back, my father.
“Of course we should,” he answered at once. He was still walking, but he stopped when he realized I wasn't right behind him anymore. “If you have a death wish you could have left me out of it,” he said irritably.
“I don't have a death wish,” I replied, sounding quite as irritable as he had. I walked up to join him, and we continued down the road together. But the new thought stuck in my mind. Should we be trying to escape? Was there another way?
After that exchange I stopped trying to talk to him, instead staring at his unbending back as he led me toward the Academy. I didn't realize how much I could dislike someone just for walking perfectly upright. Again, the more sane part of me spoke up. You're annoyed because you're tired, and you're blaming him because it's better than blaming yourself. At this point I made a face, and the rational part of me shut up.
I didn't want to be rational. I wanted to smack the back of Merwent's head, sit and cry on the snowbank, eat hot food, and sleep in a warm bed – in that order. But, mostly, I wanted my father back. I didn't realize I was sniffling more than the cold warranted until I walked into something solid and fell backward. Fortunately, that something solid was Merwent, and he caught my elbows before I hit the ground.
“Let go,” I said, shaking his hands off.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I don't believe you.”
“Then don't believe me!” I exclaimed.
He stared at me for a moment, then shrugged and continued on his way.
This did not improve my temper.
I stomped after him, fuming, and wishing now more than ever that I didn't need his help to survive this. I should have passed by his rickety tent in the night, and gone on by myself. My father would have understood, but he couldn't anymore, because he was gone, and now I had to deal with this, this – I couldn't even think of a suitable name to call him. I scowled furiously at his back. I stopped short of blaming my father for what had happened to him – I couldn't bring myself to do that no matter how upset I was – but none of that applied to Merwent.
We continued on, my anger keeping me awake, and at least alert enough to keep up with Merwent's relentless pace. But by noon, I had grown to hate how straight and unbending he was, the punishing pace he set, and how little he apparently cared for how uncomfortable and tired I was.
We didn't stop for lunch.
By the time the gray of the sky was fading to black, I was no longer angry. I was barely shuffling along after Merwent, my boots scraping furrows in the snow as I dragged them forward, step after step. I felt hollow, as if the places where my emotions should have been were scraped empty. The large snowflakes that had been threatening all day floated past my face, and I found I could not focus on them.
“When...when are we stopping?” I asked.
At the sound of my voice Merwent turned around. I stopped in the middle of the road, swaying, as a breeze picked up and blew my hair around my face. He walked back a few steps, and looked into my face. I squinted up at him.
His expression softened.
“As soon as we find a place where we're hidden from the road,” he said.
I nodded, and we walked forward again, but this time, he hung back closer to me, as if afraid I would fall. Not a bad idea, I decided as my foot bumped against a stone hidden by snow and I had to pause to regain my balance. After a few minutes more, Merwent led me off the road.
We walked into the trees far enough that we couldn't see the road, and Merwent told me to sit on a nearby boulder. I obeyed without complaint or question, and watched blearily as he set up camp. He lit the brazier without starting a fire first, which I thought was odd, but I couldn't think very well by that point, and moved as if through water when Merwent waved me over and held the tent flap so I could go inside.
I removed my pack with care, and Merwent silently helped me arrange my bedding while we waited for the brazier to be warm enough to cook over.
“Can I look at the book?” Merwent asked. I nodded. He pulled it out, and let it fall open in his lap.
I settled down into my bedding and watched Merwent as the air slowly warmed from the heat of the brazier. Everything seemed to move so slowly.
The next thing I was aware of was being slowly, gently, moved. I was aware it was Merwent, but the new position was much more comfortable than the old one, and sleep took me again before I could form a coherent thought.
I awoke at once, my eyes flying open and my body tensing as if for flight.
“Whoa, it's all right,” Merwent said. He was leaning over me, one of his hands resting on my uninjured shoulder. He must have shaken me awake. I'd been sleeping? For quite some time, I guessed. “Sorry to wake you,” he said. “But it's morning, and we need to get moving.” All night, then, I decided.
I moved to sit up, and the pain hit me in a wave. I groaned and slumped back.
“I'd like to say you can take your time,” Merwent said. “But you really can't.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, and struggled to sit up. My belly ached from folding around the tree, my shoulder was sore, and I could see bruises on my wrist from where my father had caught me as I fell. As I shifted around I found more places, more bruises. There were several large ones on my back, and I could feel injured flesh on my elbows and knees, too.
“I don't know how well I'll be able to move,” I said, my voice hoarse.
“You're not going to be able to move at all if the Falye find us,” he pointed out.
“I'm aware of that, thank you,” I said, but my voice lacked energy, and his only response was to hand me a bowl of food. I felt a flush of shame as I realized that he had let me sleep as he cooked. Maybe he wasn't as uncaring as I'd thought. I accepted the food he offered, and took a bite. It hit my stomach with a gurgle, and I realized I had a very empty belly.
I devoured the bowl of gruel so quickly that I barely tasted it, and Merwent worked around me, continuing to pack up. He rolled up my bedding as I wolfed down my last bite.
“I'm putting this in here,” he said, tucking Mergall's book safely into my pack.
I froze, the bowl and spoon still in my hand, as he fastened the flap closed.
“Why don't we just give it to them?” I asked suddenly. Merwent looked up at me, eyebrows raised.
"The Falye?" he asked. I nodded. “Why don't we just give it to them? According to this, this heavenly body has some kind of power. The kind of power that might have given them the ability to work magic. They're assassins. You really want to give assassins the ability to work magic?”
“But they'd leave us alone then, wouldn't they?” I asked.
“They might,” he admitted “but they might not. We can't know for sure. And even if they were to leave us alone, we shouldn't be so willing to give them the weapons they could use to hurt others. The desert tribes are terrified of them, and for good reason. If the Falye want this book, then they're probably hoping to dominate the south again. That's going to mean war.”
“Oh,” I said quietly. I'd heard enough stories of war to know it was something to be avoided. It stole even more lives that Artistry did.
“We're the only things standing between the Falye and what they want,” Merwent said.
“That seems like a very bad idea,” I said.
“It is,” Merwent agreed. “That's why we're going to the Academy – to pass it off to those more qualified. I'm not prepared to deal with this.” The unspoken and neither are you hung in the air as I moved to help him pack. My soreness ebbed slightly as I moved, but as I did so I found more sore places, scrapes, bruises, that I hadn't noticed before. I had to rearrange the contents of my pack twice so that nothing hard would bump against them.
“We need to move,” Merwent said, glancing down the road.
“I'm working on it,” I said through gritted teeth as I positioned my pack carefully in the least painful place. “All right, I'm ready.” I thought I heard him mutter that it was about time, but I bit my tongue, and joined him on the road.
I shivered as we walked through the chill air. It was early still; the sky was still gray, and deep shadow pooled beneath the trees. As we walked and the sun came up, the day revealed that it was going to be another gloomy one. The clouds hung low in the sky, sodden and gray. A few stray snowflakes fell, but they had none of the beauty I'd seen only a few days ago. These flakes were small, like specks of dust floating on the wind.
The night had been warmer than expected, and the snow on the road had melted. We had descended out of the mountains, for the moment, and the lower elevation meant that there was a lighter covering of snow on the ground to begin with. What was left remained in the shadows, looking like piles of dirty laundry, forgotten on wash day.
We trudged through the mud of the road, and somehow the bare green of the trees and brown of the earth seemed more somber than the snow I'd left behind.
As the day wore on, the temperature dropped, and the flakes of snow fell more often. The puddles in the road were soon rimmed in ice, tiny pools where the snowflakes fell to die.
It was perhaps mid-afternoon when the snow started to fall in earnest.
“Are we going to make camp?” I asked, voice raised to be heard over the wind.
“We can't afford to,” Merwent said. “Not until it's too dark to see. We need to make better time.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. He turned around, a frown on his face – his face was going to freeze like that, I thought – but his expression slackened into one of surprise. I whirled around, slipping on the layer of fresh snow. It took me a moment to see what Merwent was staring at, but when I did, I felt a chill run down my spine.
A single man, swathed in black, stood in the center of the road. He held a bow, an arrow pointed our direction.
The Falye had found us.
We were within bowshot, but he didn't let the arrow fly. He barked in a language I didn't understand, and moments later two more black-clothed men stepped from the trees. They conversed for a few moments, the archer never looking away from us. And then, one of the men started walking toward us.
“Run,” Merwent said. “I'll distract them.”
“Don't argue with me, just do it,” he said.
I turned to run.
“Run and we shoot!” a voice rang out, heavily accented but still understandable. I froze. “Give us book,” the voice said. “And maybe we let you live.”
“No,” Merwent said at once.
Perhaps I was a coward. I flinched at his words. The Falye, however, laughed. I turned back to face them. The man continued to walk toward us as his companions watched, arrow ready to fly. A yard or two away, he stopped.
“You have book,” he said.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Merwent said.
“Too late for that,” the man said with a smile. “We know you have it, or you would not have refused to give it to us.”
Under normal circumstances I would have rolled my eyes.
“Why didn't you just shoot us?” I asked, and wished immediately that I hadn't spoken. The Falye turned his eyes on me for the first time, glittering and black.
“Tried before,” he said. “You escaped. Now give us book, we let you live.”
I doubted that. “You killed my father,” I said.
The man stared at us for a long moment. Why hadn't they attacked us? Surely they had the skill to do it. They'd gotten rid of my father easily enough. They were trying to convince us to hand it over, rather than taking it from us by force. Why?
“You come with us,” the Falye said at last.
“And if we refuse?” Merwent asked.
“We kill you,” the Falye said, as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world. When we didn't try to escape, he waved the third man over. The first Falye, the one that had spoken, approached me, pulling a length of rope from a fold in his clothing. He bound my hands together in front of me as his companion restrained Merwent. Each kept one end of the rope, and tugged us along behind them. They didn't attempt to take our packs from us, or even search us for weapons, and I assumed that they either didn't think we'd try anything stupid, or that they could handle it easily if we did.
Rope chafed my already damaged wrists as more snow flurried down from the sky, and the light continued to fade. The Falye bowman followed us, prepared to shoot if we tried to escape as we were led back the way we had come. The trek was uphill, and we skidded and slipped on patches of ice and snow that formed as the temperature cooled. Everything was painted in shades of black and gray, and the clouds hung over us like a ceiling.
We had been walking for perhaps half an hour when I decided that, since I was likely to be killed anyway, I might as well do something.
“How far are we going?” I asked.
“Quiet,” my guard said. Merwent, who was being led beside me, shot me a glance. I ignored him.
I had thought that giving up the book might be a good idea; I had suggested it to Merwent earlier that morning, after all. But, now that they were demanding it of me, I found that I didn't really want to do it. Probably some kind of latent rebellion. Deciding to hand it over was something I would have done on my own, if Merwent hadn't been with me. But the ordering tone in the Falye's voice made me want to resist.
I decided I wasn't going to hand it over. He was going to have to make me.
“Real polite,” I said to the Falye's back. “How can you expect me to hand over something you want if you're going to be rude?” The Falye spun in one fluid motion, and the side of my face exploded in pain. I flew sideways, barely catching my balance as I was tugged back upright by the ropes around my wrists.
“Quiet,” the Falye repeated.
“Why?” I demanded.
“Mizna,” Merwent warned in a whisper. “It might be better if you didn't provoke them.”
“Why should I care?” I asked.
“Because we might be able to survive this if you shut up,” he replied.
“Why should I care about surviving?” I asked. “I'm an Artist. I'm going to die anyway. Why are you so determined to live?”
The Falye spun around again, but this time I was ready for him, and I ducked. His miss spun him off balance, but he regained it almost at once, and swung his arm back. I wasn't expecting this, and caught another stinging slap to the other side of my face.
“Quiet,” he hissed.
“Maybe you should kill me,” I said.
“Mizna!” Merwent said. “Shut up.”
“No,” I said stubbornly.
This time the Falye moved so quickly I didn't see him coming. I figured out later that he must have spun and lashed out with his elbow, because something very hard smashed into my nose. The impact threw me off balance again, but this time the Falye let me crumple to the ground. I splashed into a puddle that had not yet frozen, and felt something warm and liquid drip down my upper lip. Blood.
Before I could react, the Falye had bent over me, grasped me firmly around my middle, and tossed me over his shoulder. My bruised belly folded over his shoulder, and I inhaled sharply. He ignored my gasp of pain and marched forward, one hand clenched tightly around my calf.He dug his fingers into my flesh whenever I moved, and I was forced to watch blood drip from my nose onto the ground below, scarlet against a patchwork of brown, green, and white.
"Silence," the Falye warned.
I was carried for perhaps half an hour, the bruises on my stomach taking a beating from being jounced on the Falye's shoulder, before we turned off the path.
Slung over his shoulder like I was, I couldn't see where we were going, but I could see trees flashing by. We had left the road behind, and now I could feel branches brushing against us. A few minutes later, I was yanked over the Falye's shoulder and tossed roughly to the ground.
We were at a campsite. A fire burned brightly in the center of a clearing, sending sparks and ash flying skyward. Tents surrounded the fire in a circle, and as I sat up the man who had carried me called out. Other Falye left their tents, emerging from the woods, to stare at me as the Falye forced Merwent to the ground beside me.
There were more than I had expected. Perhaps fifteen of them, all dressed in loose, black clothing, with the glittering handles of weapons peeking out in so many places they looked like constellations of stars. They gathered around the fire, staring, silent, their black eyes in sun-darkened faces gleaming out at us.
There were no whispers; I fancied I could hear the fall of a snowflake in the camp. But there was a rustling sound, clothing sliding over cloth, as the Falye on the opposite side of the fire moved out of the way.
Someone was approaching. Someone the Falye made way for. I could see movement beyond them, and then, finally, the screen of bodies was removed entirely.
He was dressed in black, too, but his head and face were uncovered, and he wore a cape that fastened around his neck like a cowl. The cape was patterned in red, blue, yellow. The flash of color I'd seen in their first attack, I recognized at once. His face was thin, angular, but otherwise unremarkable. An advantage to an assassin, I supposed, to have a face not memorable enough to draw attention.
He appeared to be in his early thirties, old enough to have a confident step and a hard expression, but young enough that no wrinkles lined his face, and no silver limned his dark hair. Their leader, I guessed.
The man who had carried me approached the man in the cape, and knelt to the ground. Yes, definitely a leader, I revised. He then spoke rapidly in a language I assumed was one spoken in the deserts of their homeland. He finished speaking, and the leader looked up. His eyes met mine.
“I hear you gave my servants trouble,” he said. His accent was far less pronounced than I expected.
“You killed my father, tried to kill me, captured us, and you expect me to be polite?” I shot back.
“I expect you to understand,” he said. I stared at him in surprise.
“Understand?” I asked. “Why should I care?”
“Because I can kill you,” he said, his smile a flash of white teeth in the darkness. “Or the people you hold dear. You have what I want, and I will take it. That is what I expect you to understand.”
“Oh, I already know that,” I replied.
“Then understand this,” he replied, leaning forward slightly, his smile gone. “You are in my power, as are your companions. You can give me what I seek, or I will kill you. How this ends is up to you.”
I scoffed. “I've never had any power here,” I said.
The man turned his back to me.
“Take it,” he said. “But don't kill her. Yet.”
I spat blood on the ground in front of me, and found I still had the temerity to glare at the men that approached me. I didn't make a particularly imposing figure, tossed on the ground, dripping blood from my nose, hands tied together in front of me. And they treated me as if I was no more trouble than baggage.
They pulled knives from the folds of their clothing, sliced through the straps of my pack, and swiped it before I could think of a way to retaliate. The leader watched, eyes expressionless, as his men dumped the contents of my sack on the ground. A moment later, the book was held aloft by a tanned, scarred hand, and a victory shout went throughout the camp.
“Bring him,” the leader said, his calm voice carrying easily over the shouts of his men. For a moment I was certain he was going to do something to Merwent, and my heart pounded. Despite the man's annoying presence, the idea of being alone in a crowd of violent and armed men did not appeal to me. I was suddenly very aware that I was female, and that these people were unlikely to show much respect for me.
But they didn't come for Merwent. They left us, with a guard, on our side of the fire. Most of the men continued to look through my pack. One picked up my favorite book, the one I had marked with my birthday hair ribbon, and thumbed through it.
“Drop it,” I snarled. The man holding it only looked at me. He made to toss it into the fire, but the leader barked an order at him, and he set my book aside. I didn't want their filthy hands on that book, or the ribbon inside it. It seemed sacrilege, for one of them, the murderers of my father, to be handling my two most precious gifts. For an instant, I was almost grateful to the leader of the Falye, until I met his eyes, and saw the appraising look on his face.
And then the men he'd sent away reappeared. There were two of them, dragging a ragged, unkempt man between them, his feet and legs bumping along behind him. His head was down, but I could see the stain of blood on the neck of his shirt. The Falye threw him roughly to the ground, and he stayed there, until the Falye leader grabbed the collar of his shirt and hoisted him upright, so they were nose to nose.
“You will read the book to us now,” the leader said, sounding reasonable. He held out his free hand for Mergall's book, which one of his underlings placed in his hand.
“No,” the man said in a low voice.
“No?” the leader repeated. “That was not a request, old man. You will read this book. Or the girl will die.”
My heart stopped. I was being used as blackmail. But why would I make a good subject for that kind of threat? But my heart knew the answer before my head did, and it began to sink before the prisoner lifted his head.
“Father,” I said in a strangled whisper.
“Mizna,” he said, his whisper equally as strangled. “But you got away.”
“Not far,” I said, my mouth suddenly dry. I glanced at Merwent. His face was rigid, and I could see the tension in his jaw where I guessed he was grinding his teeth together.
The leader of the Falye shoved the book under my father's nose.
“Read it, or she dies,” he said. My father looked at my face, and I saw despair in his eyes. He knew what was at stake. He knew that if he did what they wanted, there was a chance there would be war. If what Mergall had said about the heavenly body was true, then the Falye wouldn't be a small, relatively weak, tribe anymore. They would be powerful. Possibly powerful enough to be convicted of sorcery.
I knew what he was going to do.
I lowered my head. I wasn't strong enough to be a hero. I didn't want to die. But I also couldn't bring myself to ask him to save my life. My voice had been stolen, and my throat was thick – the words wouldn't come. Our eyes stayed locked together for a long moment. I knew what the right answer to this dilemma was, and it ended with me dead at the hands of a fanatic religious sect that couldn't read. And then they would kill Merwent, too, followed, finally, by himself.
But I knew him. Perhaps better than I had realized.
He was going to read it. And that was why he was sad. Because he knew the right answer, too, but he couldn't bring himself to give it. He couldn't watch them kill me. He would rather give them the tools to start a war.
Merwent, oblivious to this, finally spoke. “Don't do it,” he hissed through his teeth. “They'll start a war if you do.”
“I know,” my father answered heavily. And then he took the book.
“What are you doing?” Merwent asked. “Let them kill us – small price to pay to stop a war.”
“You're young,” my father said, smiling slightly. “And you don't have a daughter.” It wasn't a question.
“What does that have to do with any of it?” Merwent asked.
“When you have a child, you would rather start a war than allow them to be hurt.”
“That's madness,” Merwent said. “Thousands of lives could be lost because of this.”
“And if I don't give them what they want, they'll find someone else who will. This would happen whether I do it or no. This way, I can save Mizna's life.”
A tear I didn't realize had been coming dripped down the side of my nose and mingled with the blood as it fell. Merwent had nothing to say to this, apparently, so my father let the book fall open in his lap.
“Let her and the boy go, and I'll read you whatever you want to know,” he said softly.
“If you lie,” the Falye leader said, “I will have them hunted down and killed wherever we find them, along with whoever gives them shelter.”
“I understand,” my father said.
The leader jerked his head and snapped out a few orders in the desert tongue. My bonds were cut, my pack was returned to me, and I was hauled to my feet. Merwent followed, and we were shoved back to the road. I watched over my shoulder as my father was slowly swallowed by trees. His eyes followed me as I went, shadowed, but still gleaming in the firelight as they filled with tears.
I stumbled the rest of the way to the road, and tried not to sniffle too obviously as the Falye pushed us further down the road.
“We have to stop this,” Merwent said, voice taut. But he obviously wasn't waiting for an answer from me, because he lunged right after.
His rebellion was short-lived; one of the Falye smashed his face with their elbow, which knocked him to his knees, and then held a knife to his throat.
“You fight, you die,” the Falye said. “We return you to where we found you, and if you come back, you die. Only go forward. Understand?”
“Fine,” Merwent said, wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of his lip. He was allowed to stand up, and, true to their word, we were taken and abandoned at the place where they had first captured us.
“He didn't bargain for his own life,” I said. It was only then I realized I had fallen to my knees, and tears were streaking down my face.
“He was obviously willing to sacrifice anything to keep you alive,” Merwent said irritably.
“Shut up,” I said.
“Shut up,” I repeated. “For someone who is so fine with Artists dying young all over the world, you don't know much about sacrifice.”
“This wasn't a personal sacrifice,” he said. “He's sacrificing the lives of thousands of people!”
“You think a refusal would stop them?” I demanded. “He was right. They would find someone else to do it.”
“You're just happy that he spared your life, and don't care that he was supremely selfish in doing so.”
I felt a snap of pain in my hand. I was on my feet, and Merwent had a shocked expression on his face, and the bright imprint of my hand on his cheek.
“I may be selfish,” I said, my voice shaking. “But never – ever – say anything like that about my father again. You have no idea the sacrifices he made – has made his whole life, and would have continued to make, if – if-” I couldn't finish the sentence. I couldn't even catch my breath, the sobs were coming so thick and fast.
He seemed to have realized his mistake, judging from the horrified expression on his face. He stepped forward and put his hands on my shoulders.
“There...there might be something we can do,” he said. I looked up to meet his eyes, my breathing still coming in pitiful little gasps.
“What?” I asked.
He hesitated. “It would be really stupid,” he said.
“Stupider than what we're already doing?” I asked.
He shrugged. “What we're already doing isn't likely to get us killed.”
That got my attention. I looked up at him, a tear still coursing down my cheek, as I waited for him to explain. He grabbed my uninjured arm and pulled me closer.
“They only have fifteen men,” he said in a whisper.
“You took the time to count?” If I'd been a little less distraught I might have made it sound more sarcastic, but at this point it just came out sounding like awe.
“I didn't need to,” he said. “The Falye consider it an insult if a group larger than fifteen men are sent to do a job. In fact, if more men are sent with them, they, uh...kill off the extras. It's a matter of pride. If they can't accomplish what they set out to do with fifteen men or less, than it either can't be done, shouldn't be done, or they're total failures. So they'll only have fifteen, at most.”
“What's that got to do with anything?” I asked.
“It means we might — might, mind you, it's not a guarantee – be able to get back into that camp.”
“They said they'd kill us,” I replied flatly.
“Yes, they did.”
He seemed to be waiting for me to ask him what his idea was, but all that did was make me wish I'd remembered more clearly the smacking of his face. I could still see the red print of my hand on his cheek, and I could only imagine the glorious sound it had made on contact. Finally, he shook his head.
“I trained at the Art Academy,” he said. “I may not look it, but...” and here he tossed his pack to the ground. “I'm not completely helpless in a fight.” He pulled out a sword, and I stared at him, something like an explosion taking place at the back of my mind.
“Unless your weapon is packed away,” I said. His mouth thinned.
“Do you want to hear my plan or not?” he asked.
“By all means,” I said, waving my hand in a mocking, regal manner. “Although I hope it's more reasonable than keeping your only weapon strapped where you can't possibly reach it if you're attacked.” He gave a huff as he straightened up and fastened his sword belt around his waist.
“I don't hear you offering any suggestions,” he said. “And you're not armed at all. It was in there because I didn't think I'd be attacked by a pack of bloodthirsty assassins on a familiar road to a safe place!”
“I did more damage to you a minute ago than you've done to the Falye,” I shot back. He looked as if he was ready with a sharp response, but bit it back, instead grinding his teeth together.
“I have the sword now,” he said slowly, carefully, as if it took an enormous effort to sound calm. “And even if having it in my pack was...impractical-”
“I can use it,” he continued, ignoring me.
“So you're proposing we fight our way into an armed camp of fifteen trained assassins with one dunce and a sword.”
His face was turning rather red now; it made it harder to see the mark I'd left on his cheek.
“I am not a dunce, and no, we're not going to fight our way in,” he corrected me. He took a deep breath. “I would greatly appreciate it if you would leave the insults alone. I'm trying to help you.”
“After insulting my father.”
“I'm sorry, all right? I shouldn't have said that.”
“Apology not accepted.”
“Then can you at least stop being a snot-nosed twit until after we save your father and get that book away from them?”
“I'm not a snot-nosed twit,” I said. “I didn't get myself captured because my sword was tucked safely away in my pack.”
“Can we agree to halt the name-calling until we've saved your father?” he repeated, louder. Our eyes locked for a moment.
He had a plan to save my father. Even if my opinion of him had sunk even lower than it was before, a feat which I had been convinced wasn't possible after he'd insulted my father. No matter how stupid it was, it had to be better than what I'd been planning, which was to continue on to the Academy, feeling like my heart had been ripped out.
“Fine,” I said at last. I raised my hand to point a finger at his nose. “But I'm never letting you forget that.”
“Fine, that's fine,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You can call me whatever you want, as soon as we've stopped impending war. Agreed?”
“We're saving my father,” I pointed out. “And agreed. So what is this plan I'm not allowed to call stupid?” He sighed, and I guessed that I was probably being pigheaded and annoying, but I didn't particularly care. After all, if his stupid sword hadn't been in his stupid pack, his stupid self could have used it to keep all of this from happening. I felt a grim sort of satisfaction at calling him stupid in my head, where he couldn't get annoyed by it.
“Fine,” he said. “They don't have a lot of men. That's pretty much the only chance we have. If we can get to and take out a few at a time, then we should be able to work our way back to the camp.”
I waited for him to continue, but the wait stretched longer and longer. As I stared at him, he shifted uncomfortably.
“That's it?” I finally asked.
“That's all I have so far,” he admitted, wincing.
“You're insane,” I said, pulling out of his grasp and stalking up the road.
“Mizna!” he called after me. “If you want a better plan, then you'll need to help me!”
I rolled my eyes skyward. His plan was terrible. There was no way that was going to work unless there was a whole lot more effort put into it. We'd need a better one if we were going to accomplish anything and stay alive. I stayed facing away from him, looking down the road.
This road was to have led me to the Academy. Somewhere, far down that way, was the place where my father had trained, where Merwent had trained, where Mergall had trained. The place where I was going to train – if I survived this.
I looked back over my shoulder, ignoring Merwent's figure nearby. That way was my father, prisoner of the Falye, and further back, my home and my mother. As tiny snowflakes spiraled down from the sky and stuck in my hair, I realized that if I continued down the road to the Academy, I would never be able to forgive myself for leaving my father.
I sighed, and then turned back to Merwent. I walked up to him, arms crossed, as he watched warily.
“If we're going to do this, we're going to need a better plan than that,” I said.
“I never intended for that to be the entirety of the plan,” he said. “Plans tend to come together better if the people pulling them off work together on figuring out what to do.” He sounded irritated, but I ignored that. For the moment.
“Fine,” I said. “So how exactly are we going to start taking them out?”
“First, there are two nearby to make sure we don't come back. We can start with them.”
“All right. Then what?”
“That's the part I'm not sure about,” he said.
“Well, that leaves us with thirteen,” I said, biting my lip. “They can't hear us, can they?”
“They're far enough back,” Merwent said. “They're still on the road.”
“Would they have sent extra to watch us from the trees?” I asked.
“Hm.” He tapped his lips with his fingers. “I don't think that's likely,” he said. “Considering the amount of fight we put up, they're probably not going to think we'll pose much trouble.”
I thought about making a crack about how his sword habits had at least one positive outcome, but I locked the words behind my teeth. I was supposed to be cooperating.
“Just charging the camp is so obvious that even I know it's a terrible idea,” I said. “If we're going to take them out a few at a time, then we'll need to separate them.” I was thinking as I spoke, trying to reason through things. It wasn't an exercise my brain was very good at, but I thought I'd done decently. No plan I came up with was going to be genius, but I had to at least try and get one that would work.
“Exactly,” Merwent said. “That's one of the bigger problems. But they do have patrols. I think the standard for their camps are seven resting, six on duty. They patrol in two-man cells.”
I wanted to ask him how he knew so much about them – it seemed a very interesting type of information for an Artist to have. But I made a mental note of it and plowed forward, instead.
“So there are three groups patrolling,” I said thoughtfully. “We might be able to separate them somehow.”
“That's what I was thinking, Merwent said, nodding. “But we'd need a way to do it quietly, and do it without getting the attention of the others.”
“How do you propose we do that?” I asked. “You know an awful lot about them. Got obscure knowledge of patrol patterns and what would lure Falye assassins away from a mission?” It came out combative, and I winced inwardly at the sound, but the questions were legitimate, so I waited for an answer.
“I studied them a lot,” he said. “And no, I don't. Patrol patterns are unique for every captain. But we should be able to get rid of those two, and then get close enough to figure out how they're patrolling.”
“That's a better plan than we had before,” I said. “But, assuming we can get rid of the patrols, that still leaves seven men in the actual camp.”
“I know.” He frowned, staring into space.
The snow was falling thicker and faster, but not by much. I watched it as it fell softly and landed in white lumps on the ground, where it stuck.
“Whatever we do,” I said “we'll need to do it before we leave tracks.” I pointed at the snow.
“I know. That doesn't give us a whole lot of time. The hardest part is the actual camp. There will be seven of them, and they're not going to be lured away easily. We'll be outnumbered – we'd be outnumbered even if you had a weapon. And, for us to have a chance of getting away, we need to get rid of enough of them that they'll leave us alone, or get rid of them all.”
This was sounding more and more impossible by the minute.
“What are the chances of them leaving us alone if we just grab my father and run for it?”
“Slim,” he said. “Incredibly unlikely.”
“Even if eight of them are gone?”
“Fifteen is a large party,” he said impatiently. “They do missions regularly with fewer than ten. We'd have to leave them with as few as three or four, and then be well on our way to safety for them to consider going back.”
“So we have to get rid of the entire camp, basically.”
“Pretty much,” he said. “I can handle two or three at a time, but more than that and I'll have trouble.”
I looked at him, eyebrows raised. My first sight of him, with his ridiculous hat, flashed through my head. This man? This man could fight two or three men at once? He must have seen the skepticism on my face, because he sighed dramatically.
“You don't have to believe me,” he said. “But remember, I'm an Artist. Sword fighting, most any kind of fighting, actually, is an art. So I'm going to have an advantage.”
“Whatever you say,” I said, still not sure I should believe him. “So, get rid of the eight patrolling.”
“Without drawing attention.”
“I can handle it.”
I let this pass, instead thinking about what we'd do with the seven men in the camp. “That leaves the seven.”
“We could wait until one has to use the privy,” Merwent suggested.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “That seems very unsportsmanlike. Killing a man when he's down.”
“When his pants are down, more like,” Merwent said with the ghost of a grin. “But yes, I am serious. We're severely outnumbered. We'll do what we have to.”
“Fine,” I said. I refused to think about that word I'd thrown out so casually. Kill. We were going to kill men, if all went well. I pushed this thought from my head. I would deal with it later, once my father was safe.
“But that's not likely to work for more than one,” Merwent continued.
“It still takes it down to six,” I said.
“Your father's not going to be much help with a blade,” Merwent said. “Can you handle a sword?”
I gaped at him. “Me? Handle a sword? In a camp full of Falye? They'll skewer me before I figure out which end I'm supposed to stab with.”
“Well, yes,” he said. “You are an Artist. You'll not be particularly good at it, but you'll certainly be better than the average country girl who picks up a sword. I can distract them, and you just have to stick the pointy end where it'll keep them from attacking me.”
I thought about this.
“You're going to turn me into a murderer,” I said.
“A fighter,” he corrected. “We don't have much choice. Killer or no, you'd be a hero.”
He was sounding far more like the calm, reasonable man I'd found when I was still exhausted from my first flight from the Falye, and less like the blundering Artist who wore brilliant colors, a floppy hat, and packed his sword away where he couldn't reach it. I stared him down for a long moment. He met my eyes, and I saw steel in them, and guessed that if I didn't help him he would do it himself. And get himself killed, no doubt, outnumbered as he'd be.
For the first time, it occurred to me that if I died doing this, Artistry wouldn't have taken my life. I would have chosen to give it away for something. Something that I deemed more important. Rescuing my father, of course. The world would be better off with him alive rather than me, since I hadn't added much to it so far. And stopping the Falye, too. Preventing a war. For some reason, the distinction between the two, having my life taken and offering it as a sacrifice, struck me as significant.
I'd felt powerless all my life. At the mercy of Artistry, first with my father, and second with myself. My family was poor, my father not nearly as highly regarded as his brethren. My mother had few friends, and I had none for a long time. I'd shown no special aptitude for anything in my life until I'd picked up drawing tools.
But this time...I could choose this time.
“Make me a fighter, then,” I said.
He grinned, and I saw relief in his eyes. I realized then that he had known he couldn't do it without me and survive. He would have been going to his death, and he had known it. I felt something swell in my chest. I called it hope, but perhaps it was just the desire to do something foolhardy.
“Once we take out the patrols, I'll go in and draw their attention. I'm sure I can manage that much. Once they're distracted, you'll need to sneak into the camp and cut them down one at a time. Don't take too long, though. I'd like to survive this, and I won't last long against seven.”
“Where am I going to get a sword?” I asked.
“We'll take one from one of the patrols,” he said.
“And then you'll show me how to use it?”
He drew a line across his throat. “Slice here,” he said. “It'll be messy, and...unpleasant in more ways than one. But it'll drop them, and you don't need to know anything fancy to do it.”
I gulped, hard. The inflation of hope in my chest deflated. This was happening. I was really planning an attack on an armed camp. I must have lost my mind.
“All right,” I said at last. “And if we get caught?”
“If we get caught, we'll probably be killed.”
We both fell silent, and the wind chose that moment to gust, sending a flurry of tiny snowflakes into my face.
“Let's go, before I change my mind,” I said.
“You're not going anywhere. I'll be right back,” Merwent said.
“Wait, what are you-” but he was gone, and even I knew better than to yell after him. So I stomped my feet in irritation, and then stood in the snow, feeling foolish, as I waited for him to come back. Hopefully alive and in one piece. I was suddenly aware that if something happened to Merwent, I would be all alone. I didn't know how to get to the Academy, I couldn't rescue my father myself.
Without the Artist, I'd probably be facing my own cold death in a matter of days, if not hours. I shivered, and tried to squash the rising quell of panic. I wished I had followed him, even though I knew that would have gotten us both killed. For some reason, I seemed to think that if I was with him, nothing bad would happen. At this realization, I chuckled, a dark, hoarse sound. This calmed my nerves somewhat, but only for a moment.
I heard a crash, and a muffled yell that was quickly cut off. My hands were sweating in my gloves as I faced down the road, where the sound had come from, and the suffocating fear returned. Would Merwent come back, or was I alone now? The snow, which was falling thick and fast, made it more difficult to see, but I could make out a dark figure heading my direction. I tensed, hands clenched into fists – who would it be? Friend or foe? My breathing came in funny little gasps, puffing out like smoke in the chill air as the figure drew closer. I inched my booted feet backward, preparing to run – it was close enough now that if it had any type of long-distance weapon, I would lose my life, but not close enough for me to tell if it was Merwent or not. I slid backward another step. The figure held something up, something long and thin, and a shatter of light glanced up its length. A sword. I turned to run, but stopped. Who held up a sword like that? If they were going to attack me, then another weapon would have served them better. I turned back, and the approaching figure resolved into one I recognized.
Something tight in my chest loosened. It was Merwent. He jogged the remaining distance, stopping an arms' length away from me.
“Here.” He held out the sword, hilt-first. I reached out and took it from him, and my arm was suddenly yanked downward by the weight of it. It wasn't his own, I saw. His was drawn, and had a dark, dripping stain down its length. I looked away from the scarlet dripping to the snow, and back to the sword that was, for the moment, mine.
It was much smaller than Merwent's. He probably knew that I wasn't strong enough for one as large as his own. My stomach felt quivery as I realized what I'd agreed to.
“It's small, closer to your size than the others. Hold it up. Get used to the weight. Make sure you only use your good arm. If you use the bad one, there's a chance you might pull it out of the socket again. I'm going to work on getting rid of the sentries. You stay here.”
He was gone again, and I growled to myself. He'd better hope I didn't have a vitally important question or statement, because if I ever did he'd miss it and suffer the consequences. Consequences I hoped would be enough to make him regret it for a very long time. I hefted the sword in my hand. It was heavier than I had expected, for something so slender. But it wasn't so heavy I couldn't lift it, either, though it was a challenge to do so with only one hand. My other hand I held close to my chest. My shoulder still ached, but if I only used the other hand, then it should be all right. Another bubble of fear rose to the surface as I hoped that, in the coming fight, I wouldn't need to use my injured arm. I knew it was a vain hope – if I survived at all, I'd probably need both hands to do it. I gave myself a shake, and shifted my grip on the sword. I needed to think about something other than my fear, and the weight of the sword in my hand made the choice obvious.
There was something about that weight that seemed...almost familiar. As if I'd held a sword like this long ago, when I was a child. Was that what he'd meant? That I would be better at it than a normal country girl? I gave it an experimental swing, and knew, somehow, that I'd overextended, and that was bad. I tried again, and this time was slightly better. Then, remembering what I'd have to do, I lifted it up, blade facing me, and drew it horizontally across the air before me.
The sight of the blood on Merwent's sword flashed through my head, and my stomach cramped into nausea. I pressed one hand against my belly, and let the blade lower. Could I really do this? Should I do this? I held the sword up to my face, and saw my shadowy reflection in the metal. I saw shadowed eyes, visible even in the dark of the night against the pale skin of my face. My hair was tangled and matted around my head like a wiry halo. The reflection was dim, but the haunted expression in my own eyes stiffened my spine.
It didn't matter. It didn't matter if I could or I should. I had to, now. There was no other choice.
I raised the sword again. I would have to move around a lot, I imagined. There was going to be seven of them, if Merwent's task went well. There would be swords flying, possibly arrows. I tried not to think about what I would do if I was struck, instead thinking about what I might need to do to survive.
Sports had never been my strong suit. I'd avoided them. They'd seemed so stupid at the time. They didn't seem stupid now, and I wished I had done a few of them, any of them. Anything that might have helped.
In my mind I faced down one of the Falye, and he had a dagger. My imaginary foe swung at my head, and I ducked, before lunging forward and swinging the sword. I slipped a little in the mud, but the same part of me that had known when I overextended was thoughtful. Moving around a lot was not going to work well. It was going to be slick, and I wouldn't be able to afford a single slip. I needed another tactic.
What I needed was a year or so to prepare, but I wasn't going to get that. I had minutes.
The walk, like the moment when I'd stared into Merwent's face, was sharp, etched in stone. My stomach stopped roiling, my hand clasped tightly around the hilt of the sword Merwent had given me, and my fingers felt at home wrapped tightly about the leather. My booted feet skimmed over the snow as I bent double and followed Merwent's figure. I felt as if I was more firmly in my body than ever before, while at the same time feeling as if I floated above, watching myself race to my death. Awareness pricked through every fingertip; I was aware of the touch of each snowflake on my skin, but simultaneously dismissed the sensation as other – something that I needn't concern myself with. I was two people. The ethereal being that watched from above, that knew I was going to die, that knew I was not myself. I was also the hunter. The ethereal part of myself marveled at how the hunter had forgotten the aches and pains, how easily I had dismissed my emotional turmoil from a few moments before, to focus entirely on being as deadly as possible.
The hunter ignored the abstract wonderings, though they still happened in the background.
It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. And through each second, I fancied I could hear Merwent and Yent both saying that I would do what I had to, just like everyone else. The fact that what I was doing was more than most people would have to do was nothing more than an ill-formed thought in the back of my mind.
I had more important things to worry about.
“Am I helping take the patrols out?” I asked in a low voice.
“It will work better if we can take each member of a two-man cell at the same time. Less noise.”
I nodded, a businesslike, jerky motion. A skitter of light danced up my sword.
We were in the trees, walking along the edge of the road, but hidden by the underbrush as snow fell softly from the sky, coating the ground. We would be less likely to leave tracks in the trees, I knew. The branches would prevent snow from accumulating quickly, leaving us more bare earth to walk across without leaving prints.
Merwent stopped suddenly, and held out his arm. I stopped, raising my eyebrows in his direction. He pointed. I followed the direction of his finger, and felt the armor of my hunter persona quaver before clamping back into place and steadying me. If I squinted, I could just make out two black-cloaked figures walking slowly through the trees, not bothering to hide themselves. Cocky, I thought. Over confident. They thought we had continued on to the Academy, and therefore didn't think they needed to be overly cautious.
“Hide here,” Mrewent said. “Wait to attack until I do.” He was gone before I could acknowledge his orders, but my irritation was far off. The hunter didn't care, even if the ethereal being did. I crouched low, hidden behind the foliage. I could see that the Falye were coming closer, walking my direction. I couldn't see Merwent at first, but a disturbance in the trees caught my attention. He was hiding himself opposite me, sword drawn. As I watched he groped on the forest floor, and tossed a stone into the open space between us.
The Falye reacted at once, picking up the pace, scanning the forest as they went. I held my breath as their glance slid over me. They were close. Close enough that if I took another step I could touch them. They kept going – what was Merwent waiting for? — they were almost past us -
Merwent sprang, drawing their attention.
My body, as if on its own and not waiting for any instruction from my brain, launched from cover as soon as their backs were turned. The first Falye fell without a sound, a victim of Merwent's skill. The second fell only a moment after.
Blood dripped from my sword, and I stared dispassionately as a scarlet drop fell to the earth. The ethereal part of myself screamed in horror as the hunter turned to Merwent. Something of my horror must have shown on my face, because his own twisted in sympathy.
“Four down,” he whispered.
“Eleven to go,” I answered.
We moved off into the night as silently as before, though Merwent tossed me a scrap of cloth to wipe down my blade. He cleaned his own quickly, efficiently, as he led me further into the woods. I assumed that when he had looked for a second patrol to watch our movements that he had checked to see what kind of patrol patterns they were using, because he led us without error or delay right to the second two-man cell.
We repeated our performance exactly the same as before. It worked just as well, though this time I did not look at what I had done, or the blood that stained my blade.
We did it again, and again. I knew that once it was over, if I survived, I would have to face nightmares of this bloody night. I would have to face myself, and I wasn't sure I'd like what I found when I did. But those thoughts were pushed backward, masked by a litany of “do what you have to.”
“All that's left is the camp,” Merwent said softly. I looked into his face, and saw a shadow of my own blank hollowness there. He didn't like doing this, either. I felt a brief flash of relief, that at least my misery wouldn't be suffered alone. If we survived. Our eyes met, and he gave a nod before moving once more.
If we stopped, we'd never start again, and we both knew it.
We halted just at the edge of the camp, screened by tree branches.
The fire glowed brightly against the snow, and shone with jagged shadows on my father's gaunt, tired face. He held Mergall's book open in his hands, and he was reading aloud. The Falye were all gathered on the opposite side of the fire, listening intently. The only sound in the clearing was my father's voice and the crackling of the fire.
The sight of my father nearly broke the ethereal being free, but I knew the hunter needed to be in charge now. I had fallen into this strange, dual idea of personhood with an ease that would have disturbed me any other time, but right now, it helped me keep myself in check. It prevented me from rushing out of the cover of the trees and hugging my father close.
I went over the plan in my head, and forced myself to inhale deeply.
Merwent caught my eye, and raised his eyebrows. I nodded, and held my sword ready. He nodded in answer, and prepared to spring.
The moment before he leaped into the light of the fire felt like the precipice. And we were going to jump.
Merwent launched himself from cover, and the camp exploded. I shrank back into the shadows as every Falye drew weapons and leaped to their feet – I couldn't help him if they came after me now. He had to distract them all first, and then I would come out...
But the plan went wrong almost immediately.
The Falye leader, the one dressed in colors, grabbed my father by the collar, and started dragging him away. I leaped from cover without pausing to think, and threw myself into the fray.
From safety, it had looked like any fighting game I'd seen boys play at home. But now, in the middle of it, I could see that every hand carried a blade, and every face wore a look that said it would kill me if given the chance. But the Falye were focused on Merwent. If they saw me, they deemed me a lesser threat, and I was able to elbow my way through to the other side, where I saw the Falye pulling my father after him, and into the woods. I made to go after him, and had taken a step that direction when I heard a cry of pain.
I turned, and saw that Merwent and been hit. It was a shallow cut to his shoulder but I could see his blood, gleaming red in the firelight. The Falye, as if heartened by the wound, pressed harder. I could see the determination on Merwent's face, but in his eyes I saw that he knew I had gone to leave him.
My heart pounded in my ears. I wanted to go after my father. I needed to go after my father, every particle of my body screamed to follow them.
But the Falye wouldn't hurt my father as long as he needed him.
I tore myself away, and lurched into the fight. The first Falye didn't realize I was right behind him before it was too late. He fell, clutching his throat. My head buzzed and my pulse roared. I didn't want to be here, I wanted to be racing after my father. The sooner they were dead, the sooner I could go. The second Falye fell with as little ceremony as the first. The third noticed I was there, but not quickly enough to do anything about it. It was as he fell to the ground that the rest realized that Merwent wasn't fighting alone.
There were only three left. The fourth had taken my father. Merwent, upon seeing me reenter the fight, struck out with greater energy, as if he could now see a way to win this. The fourth kill was his.
The fight devolved into a one on one, and I found myself facing a Falye alone. He had a curious expression on his face, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. Probably, I thought, as I slashed inexpertly at his eyes, astonished that a woman had taken up a blade. He parried with such skill and strength that my arm jarred.
I wasn't going to win this if it was a battle of strength or skill. He would kill me at once. Probably would have already, if he hadn't been distracted by who his opponent was. But that distraction would wear off soon, and then I would be in trouble.
In a sudden stroke of inspiration, I reeled backward, faking a look of fear and surprise. He lunged to take advantage of this. He wasn't prepared for my sword to swing upward, but his reaction time was better than I'd hoped, and he escaped without a scratch. I could hear grunting from where Merwent was fighting the other Falye. He was tiring, I knew – he had been able to, mostly, fend them off when we had begun. But he had not yet ended this fight. I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was bleeding in several more places, though nothing that would kill him.
I wasn't going to get any help from him.
The Falye I was fighting danced around me easily as I spun to follow him, my sword held in front of me with one hand, the other clasped tightly to my chest. He lunged forward, a lightning quick motion. I swung my sword around, just barely knocking it away in time. He was smiling now, and I knew that wasn't a good sign.
He threw himself forward again, but as I knocked his sword away and wondered if he was getting tired, too, and that's why I could stop him, his free hand clamped over my sword hand. His thumb pressed cruelly into the web between my index finger and thumb, and my sword fell with a thud. With an expert twist, I was on the ground with one arm held tightly behind my back. I waited for death as I heard the clash of Merwent and his opponent.
Then I heard an impact, and a thud. One of them had fallen. One of them had killed the other.
I probably wasn't going to live to see who it was. My face was pressed to the earth, my chest to my knees, as the Falye kept up his pressure on my arm.
“Let her go,” I heard Merwent's voice say. Though I had known him for a very short time, I could hear how much bravado and confidence he had to force. He was tired. He was hurt.
“Or what? You kill me? You kill me, she dies,” my captor said.
Why hadn't he killed me already?
“Let her go,” Merwent repeated. “She won't be like one of your women,” he added.
The Falye was planning on keeping me? I ground my teeth together. No. If I came out of this alive, it would be because I had won, not because I was captured. I lashed out backward, blindly, with one of my legs. I hit something hard, and heard a grunt at the contact. My arm was freed suddenly, and I rolled.
When I came up again, I saw Merwent and the Falye. The Falye had been taken by surprise when I kicked out, and Merwent had used that surprise to his advantage. The Falye fell before he had caught his balance after my kick.
Merwent walked up to me, hand extended. I took it, and allowed him to help me to my feet. He was bleeding from his shoulder, a shallow cut on his cheek, and had the beginning of bruises in several other places.
In a flash I remembered why I had hesitated to come help him.
“My father!” I gasped. “There's one left, he took my father, they went this way-”
Merwent gathered himself up with obvious effort, and followed me as I went where I had seen the Falye leader take my father. We ran through the woods without taking heed to be quiet or careful. We sounded loud, like a herd of animals stampeding, in the chill quiet of the night.
We found them not far from the camp, in another, smaller clearing.
My father had been forced to his knees, held there by the Falye that stood above him, holding a knife to his throat. Mergall's book sat, open, on my father's lap.
“Halt,” the Falye said. “Or I will kill him.”
“You shouldn't have come back,” my father said with a sad smile.
“I had to,” I answered.
“You have broken our agreement,” the Falye said coldly. “Very well. I have what I need.”
And then he drew the knife across my father's throat.
“No!” I almost didn't recognize the scream that came from my own mouth as my own. The Falye turned and fled, the book in his hands. “Get him!” I screamed at Merwent as I sprinted across the clearing to catch my father as he folded.
But Merwent didn't need any encouragement. His long legs sped him across the clearing in pursuit faster than I thought possible.
I fell to my knees by my father, catching him before he hit the ground. He smiled a little at me as I cushioned his head on my lap. The Falye had not done a good job of cutting my father's throat – he was still alive, though his blood was seeping into my clothing.
“Love...you...” he gurgled.
“I love you, too,” I said as tears filled my eyes. One fell from my cheek and dropped on his forehead. I dashed the tears from my eyes, and when my vision cleared, I realized my father was staring up at the sky.
“To...night,” he said.
“Tonight?” I asked. “Tonight what?”
“I...wish...you...live,” he said. But he still stared at the sky.
“I'm alive,” I said. “See?” My voice kept cracking. He sounded so frail. He was dying, and I knew it. There was nothing I could do.
“No,” he answered.
“But I am alive,” I said, my breath coming in little sobbing sounds.
“I wish...Mizna...not...die,” he said.
Those were to be his last words. The light left his eyes.
I folded forward until my forehead rested against his, and closed my eyes.
I had already lost him so many times. I'd had him, then lost him, then found and lost him again. But this time I knew it was real. His breathing had stopped, and his skin was already growing cold.
But I didn't move. And tears wouldn't come, only painful, gasping breaths, dry sobs.
Perhaps I had shed them all already. Perhaps the real pain had not yet come. But I couldn't see how that could be it – I felt as if someone had taken all of my insides and was stirring them around with a sword.
The armor of the hunter fell away in pieces, and suddenly I was one person again. But I didn't want to be one person – being one person hurt.
I heard a footstep, and looked up.
Merwent was back, and he held Mergall's book in his hands.
“He got away,” Merwent said softly, approaching me. He moved the book from my father's lap to the snow, not bothering to try and protect the cover from the cold and wet, and gently closed my father's eyes. “I'm...sorry,” he said. “I...”
“Your fault,” I croaked.
I spoke louder. “It's your fault.”
“I know,” he said. I had expected him to argue. I wanted to yell, and scream, and blame him for everything. But his miserable tone, and his acceptance of the blame, crippled my anger. I curled in on myself, and the dry, heaving sobs came again.
I knew it wasn't really his fault, and that made it hurt more. If I had abandoned Merwent when I'd seen my father being taken away, maybe my father would still be alive, and Merwent would be dead. My wish for that to have been what happened was selfish, and I knew it. It made me feel even more guilty, more awful. Merwent had risked everything to save my father, to protect the book, to prevent war, and here I was wishing that he had died instead of my father.
The gentle touch on my shoulder made me jerk roughly away. But the gentle pressure didn't lift.
“I'm sorry,” Merwent said again. And I stopped trying to keep him from comforting me. It wasn't going to make me feel any better, but perhaps it would help him. In the warped center of my mind, I wanted to help him feel better. Because I had wished him dead, and surely I deserved some kind of punishment for that? But if I wasn't going to get it, then at least I could do something that might make him feel a little better.
I leaned into him as he wrapped one arm around my shoulders and patted me awkwardly. It took me a few minutes before I realized that he was saying he was sorry over and over.
This was all my fault.
I knew it was irrational, and not really true, but my gut, every emotion raging through me, told me that it was. This was all my fault. If only I hadn't been an Artist, none of this would have happened. If only I'd gone to save my father, if only...
I sobbed until I had nothing left, and Merwent held me until I pushed him roughly away. I stood up, leaving Merwent on his knees – hadn't the snow soaked through his trousers long ago? — and stared down at my father. I couldn't look at the wound on his throat. I could only see his face, peaceful. Gentle. Dead. I sniffed, and Merwent rose to his feet.
“Go back to the camp,” he said gently.
“What are you going to do?” I asked him, interrupting.
“I was...going to wrap him up and bury him, so in the spring he can be...taken back to your village.”
“Then I'm going to help you,” I said.
“Are you sure?” he asked, sounding skeptical.
“Yes.” No. I wasn't sure. At all. But I had to stay didn't I? My father was here. Or...he used to be. The mental correction was painful, and triggered a series of memories, realizations of things that he was never going to do, or never do again. But I pushed them back. I'd learned to do it long ago. The pain had taken me by surprise, but I was no longer surprised. I took a deep breath, and pushed all the thoughts and emotions that would cripple me back where they could no harm. A small corner of my mind that was getting increasingly full, but where those things wouldn't bother me until I sought them out.
I wasn't going back to that camp. Not now.
No. There was precious little I could do for my father now, except make sure that no wild animals or Falye would desecrate his body.
Merwent, working gently, carefully, took my father's pack from his back, and set it on the ground. He pulled out the cloth for our tent, and I helped him wrap my father's body in it. I worked numbly, seeing everything but not processing it. I had to close my eyes as Merwent covered my father's face.
We had to dig the grave with sharp stones, and we worked until we were hot and sweaty in spite of the snow that was now piling up around us. The new blanket of pristine white covered the blood staining the ground, and snowflakes melted as they touched my cheeks, mingling with the sweat and tears that still clung to my skin.
“We won't be able to get much deeper,” Merwent said somberly. “The ground is too hard. We'll have to cover it with rocks...”
I moved woodenly to collect the rocks we'd need as Merwent set my father's body carefully in the shallow trench we had managed to carve out. And then he started scooping earth over it. I wanted to scream for him to stop, that it was my father he was covering, that he wouldn't be able to breathe, but I shoved those feelings into the corner too. I turned my back on it, and set about finding what stones I could.
By the time we finished, the snow had stopped, the clouds had begun to break and drift, and the sky was turning the glorious colors of dawn. My father's grave was heaped higher than the ground around it, covered with stones. As the pink light of a new day rose over the trees, we returned to the Falye camp, my heart as heavy as my father's pack that I carried in my hand. Mergall's book was tucked deep inside, where I could neither see nor feel its presence. I could not bear to be reminded of it, but Merwent would not let me leave it behind.
When we arrived in the camp, I averted my eyes from the killing ground as Merwent peered inside the tents, and then kicked snow and earth over the dying fire.
“I can't stay here,” I said, staring at nothing.
“No,” Merwent said. “Neither can I.”
We left with no more ceremony than we had arrived, and returned to the place we had hidden our belongings. Merwent helped me put on my pack in silence, and when he offered to carry my father's pack for me, I clutched it to my chest. He took that for a refusal – which it was – and gathered up his own things.
We set our feet to the road, and began to walk. Neither of us made any mention of stopping to eat or rest. We wanted to get as far from the killing ground as we could. As we walked, the sun rose, lighting on the pure, glistening white of the snow. All of our deeds would be covered.
End of Part One