Gair was on fire.
No matter how he writhed and struggled, he couldn’t escape the heat. His skin split, juices ran; his flesh popped and hissed like a sausage in a skillet. Pain obliterated every thought, left him blind and deaf to everything but his agony. He opened his mouth to scream and choked on the stench of his own meat cooking.
His eyes flew open. For one endless second he was caught in the crushing grip of asphyxia, then his chest heaved in a breath. Another, and the clutching panic retreated, the pulse pounding in his ears began to slow. Weak with relief, he slumped on the pallet and sucked in lungful after lungful of the arid air as if it was as sweet and cold as Leahn spring-water.
Dear Goddess in heaven, he felt as if he’d been flung down a flight of stairs. His hip and thigh ached; so did the back of his head, and his right side was throbbing. He put a hand to it and found he was shirtless, his ribs snugly bandaged. Someone had taken care of him, but he had only the vaguest recollection of recent events. Flames, and falling, then nothing but bad dreams.
Propping himself carefully on his elbows, he looked around. The light was too dim to make out much more than vague, blocky shapes stacked waist high. There was a sense of space above him, a suggestion of beams in the shadows overhead, and a dusty, dry-wood scent to the air. From somewhere out of his line of sight he heard a susurrus that might have been voices, and soft scuffling sounds, like mice behind a wainscot.
Memory returned in broken pieces. Silver blades and yellow sashes. A flight of sparrows. The skirling, surging power of the Song turned to sawtoothed discord, and then flames.
There’d been flames inside his head, too, and they’d left his thoughts raw and tender as burns. He rubbed his eyes wearily. Even they ached.
‘So you live,’ said a woman’s voice from above him.
He looked up. A young Gimraeli woman in a stained and soot-dappled barouk sat cross-legged on a pile of grain sacks next to his pallet, her kaif looped carelessly around her neck. Her name was Tierce, he remembered. She was eating a peach, levering pieces off the stone with the blade of her knife; between slices, she flicked the dripping knife through her fingers as if she was unable to sit entirely still.
‘After a fashion,’ Gair said, twisting around on the pallet so he could lean back against the wall, too tired and sore to hold himself up any more. ‘What is this place?’
‘We are not far from the Lion Gate. This warehouse belongs to a friend of ours. You can shelter here for a few hours, then travel on at dusk.’ She bit into a piece of peach. Back and forth went the knife, sticky blade gleaming.
She shrugged. ‘Consider it payment for all the Cultists you gave us to kill.’ Holding out a tin plate of cheese and fruit, she added, ‘The sisters say you must eat. When your wound opened it cost you some blood. You need red meat to make more, but this is all we have.’
He took the plate but had no appetite for the cheese, and contented himself with a handful of grapes. Their juice soothed his dry throat.
‘Where are the others? Are they meeting us here?’
The desertwoman refused to meet his gaze, focusing instead on the peach in her hand. As she pried another slice off the stone, her barouk sleeve fell back, revealing a bandage on her forearm. A sudden unease prickled down Gair’s spine.
‘My brother sent me to fetch the rest of our cadre to help retrieve those books that your friend was so wedded to,’ she said shortly. ‘When we returned, the Daughterhouse was lost.’
For a heartbeat it didn’t register in his smoke-fogged brain. ‘Lost?’
‘Lost!’ Her voice rose in pitch. ‘Taken! In flames! How many ways do you want me to say it?’
More memories. A column of smoke in a blue sky, and a woman’s voice, low, afraid. They may have escaped. Tierce jabbed words at him like spears, and his mind flinched from them even as his imagination showed him the street door hacked to pieces, the burning lean-to that had fired the stables and the Cultist torches that had fired the rest. Roofs and floors, the carved vaulting in the chapel, all gone; only blackened stone remained. Of Alderan and her brother Canon there had been no sign.
Her hand began to tremble around the hilt of her knife. The jagged hurt in her eyes was too private to share and she looked away.
Gair covered his own face with his hands. Coming to Gimrael had been a mistake. A huge mistake, and he’d known it from the start. It had achieved precisely nothing. Now the books were destroyed, and Alderan was gone.
You and those books can go to hell.
Guilt stabbed at him. If he’d only kept his temper, maybe Alderan would still be alive. If only he’d managed to persuade him not to come to Gimrael at all . . . He raked his fingers through his hair.
Damn it, Alderan! Why wouldn’t you listen to me?
‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ It was all he could find to say. ‘Your brother was a good man. A man of honour.’
With a jerk of her arm, Tierce hurled the peach-pit at the wall and Gair had to duck as it rebounded off the plaster next to his head and rattled away across the floorboards.
‘Do not speak of what you do not know, Empire!’ Unshed tears shone in her furious, frozen glare. ‘After Uril, my brother was the finest man I have ever known. He deserved a warrior’s death, not to die for some ammanai books in a fight that was not even his.’
She hopped down from her perch and stalked away. If she’d been a cat, her tail would have been lashing.
‘I meant no offence, Tierce,’ Gair called after her, but she kept walking and gave no sign that she’d even heard him.
He let his hands fall into his lap. Even a shared grief only sharpened the woman’s hostility.
Closing his eyes, he tried to make sense of it all. Inside his mind the fires had dimmed to embers, but the welts they’d left across his thoughts made it difficult to concentrate, especially when what felt like a hundred individual smaller wounds clamoured for his attention. Exhaustion didn’t help; he’d apparently been unconscious for some hours, but he hadn’t slept at all the night before and weariness dragged at his limbs like leaden chains.
‘She won’t hear you,’ said the Superior from nearby. ‘Not yet. Her grief is still too new, like yours.’
Gair squinted up at her. He hadn’t heard her approach, had no idea how long she’d been standing by the grain sacks, Uril’s qatan cradled in her arms. Long enough to have heard at least some of what had passed between him and Tierce, anyway. He let his head fall back against the wall again.
‘You don’t know anything about me, Superior,’ he said and shut his eyes, hoping she’d leave him be. Saints, he needed to sleep.
‘I know what I saw in your face just now,’ she said. ‘In the eyes are the gates of the soul.’
‘Proverbs, chapter two, verse fifty-four. To find an honest man, look with the eyes of a liar.’
‘Abjurations four, thirty-eight. You know your Book.’
‘Ten years at the Motherhouse leaves its mark.’ He rubbed his thumb over the scar on his palm. In more ways than one.
Her footsteps came closer. ‘I brought this from the square – I thought you might have need of it.’
Gair opened his eyes again to see the nun holding the sword out to him. He took it and drew the blade a few inches. It had been cleaned and oiled by someone who knew how to care for a weapon. Tierce, perhaps? He slid it back into the scabbard and set it down beside the pallet.
‘Thank you. I owe my friend N’ril enough as it is without losing his brother’s sword into the bargain.’
He kneaded his brow, trying to think clearly. Trying not to think about Alderan. Part of him was tempted to reach out for the old man’s colours, but remembering those rich colours turned muddy as an old tapestry, he pushed the power away again. The wound was painful enough without looking for reasons to pick at it. Still he was unable to silence the bitter hiss of vengeance at the back of his mind that said with the old man gone, there was nothing holding him here any more.
‘Did you see what happened, Superior?’
‘Some of it.’
She hitched herself onto the sacks where Tierce had sat, feet dangling several inches above the floor. With her round rosy cheeks and curly hair unconstrained by a wimple, she looked like a farm girl on a gate. Apart from the severe black habit, of course.
‘I’d like to know what you saw,’ Gair said. ‘I don’t remember much of it very clearly.’
She folded her hands in her lap, looking vaguely uncomfortable. ‘When the Cultists appeared from the main street, you threw some kind of protection over the sisters. You drove the mob back with fire and with something else I could not see.’
‘It’s called the Song—’ he began, but she held up her hand.
‘It’s called mortal sin, my son, and that is all I care to know about it.’ Taking a deep breath, she collected herself. ‘You fought until your foes became too many, then you surrounded yourself with flames. Something made you fall from your horse, because the fire went out and there you were on the cobbles in a dead faint. We thought you had been struck on the head by a stone, though later we could find no injury apart from the one in your side. Then the girl came, with warriors.’ Shuddering, the Superior blessed herself. ‘In the confusion of their attack, we slung you over your horse and fled, I’m afraid. She found us shortly after and led us all here.’
It was barely more than he already knew, but it was better than nothing.
‘Who do I need to thank for taking care of this?’ He touched the bandage around his ribs.
‘Sister Resa. She appears to have taken you under her wing.’
‘Please tell her I’m grateful.’ He would tell her himself when he saw her, but for now he was too battered and weary to go looking for her. ‘And to you, too, Superior.’
‘We should thank you, Gair,’ she said. ‘You have put yourself in harm’s way for us more than once in recent days and because of it, we all still have our lives. As a daughter of the Church I must deplore your methods, but as a fellow soul under the Goddess I can find little to criticise.’ She rose to leave, brushing chaff from the skirts of her habit. A small smile softened her face. ‘It appears even mortal sin can have practical applications.’
Then she walked away to rejoin the other nuns.
Leaning back, Gair let the wall support him. He needed sleep, lots of it, but he also needed to know why he had lost control of the Song again. No one had struck him. He’d taken no new hurts at all beyond a few bruises, most of which he must have collected from the cobbles in the fall. Nothing to explain why his grasp on his gift had slipped, why the Song had turned on him the way it hadn’t since the iron room. Something inside him was broken.
Carefully, he probed the shield in his mind that scabbed over the worst of the reiving’s scars. Like the dull ache of an old wound, he had become so accustomed to it that he barely gave it any thought, but as he tried to examine it, his focus kept slipping away. After a few attempts, he gave up and let the shield be. It wasn’t as if he even knew what he was doing.
Alderan might have been able to explain some of it. Though he’d been no Healer, the old man had worked the Song for almost three times as long as Gair himself had drawn breath and his interests had been eclectic enough that he’d known a surprising amount about many, many things. Except Alderan wasn’t there. Alderan was gone.
Two days had passed without sign of Baer. Two days of bald, wind-scoured ridges where dead trees thrust skywards like fingers raised in admonition, and of precipitous, pine-choked valleys whose frost-hardened floors the sun never reached. Two days through mists and stumbles, with hunger gnawing at their bellies, through backtracks and deadfalls and stinging hail, and every evening the bitter shadow of Tir Malroth reached out and gathered them up. Two days had never felt so long.
A bright bead of blood glistened on the pad of Teia’s thumb where she’d stuck herself with the needle. She couldn’t sew with mittens on and without them the cold soon made her fingers next to useless. She sighed. It was almost worth leaving the rip in the knee of her trews unmended, were it not for the wind that found its way through the smallest gap in her clothing and pinched her hard enough to make her yelp. She sucked the blood away and tried once more to stitch the rent.
A dead tree had tripped her, sent her crashing down on hands and knees. Her mittens had saved her palms, but her trews had torn on the same sharp-edged rock that had gouged her flesh. Following her instructions, one of the other women had cleaned the wound and dressed it with some of Ana’s salve, but the ragged fabric was proving more bothersome.
I should have thought to bring another pair. His sealskin ones, or even the elk-hide – something that would have stood up to rough treatment better than this wool. She puffed and grunted, straining past her belly to make the first stitch. Or at least something else I could have put on to stay warm whilst I mend these! Macha, I’m so cold. Another stitch and she fell back gasping. This would take for ever.
Neve appeared around the blanket that made the door to the women’s shelter, carrying a steaming bowl. ‘Tea, Banfaíth,’ she said, setting it down next to Teia.
It was colourless, little more than hot water; the leaves had been reused too many times to have much left to give. She picked it up and sipped. Flavourless as well, but at least it was hot.
‘Thank you, Neve.’
The other woman sat back on her heels. ‘You’ll burn your eyes, stitching in that poor light,’ she said, taking the needle from Teia’s numb fingers. ‘Fetch it closer and I’ll see to the mending.’
Wordless, grateful, Teia sent her little globe of light to hover over Neve’s capable hands. She didn’t even object as Baer’s woman unpicked her clumsy stitches and started again. Banfaíth she might be to her little clan, but in the women’s tent she was no more than a girl again. Neve saw to that.
Teia leaned back on her arms and tried to ignore the ache in her lower back. Moving into the women’s tent had been her idea; it had felt wrong to her that the men should spend time constructing a separate shelter for her, just because she was the Banfaíth, before they could begin work on one for their families. It made more sense to have just two shelters, she had argued, one for men and one for women, which the warmth of their bodies could heat against the night’s chill. She had expected an argument from the men, but without Baer, Isaak did not feel strong enough to stand up to her and the rest of the menfolk followed his lead.
‘He’s gone, isn’t he?’ asked Neve quietly, head bent over her sewing. ‘Dead.’
‘I don’t know. I hope not.’
‘Ought to have been back with us by now. It’d take more than a bit of snow to stop my man.’ She twitched the rest of the rent closed and held it taut with one hand as the other dipped and drew, dipped and drew. ‘Reckon dead makes most sense.’ Her voice was brisk, dispassionate.
Reaching out, Teia touched Neve’s arm. ‘I haven’t given up hope.’
‘Aye, well.’ Neve tied off the thread and snapped it around her fingers. She handed the needle back but didn’t meet Teia’s eye. ‘Hope don’t keep me warm at night, is all.’
‘I can scry him out, if you like.’
The older woman hesitated. ‘You can see where he is?’
‘Not exactly, but maybe I can tell if he’s—’ She almost said if he’s alive, then corrected herself at the last minute. ‘If he’s safe.’ Surely she knew Baer well enough by now to seek him out.
Neve fussed with her shawl, folding and refolding her arms over it. Teia guessed she wanted to know but was afraid of what she might learn.
As gently as she could, she said, ‘At least then you’d know, one way or the other.’
The older woman worked her hands deeper under her armpits and gave a crisp nod. ‘True enough. I’ll fetch some water, shall I?’
Teia held up her tea-bowl. ‘This will do,’ she said. ‘It’s near enough water as it is.’
The power came quickly, but all the tiny bowl showed was snowflakes the size of goose feathers swirling in the air. Teia squinted to see the landscape beyond them, but with no moonlight she couldn’t make out more than ghostly grey shapes.
Show me Baer.
The viewing in the bowl turned to black and Neve recoiled. ‘Macha’s mercy!’
‘It’s all right,’ Teia reassured her. ‘I think he’s under cover somewhere, and it’s just too dark to see.’
Neve began to lean towards the bowl again then stopped, suddenly dubious. ‘You’re sure?’
‘Sure as I can be,’ Teia said, with more cheer than she actually felt. It was the absolute truth, but it tasted like the worst lie in the world. She was as sure as she could be on the basis of no more evidence than a feeling in her gut. ‘If Baer was . . . well, if something had happened to him, I don’t think the water would show me anything at all.’
Looking up, she met Neve’s gaze. A little bewildered, a little haunted, but strangely resolute. Teia released her power and let the viewing fade. ‘That didn’t help much, did it? I’m sorry, Neve. Maybe if I try again in the morning, when it’s light?’
‘No.’ The older woman sat back, rewrapping her shawl again. ‘Thank you, Banfaíth, but I reckon I’ve seen enough for now.’
She pushed herself to her feet and Teia wished she hadn’t made the offer to scry. It hadn’t eased Neve’s mind at all.
‘Thank you for your help with this.’ She gestured at her newly mended trews. ‘And the tea.’
‘It was no trouble. Banfaíth,’ Neve added by way of excusing herself and left.
Teia watched the blanket fall closed after her, despair chilling her as much as the gust of cold air. Oh, Neve, I’m so sorry.
She should never have let Baer go. She was a fool to be so concerned about others when she had Lost Ones of her own to care for. They should be her first duty, always.
Teia swiped a hand across her eyes. The longer Tir Malroth’s shadow lay over them, the more her strength dwindled, but they’d come too far to turn back now. The journey to the Broken Land would surely be longer than the distance that still lay ahead. It had to be. If she let herself believe otherwise . . .
No. She had to believe that the worst was behind them, not ahead. If she allowed herself even to think that was not so, she would lose what little hope she had left. She looked at the tea-bowl in her hand, still steaming faintly, and swallowed the drink down.