Garen dreamt of rust and blood again, of deep pain lanced through his shoulders and back, searing heat inside his gut, the salt taste of urine. Then cold, metal taste of snow, dull ache of broken bone, scent of burning pine. Old stone, eyes staring through smoke, sound of weeping and a voice in reply.
“Do it, please.” Words tortured but kind. A woman on a threshold, before childbirth or death.
A man crying. “I love you.” Then a blade, bone muscle and tendon severed. Heavyness, a river unleashed, a day ended, the last quake of orgasm, shallow breath. Sleep, then a crash of wood.
Garen woke, blinked into the flood of morning light, stared at a broken door and the man who’d broken it, Thalyn. His face sneered, but he looked unwell, or unslept.
“Get up. We leave now.”
He still heard the weeping of the man in his dream, smelled wood smoke, but felt no pain, only sorrow. Thalyn had not waited for an answer, was already gone.
He looked at the damage to the door again, then to the old man still sleeping. Garen stood, rolled and tied his blankets, then placed a coin upon the small table so his host would wake to more than a guest gone and a broken door.
The morning was grey, wet; the air uneasy. He heard low voices, the horses unquiet, shaking their tack, then saw the men gathered outside the elder’s house. Villagers were there, too, a short distance away, staring at a heap of clothing near the men.
Garen gasped when he could see better. The elder was dead, her blood puddling in the mud. Runor, Sorn, and three of the others were already on their horses; Thalyn was just mounting his. They eyed the villagers, the villagers glared at them.
“What happened?” Garen called, drawing their attention on him.
“The wench tried to hex us,” Runor growled. “Get on your horse before I have to kill the rest of them.”
The villagers remained silent, stared at Garen. He caught the face of the woman whose child he helped. A sense passed from her gaze to his, a pleading urgency. Make them leave, he heard, though not from her lips.
Garen strode faster to his horse, tried to read Sorn’s face as he mounted. Jaw set, eyes unblinking, a dead stare into the distance beyond their leader. He couldn’t catch his attention, nor knew what he’d hope to come after it.
Runor ordered his horse on with a hard gait; the others followed. Garen had only ever ridden pack horses, never at a gallop. He held fast, tried not to yank the horse’s bit. He turned his own head long enough to see the crowd had moved to the dead woman’s body, heard weeping, then set his eyes on the road before them.
They rode like this for what seemed an hour, as if being chased. Garen had seen no horses in the village besides their own; none could have come to take revenge. Runor was himself strong enough to take on several of the villagers, even without arms: they had no reason to fear a chase. Still, Runor led the pace the as if they were in danger.
The road began to incline. Farmland swelling under autumn fullness gave way to reddening forests of birch, alder, oak and pine. Runor signed for them to slow when the ruins of a tower came into view; when they reached it he allowed them to stop to rest the horses and eat.
Garen dismounted last, inclining his ears for word of what had brought the old woman’s death. No one spoke of it; after they tethered their horses to trees they sat and ate, wordless. Runor and Thalyn sat together, Sorn and the other two kept their own company apart.
He watched the others, washed down dry bread and hard cheese with water. The rain had stopped; enough sun flowed through the sky that he took off his coat and overshirt. The sun warmed his skin. This eased him.
He stood and walked to the tower. A little taller than the trees around it, eight men high he guessed. Part of its wall a wreck of tumbled-down stone, a rusted-iron door barricaded with bramble. Ivy as thick as oak branches climbed the rest of the tower’s height: he guessed it hadn’t been used for decades if not centuries.
“It’s from before Verych.” One of the other men, whose name he hadn’t yet caught, had followed him
It was older than Garen had guessed. Verych was founded over 600 years ago. Garen turned to the man. “I guess it’s in good shape, then.”
“Plague. They barred themselves in to escape it. Didn’t help them, or any of the others. Lots more of them where we’re going.”
Garen straightened, relieved finally to learn anything about their journey. “What’s your name?”
“Huvwn. Your riding my brother’s horse.”
Huvwn’s face—straight brow, narrow dark eyes, mouth obscured by a short black beard—betrayed no emotion. Garen stayed silent rather than try to respond.
“He was an idiot.”
“That’s what Runor said, too. What happened?”
Huvwn spat. “Thought he’d have a last night of whoring. Found him in his bed with his chest split clean open.”
The man’s calm voice unnerved Garen. “Who killed him?”
Huvwn jerked his head slightly behind them. “Thalyn, probably. Or maybe men from Orres. Fucked either way.”
Garen’s mind felt slow, sluggish. Orres was the enemy against whom everyone in the city was clamoring for war; if they killed Veln, that meant Garen’s companions were closer to the king of Verych than he suspected. But if Thalyn had killed Veln, then why was Huvwn so calm?
He couldn’t sort it, so he changed the subject. “What did the elder do to Runor?”
Huvwn shook his head. “Nothing, probably.” Then glancing behind them, he muttered “Runor’s a paranoid fool. Terrified of anything wyrd. That’s why he hates you.”
Garen nodded. “What’s the other guy’s name?”
“Which other? Uric? Or Jord?”
Huvwn didn’t know Uric had another identity, then. “I meant Jord.” Then realising Huvwn might tell him more about Sorn, he added, “but neither of them speak much, huh?”
“Both are Runor’s men along with Thalyn, but Thalyn is Runor’s man, if you understand me. Jord only talks in his sleep. Crazy talk, too, stuff about killing kids. But Uric’s the one you need to stay away from. Watched him gut an old priest for insulting Runor. Ripped his stomach open with the handle of a bell, pulled his entrails out, and then gods-damned shoved them in the priest’s mouth. Don’t piss him off.”
Garen tried not to blanch, but was certain he looked ill. “So you and Veln weren’t Runor’s men?”
Thalyn’s voice reached their ears, not very far away. Huvwn shook his head. “Just started working for him last year.” Then, he whispered, “sorry.”
Before Garen could ask “for what,” Huvwn pushed him hard. He fell backwards, landing in the brambles, thorns lacerating his arms, legs, and face. He cut himself more as he tried to struggle free, then stopped long enough to hear Huvwn’s response to laughter behind them.
Garen could only barely see the man who’d laughed. It was Thalyn. Huwvn spoke to him. “I told you the boy’s harmless. He had nothing to do with Veln. Tell Runor to stop worrying. He only listens to you.”
Thalyn walked past Huvwn, glaring down at Garen’s battle with the briars. Garen returned his gaze, indignant. Thalyn said nothing, appeared suddenly unnerved, then turned and walked with Huvwn back towards the others.
Blood dripped into his eye from a gouge in forehead. The pain everywhere was awful, dozens of tiny stab-wounds everywhere on his body, but the humiliation felt even worse. “You didn’t show me this,” he growled, angrily, at the air. “None of this.” He pulled one vine away, another snapped back into his face.
“Yura was right,” he cursed, then felt even worse for it.
But then maybe his teacher wasn’t completely wrong. In just the last week he’d waken in stables next to a man he didn’t remember; that man threatened him last night and apparently murdered priests. Last night he’d settled with a group of strange men into a village for the night; this morning he learned the leader of those men had killed an old woman. And now he was covered in scratches and blood after another one of those men threw him into brambles.
Yura didn’t trust she-who-foresees, never thought her help was worth the cost. Only a few days ago, the idea of a balance sheet between what she gave and what she demanded had seen profane to Garen; now, he wondered if he’d never respected himself enough to notice what he’d put out. Maybe it all wasn’t worth it. Or maybe he’d never really thought that he was.
Being alone with these thoughts terrified Garen. Yura was far away, as were the few friends he hadn’t pushed away. Garen shook his head: he hadn’t even told them he was leaving the city. Perhaps they wouldn’t even have noticed. Perhaps they weren’t really even his friends at all.
He stared at his bloodied arms and hands, trying to find there something to make sense of the awful ache he suddenly felt inside him. Worse, it was not so sudden—slowly and with panicked fear he understood it was an ache he’d always felt but never until now dared name.
He was alone. There was no one who understood him, no one he understood. He was outside the world, outside all human meaning, clinging desperately to his faith in an unseen patroness who’d never really lifted him from the edge of this abyss of loneliness, only ever kept him from plummeting into it.
Anger became terror, terror became despair, and despair became resignation. He trudged back to the rest of the men, biting back the razor-pain of the scratches, not bothering to clean the blood from his face. To any other group of people he might have looked a thing of horror or pity. For these men, however, the gouges in his skin and blood clotting on his face was hilarious. Runor sneered, Thalyn laughed, Huvwn and Jord shared a conspiratorial joke between them.
Garen met each of their gazes with a calm rage. He had nothing to lose; he was already alone, doubting even the final thread that tied him to meaning. They couldn’t harm him further. He saved the greatest anger for Sorn, or Uric, or whomever he really was. But when he turned to look at him, he found what he didn’t know how to look for, what he’d forgotten could be found.
Sorn wasn’t laughing at all. His face looked kind, almost sympathetic, and a little angry himself.