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Chapter Twenty-Four

Parting Ways

The dream begins with a distant bell tolling. In this dream, I am myself. I am trying to run away from something, but I can only run in a circle. I rush as fast as I can, trying to run away, but always I find I am running directly back to the most dangerous place. When I tumble too close, they reach out and catch me. I do not see who they are. Only that they capture me. There is a staircase of black stone. She puts on a glove, slipping her hand into his anguish. She opens the door to the staircase, and grips me by the wrist as she drags me down. The door slams shut behind us, soundlessly.

We are in a place where the emptiness is actually made of other people. They all begin speaking to me at once, but I plug my ears and close my eyes.

Dream Journal of Bee Farseer

Everything changed once Ellik had Vindeliar in his control. I was not sure of the reason for this, save that he seemed to take pleasure in the distress it caused the luriks and Dwalia. The night he seized the fog boy and kept him over at his camp, we did not load the sleighs or travel at all. He told us nothing and left us waiting.

Ellik went to greet his soldiers and Vindeliar. He welcomed Vindeliar to his fire and to the meat his men had taken that day. His standing soldiers ringed them so that we could not see what went on. Lingstra Dwalia stood at the edge of our firelight and stared toward them, but did nothing to interfere. Ellik kept his voice low. We heard him speak, and then Vindeliar striving to answer him. At first Ellik sounded affable, then serious, and finally angry. Soon we could hear Vindeliar sobbing, his voice rising high on his words, but I could not make out what he told them. I did not hear anything to make me think they physically struck him. But sometimes the men would erupt into a roar of laughter at something. Dwalias fists kneaded her skirts, but she did not speak to any of us. Two of Elliks men stood near our fire, watching her. Once, when she took two steps toward them, one drew his blade. He smiled as he did it, inviting her to come closer. She stopped and when she turned back to our campfire, they both laughed.

It was a very long night. When morning came, perhaps she thought they might give Vindeliar back to us. They did not. Half of the soldiers went to their bedrolls, but the others put more wood on their fire and kept watch on the fog man. When it was clear that Ellik had gone to sleep, she turned to us. Go to bed, she ordered us angrily. Tonight we will travel again, and you should be rested.

But few of us slept. Before the winter sun reached noon, we were awake and moving nervously about our campsite. Ellik arose, and we saw the guard around Vindeliar change, as did the two men watching our campsite. The pale Servants tried not to stare at them. No one wished to invite their scrutiny. With straining ears and sidelong glances, we tried to hear Elliks orders for his men. Hold them here, I heard Ellik say as he mounted his horse. When I return, I expect to find all exactly as I left it. Dwalias anxiety soared when Ellik ordered an additional horse saddled for Vindeliar. We watched in dread as Ellik rode away, trailed by four of his men surrounding Vindeliar. They rode toward the town in broad daylight.

I think that was the most frightening day, for Ellik was away and his soldiers were left watching us. And oh, how well they watched us. With sidelong glances and smirks, with pointing fingers that dismissed some of the luriks and hands that sketched the measure of breasts or buttocks of another, they watched us. They did not speak to us, or touch any of us with their hands, which somehow made the strokes of their eyes and their muttered words all the more threatening.

But his men kept Elliks discipline. He had ordered them to leave us alone, for now, and they did. Still, the dreadful suspense of knowing that at any time he might rescind or change that order hovered over all of us. All that afternoon the luriks went about their tasks with grave faces, eyes darting constantly to see what the soldiers were doing in their adjacent camp. Twice I heard whispered conversations. This was never seen, never foretold! How can it be? They scrabbled through remembered writings, citing quotes to one another, trying to interpret them in new ways that would allow them to believe that what was happening had somehow been foreseen or foretold. Dwalia, it seemed to me, broke those conversations as often as she could, ordering Servants off to melt snow for water or bring still more firewood. They obeyed her, going off in twos and threes, for safety and, I think, so they might continue their whispering.

While Dwalia tried to keep our camp bustling, Elliks men remained idle and staring, commenting on particular women as if they were horses being auctioned. The males in our party were scarcely less nervous, wondering if Dwalia would order them to defend us. None of them was a hardened fighter. They were all the kind of folk I thought of as scribes: full of knowledge and ideas, but slight as willow saplings and bloodless as fish. They could hunt well enough to keep food on the spit, and Dwalia ordered them off to do so. My blood ran cold when I saw several of the soldiers rise and slouch after them, grinning maliciously and laughing low together.

We waited around our fire, cold in a way that the flames could not warn. Eventually, our hunters came back with two thin winter rabbits and drawn faces. They had not been assaulted, but the soldiers had followed them, speaking about what they might do to them in whispers just loud enough to reach their ears. Thrice they had scared off game just as the hunters let their arrows fly.

I waited as long as I could, but eventually I had to relieve myself. I went to Shun, who was very annoyed but in just as desperate a circumstance. We went together, looking over our shoulders, until we found a slightly more private spot. I still pantomimed pissing standing up before joining her and crouching in the snow. I was getting better at it. I no longer peed on the backs of my boots. We had both finished and were refastening our clothing when a shadow moved. Shun sucked in her breath to scream.

Dont, he said softly, more a plea than a command. He came a step closer and I could make out in the gathering dusk that he was the young soldier who had been making cow eyes at Shun since we had left Withywoods. He spoke quickly, softly. I just wanted to tell you, Ill protect you. Ill die before I let anyone hurt you. Or her.

Thank you, I said as softly, preferring to believe he spoke to me rather than Shun.

I could not read his eyes in the dimness but I saw a smile twitch his mouth. Nor will I betray your secret, he said, and then he stepped back into the shadow of the evergreens. We stayed where we were for some time, before we both cautiously approached that grove of trees. No one was there.

Hes spoken to me before, Shun admitted. I looked at her wide-eyed. Several of the soldiers have spoken to me. Just as they whisper vile things to the pale people when they take them food or gather their dishes. She stared off into the darkness where he might have gone. He is the only one who has said anything kind.

Do you believe him? What he said?

She looked at me. That he will protect us? One against so many? He cant. But knowing that he thinks he might have to protect us from his fellows tells me that he knows something bad is coming.

We all knew that, I said quietly. We walked back to the camp. I wanted to take her hand, to hold on to someone, but I knew she wouldnt welcome it.

Dusk was falling when Ellik and his men returned. Dwalia gave a wild gasp of relief when she saw that Vindeliar was with them and appeared intact. The saddle-packs on all the horses were bulging, and Elliks companions were laughing and shouting to their fellows before they reached the fire. Weve plundered a town in daylight, and not a soul the wiser! one called, and that brought the men around the fires scrambling to see what they had.

From their packs they took bottles of wine and rich foods, hams and loaves of bread studded with currants and swirled with spices, smoked fish and winter apples. In broad daylight! I heard one man say, and another, as he swirled a homespun dress in the air, Took it right off her and she stood like a cow waiting to be milked! Had a feel or two, but no time for anything more! And when we walked away, her husband took her arm and they walked off through the town without a backward glance!

Dwalias jaw dropped open in horror. I thought it was at what the man had said but then I followed her gaze. Vindeliar still sat his horse beside a grinning Ellik. The fog man wore an uncertain half-smile, a necklace of pearls, and a fur hat. A brightly figured scarf swathed his neck, and his hands were gloved in red leather with tassels. As we watched, one of the men who had ridden with him slapped him on the thigh and told him, This is just the beginning! Vindeliars smile broadened and became more certain.

That broke Dwalias resolve, I think. Vindeliar! Remember the path! Do not stray from what has been seen! she shouted at him.

Ellik wheeled his horse and rode it right up to her, pushing her back until she stumbled and nearly fell into the fire.

Hes mine now! Dont speak to him!

But the smile had faded from Vindeliars plump face and he watched in dismay as Ellik leaned down to backhand Dwalia. She did not move but accepted the blow. Courage, or did she fear worse if she avoided it?

Ellik stared down at her for a moment until she lowered her eyes. Then he rode back to his own fire, announcing, Tonight we feast! And tomorrow, another test of our fine friends abilities!

Some of the Servants were staring hungrily and longingly at the soldiers camp. As Ellik dismounted, his men offered him the best of the loot. For a time, a stricken Vindeliar looked toward our camp like a dog that longs to return to its familiar kennel. Then Elliks men surrounded him, handing him an opened bottle of wine and a sweet cake. A moment later he was down and one of his riding companions had thrown a familiar arm across his shoulders and drawn him into the thick of their comradeship. I recalled a dream I had had, of a beggar sucked down and drowned in a whirlpool of jewels and food.

Cold rose in me. None of them had foreseen this. But I had. Only me.

I didnt understand how that could be and suddenly I knew that I had to understand. There was great danger in me not understanding these dreams. I was the only one who could seize the tiller and steer the boat, but I did not know how.

Hush, Wolf-Father bade me sternly. Say nothing. Not to these people.

I have to know.

You dont. You dont have to be that. Take a breath. Breathe now, smell the scents of now. Be alert to the danger that is now. Or you will never have to fear tomorrows danger. There was sad finality in his warning, as if he knew too well the meaning of it. I tamped down my questions and opened myself to all that was happening around us.

At least they did no worse than take her clothing, Odessa said quietly.

Dwalia, sitting dispiritedly by our fire, guessed the reason for that. Until they know the limits of Vindeliars power, they will not risk putting themselves in a position in which the whole town might suddenly turn on them. But while they are playing childish pranks on merchants, we sit here exposed to any who might decide to wander through this stretch of woods. We can be seen now. Anything might befall us.

Odessas brow wrinkled. Anything? she asked, as if the concept puzzled her.

Dwalia looked ill. Anything. We are so far from the path, I do not know how to recover our way. I do not know if we should act or hope that the path reclaims us. Anything we do may take us farther from our correct choices.

Odessa nodded almost eagerly. So we were taught in the school. Trust the way of the White Prophet. Avoid extreme actions. Only the Prophet through her Catalyst may steer the future best. But when we are so far from the path, is it still true?

So we must believe, Dwalia replied, but she sounded uncertain to me. Her luriks had ventured closer as she spoke. They huddled around her like a flock of sheep clustering close to their shepherd. A remembrance of a dark dream came to me. I clenched my teeth, feeling I held back vomit rather than sounds as the words of the dream echoed in my head. The sheep are scattered, given to the winds teeth while the shepherd flees with the wolfs cub.

I heard a raised voice from the other campfire. Why? Why not? For a celebration! For those of us who stayed here and waited while you tested the boy in town.

They are mine, Ellik replied, but his stern words were laced with tolerant amusement. When they are changed to coins, then be sure you will be given your rightful share. Have I ever cheated you of your rightful due?

No, but. . .

I craned my neck. It was the handsome rapist speaking. By the firelight, his nose and cheeks were red with more than cold. They had been drinking the stolen wine. I caught a glimpse of Vindeliar. He was sitting flat in the snow, a foolish smile on his face.

Its all his fault, Dwalia said in a poisonously bitter voice. I thought she was speaking of Ellik but she was staring sightlessly into the darkened forest. He did this to us. He could not be content with the role he was given. He was treated well. He had no reason to run off, to choose a Catalyst of his own, to destroy the path with his willfulness. I feel his influence in this. How that can be, I do not know. But I am certain it is so, and I curse his name.

So spare us two or even one! Hogen suggested boldly. One will not make that big a hole in your purse, Commander!

I thought that Ellik would be furious at the demand, but perhaps he had been made more mellow by drink and by his enjoyment of his prize that day. Commander? No. Duke. Duke I will be again, with this boy on my leash. Name me so from now on!

At that proclamation, some of his men cheered.

Did Hogen judge him mellowed with wine and success? He flourished an elaborate bow to Ellik and said in a mockingly elegant voice, Duke Ellik, your excellency, we your most loyal subjects beg a boon of you. Will not you spare us one of yon womanflesh for us to enjoy on this cold night?

The other men erupted in laughter and cheers. Duke Ellik joined in. He slapped the man firmly on the back and spoke loud and clear. Hogen, I know you well. One will never be enough for you. And by the time all of you have finished with one, there will be nothing left for the market!

Then give us two, and she will have half the work! Hogen proposed boldly, and at least three of the man shouted their approval.

Beside me, I felt Shun stiffen. She set her hand on my shoulder, and her grip was like a claw. She bent to say by my ear, Come, Bee. You must be weary. Let us go to our rest. She clutched the shoulder of my coat and almost lifted me to my feet as she pulled at me. Around us, the luriks crouched frozen around the fire, their gazes turned toward the other fireside. Their eyes grew wider in their pale faces.

Can we not flee? I heard one whisper. If we scattered into the forest, some of us might escape!

Do nothing, Dwalia hissed. Do nothing.

But Shun paid her words no heed. She had me on my feet and we were moving, stepping quietly back from the circle of firelight. In their terror, the luriks did not seem to notice our departure. Dwalia did. She glanced at us but did nothing, almost as if she wanted us to flee.

I had lost track of the conversation from the other campfire, but the rough burst of laughter I heard was more frightening than merry. Ellik lifted his voice and sounded almost jolly in his tolerance.

Oh, very well, Hogen. All here know that your brain cannot work when your dick is lonely for a dip. I will give you one. Just one. Chosen especially for you. Come, subjects! Follow your duke.

I dug in my heels and, with an angry hiss, Shun halted. I stared back. I was terrified but I had to see what was happening. Shuns grip vised down on my shoulder but she stopped trying to drag me. I think she felt the same paralyzing curiosity. The same dread and horror.

Ellik came toward our fire, a wide, drunken grin on his seamed old face. His hand was on Hogens shoulder as if he steered the man, but I think he more leaned on him as he staggered through the snow. The rapist was as handsome as ever; his golden hair gleamed in the firelight, and he smiled with his even white teeth. So handsome and so cruel. Some of the luriks had been perched on their bundles around the fire. They stood as Ellik came on and retreated, but not far. They clustered closer to Dwalia as if she would protect them. I knew she would not.

Do nothing, she warned them in a stern voice as Ellik came closer. His men clustered behind him and the handsome rapist, leering like panting dogs. Hogens mouth was wide and wet, his left hand gripping his crotch loosely as if to contain himself. His pale eyes wandered over the luriks like a beggar child staring at a display of sweets. The Whites froze like rabbits. Shun made a low sound in her throat. She crouched down and I allowed her to move me some paces sideways to the flimsy shelter of some willow saplings. We both stared.

Here she is! Heres the lovely for you, Hogen!

Ellik stretched forth his hand and let it hover near a slender girl with a face as pale as the moon. She gave a low cry and cowered closer to Dwalia. Dwalia did nothing at all. She stared at Hogen and Ellik with a stony face and made no sound. At the last moment, Elliks hand darted sideways and he seized Odessa by the front of her coat, pulling her from the shelter of the others as if he had just selected a piglet for the spit. Her mouth sagged into a cave of woe, her homely, unfinished face contorting as Ellik dragged her forth to the mocking cries of his men and Hogens cry of disappointment. Shes ugly as a dogs butt. I dont want her!

All the men behind him roared with laughter at his protest. Ellik laughed until his face was bright red and then wheezed out, Your cock has no eyes! Shell do for you. She wouldnt bring anything at the market anyway!

Odessa had half-fainted, sagging to her knees, held uponly by the wiry old mans grip on the neck of her shirt. Ellik was stronger than he looked. He gave a sudden heave, pulling her to her feet and swinging her into Hogen so that he had to catch her in his arms or fall himself. Take her, you hound! All humor suddenly fell from the commanders face. His expression was savage as he said, And remember this night well when I deduct her value from your share of our take. Dont think you can whine and bargain with me, boy. I set the bargains. And this ugly rag of skirts is what you get from me tonight.

Hogen stared at his commander over Odessas bowed head. She had come to her senses enough to struggle feebly, her hands paddling at Hogens shirtfront. Hogens face had gone dark with fury but as he met Elliks gaze, his eyes dropped. Stupid bitch, he said disdainfully, and I thought he would cast Odessa back into the other luriks. But instead he shifted his grip on her, catching her one-handed under the throat and dragging her off with him. The other soldiers, gone silent for a short time at their commanders rebuke, followed him with sudden shouts and offers of wagers and demands to be next upon her.

Dwalia did nothing. Her followers huddled behind her like sheep. I wondered if each was secretly glad the wolves had dragged off Odessa and not herself.

Not wolves. Wolves feed when they are hungry. They do not rape.

Im sorry. I could tell I had offended Wolf-Father.

Come. Shun dragged me behind a snow-laden bush. They wont stop with her. We have to escape now.

But weve nothing with us. . .

From the other campfire, we heard short bursts of screams. The men mocked Odessa, whooping along with her. Shuns grip on my shoulder began to shake. We have our lives, she whispered angrily. Thats what we flee with. I could tell she could scarcely get breath into her lungs. She was terrified. And trying to save me.

I could not take my eyes off the huddled luriks. Dwalia was a standing silhouette against the firelight. Abruptly she moved. Ellik! She shouted his name angrily into the night. We had an agreement! You gave us your word! You cannot do this! Then, as I saw the two men he had left watching the luriks move toward her, she shouted at them, Do not block my way!

Thats. . .stupid. Shuns voice shook out of her body. We have to run. We have to get away. Theyll kill her. And then there is nothing between them and us.

Yes, I said. I listened to Wolf-Father. We must leave no fresh tracks. Move where the snow is trampled already. Get as far from the camp as we can while they are busy. Find a tree-well,a place under an evergreen where the branches are heavy with snow and bent down, but the ground around the trunk is almost clear. Hide there, close together.

Id reached up to take her by the wrist. She let go of my collar and abruptly I was the one who was leading her, away from Dwalia and her paralyzed luriks, away from the campfires and into the dark. Odessas screams had stopped. I refused to wonder why. We moved furtively, until we were at the edge of our campsite. Shun was not speaking. She simply followed me. I took her to the trail the horses and sleighs had made through the snow when we first arrived. We were moving steadily, both of us breathing raggedly with fear, backtracking the trail of the sleighs and horses. The forest was black, the snow was white. I saw a game trail crossing our path. We turned and followed it, leaving the runner tracks behind us. Now we moved as deer did, ducking our heads to go under low-hanging, snow-laden boughs. Dont touch the branches. Dont make any snow fall, I warned. On a rise to our left, I saw a cluster of evergreens. This way, I whispered. I went first, breaking trail through the deep snow. I was leaving tracks. We couldnt help that.

The snow will be shallower in the deeper forest. Go, cub. Do not hide until you are too weary to run any farther.

I nodded and tried to move faster. The snow seemed to clutch at my boots and Shun made too much noise. They would hear us running away. They would catch us.

Then we heard Dwalia scream. It was not shrill, it was hoarse. And terrified. She screamed again and then shouted, Vindeliar! Come back to us! Vinde And her voice was cut off, as swiftly as one quenches a torch.

I heard frightened voices, a chorus of them, some shrill. Questioning, like a flock of chickens woken in the dark of night. The luriks.

Run now. We must run now!

What are they doing to her?

Vindeliar! He must help us.

Behind us in the night, I heard Dwalias voice rise in a desperate choked cry. This must not happen! This must not happen! Make it stop, Vindeliar! It is your only chance to return to the rightful path. Forget what Ellik told you! It wasnt true! Forget Ellik! Then, in a desperately hoarse voice, Vindeliar, save me! Make them stop!

Then a different kind of scream cut the night. It wasnt a sound. It hurt me to feel it; it made me sick. Fear flowed through the air and drenched me. I was so terrified I could not move. Shun froze. I tried to speak, to tell her we had to get farther away, but I could not make my voice work. My legs would not hold me up. I sagged down in the snow with Shun falling on top of me. In the wake of that wave, a deadly silence filled the forest. No night bird spoke, no living thing gave voice. It was so still I could hear the crackling of the fires.

Then a single shrill, clear cry. Run! Flee!

And then the hoarse shouting of men. Catch them! Dont let them steal the horses!

Kill him! Kill them all! Traitors!

Stop them. Dont let them get to the village!

Bastards! Traitorous bastards!

And then the night was full of sound. Screams, cries. Men roaring and shouting. Orders barked. Screeched pleas.

Shun was the one to rise and drag me to my feet. Run, she whimpered, and I tried. My legs were jelly. They would not take my weight.

Shun dragged me through the snow. I staggered to my feet.

We fled from the rising screams into darkness.

Chapter Twenty-Three Bonds and Ties | Fool's Quest | Chapter Twenty-Five Red Snow