home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add

Chapter Twenty-Six

A Glove

Of the naturally bred one named Beloved, we have only a brief genealogy. This was due to carelessness of the part of the Servant who received the child at the gates. Although he claimed that he took a complete account of his parentage and siblings, the document either does not exist or was separated from the child and misplaced during his acceptance and orientation time. Some have suggested the candidate himself stole and destroyed the document, but I find this unlikely. His cleverness has been overestimated by far too many of his caretakers.

While at first the child was cheerful and obedient as his family had assured him that Clerres was where he belonged and he would be cared for, as days passed, he became morose and impassive. He shared little with those who attempted to ascertain his lineage. We can say with relative certainty that he had lived with his parents for over twenty years, that all three of his parents were elderly and becoming unable to continue to care for themselves or Beloved. He initially asserted that he had two sisters whom he missed badly. Later, he denied having any siblings. An effort to locate them and harvest their offspring for interbreeding with our established pool of those who carry White lineage was not successful.

Thus Beloved remains the only member of his lineage that we have in our records. Our efforts to have Beloved contribute a child to our stock have been in vain. He is stubborn, occasionally violent, argumentative, and incites like behaviors in the other Whites if allowed to be in contact with them. When it was decided that he should be marked for easy identification no matter where he might go, he resisted the tattooing process, even attempting to burn the completed markings from his own back.

While it is an extreme solution, in my opinion he should be eliminated. Even the accounts of his dreams should be excised from the regular listings and placed separately in our records as I judge them to be unreliable reports. His rebellion knows no bounds and he exhibits no respect. It is my considered opinion that he will never be useful to us. On the contrary, he will be destructive, kindle rebellion, and disrupt the order and peace of Clerres.

Yarielle, Servant

The first day and a half of fleeing from Dwalia were brutal for Shun and me. We found a tree-well the first night and huddled together there, shaking as much from terror as cold. Close to the trunk of the massive spruce tree, the earth was bare of snow but carpeted thickly with generations of fallen needles. The down-swooping branches were like the walls of a tent. Wed been unable to hide the tracks we made crawling into that space. We could only hope that no one would attempt to track us.

In the distance we could hear screams, angry shouts, and a peculiar sound that I could not at first identify. Is that sword against sword? I whispered to Shun.

The pale people didnt carry swords.

Maybe they snatched some up.

I doubt it. Here. Put your coat on the ground for us to sit on. Ill open my coat and you sit on my lap and get inside it with me. We might be warmer that way.

The kindness of the offer startled me as much as how pragmatic it was. As we arranged ourselves, I asked, How did you learn this?

Once, when I was very small, my grandmother was taking me home from a visit when our carriage wheel hit a pothole and broke something. It was winter and night and our coachman had to ride off to get help for us. She took me inside her coat to keep me warm. She spoke to the top of my head.

So. Her childhood had included rides in carriages and a kind grandmother. Not all of your life has been horrid, then, I said.

Not all of it. Only the last four or five years.

I wish it had been nicer for you, I whispered, and strange to say I meant it. I felt closer to her, as if I were older this night or she were younger.

Sshhh, she warned me, and I kept silent. Excited and angry cries still tore the forest night. A long scream rose and fell and rose again. I thought it would never stop and I buried my face in Shuns shoulder and she gripped me close. Despite how we huddled, we were still cold. The dark and the forest seemed so huge that I felt we were a stubborn nut that it clutched and tried to crack with cold. I heard a horse galloping; it passed us, and though it was not at all near, I still trembled with fear. At any moment I expected to hear someone shout that they had found us. They would seize us and drag us out and this time there would be no Dwalia to protect us. Or Vindeliar and Dwalia would come with his misting lies and her soft, cruel hands and claim us to be Servants. I closed my eyes tightly and wished I could close my ears.

No, cub. The ears keep watch while the eyes sleep. So sleep now, but be wary.

We should sleep if we can, I whispered. Tomorrow we will need to move far and fast.

Shun settled her back against the tree. Sleep, then, she said. Ill keep watch.

I wondered if there was any sense in keeping watch. If they found us, could we fight and escape? But maybe it would only be one or two of them. Maybe we could run. Or turn and fight. And kill them. I was cold and shaking, but somehow I fell asleep.

I woke once in the night to Shun shaking me. Move off me. My legs are numb! she breathed by my ear.

I didnt want to get off her lap. When I moved, it opened her coat and the little warmth my body had stored around itself slipped away into the night. She shifted around, grunting a little as she did, and settled her legs into a different position. Sit next to me, she directed. She slipped one arm out of the white fur coat and I crawled inside it. I put my arm down the empty sleeve and she put her arm around me. My bottom did not like the hard, cold earth. I tugged at my coat and found enough slack to fold an edge up around us. We huddled. The night had become colder, darker, and much more quiet. Two owls began a conversation, and I slid into shivering sleep again.

I woke shaking all over. My toes were numb, my bottom ached, and my spine was painful ice in my back. I had buried my face in the fur of the coat, but one of my ears was painfully cold. Morning light was fingering its way through the snow-laden branches that had sheltered us for the night. I listened but heard only the morning challenges of birds.

Shun. Are you awake? She did not stir and I felt a bolt of terror that she had frozen to death in the night. Shun! I shook her, gently but insistently. She abruptly lifted her head and stared at me without recognition. Then she gave her head a sudden shake and knew me.

Listen! she hissed at me.

I did. I kept my voice low. Nothing but birdsong. I think we should get up and try to get as far from here as we can.

We both began to move stiffly. We could not stand upright under the branches. It was hard for me to untangle myself from her coat, and harder for me to pull my coat from under her and wallow my way into it. It was cold and full of fallen needles. I was suddenly hungry and thirsty.

I led the way out of the tree-well and Shun wallowed up after me. The winter day was bright and clear and for a moment I stood blinking. Then I scooped a handful of snow and put it in my mouth. It melted into a very small amount of water. I stooped for more.

Dont take too much at once. Youll chill yourself even worse.

Shuns advice made sense. I could not have explained why it irritated me. I took a smaller scoop and put it in my mouth. She spoke again. We have to make our way home. We cant follow the sleigh tracks back. If theyre looking for us, that will be the first thing theyll expect us to do.

If theyre looking for us?

The soldiers quarreled with the Servants, I think. The Servants will still want you, if any of them survived. But we can hope the soldiers wont care about us.

Cant we go to that town and ask for help? Or one of those houses?

She shook her head slowly. They were doing bad things in that town. Making people forget they were there. I dont think we should go there. Because I think thats what theyll expect us to do. And the same for knocking on someones door and asking for help. I think that today we should walk as far as we can, away from here, but not on a road where we can be seen. They might ask people if theyve seen us.

Everything she said made sense but I didnt want her to be in charge of all our plans. I thought hard, trying to be as clever as she was being. We should go by ways where it would be hard for a sleigh to follow. Or a horse. Through brushy places. Up and down steep places.

Which way is home, do you think?

Im not sure, I said. I looked up at the overcast sky.

She looked around us and then, almost randomly, said, Well go that way.

What if it takes us deeper and deeper into the forest and we die of cold and hunger?

She gave me a look. Id prefer that to what will happen if they find us. If you want to retrace our tracks and see if theyll take you back, go ahead. Im going this way.

And she started off. After a moment, I followed her. It was slightly easier to walk in her broken trail than to force my own way through the snow. The path she had chosen led us up one hill and down the next and away from the mercenaries camp, and all seemed like good things at the time. As we continued, the hillside grew steeper and the brambles thicker. There will be a stream at the bottom of this, I predicted, and Maybe, she agreed. But the sleighs cant come this way, and I dont think the horses would do well here, either.

Before we reached the bottom, the incline was steep enough that we slid several times. I feared sliding all the way and ending up in water, but when we did reach the bottom, we found a narrow stream that was mostly frozen. The thread of moving water we easily jumped. It reminded me of my thirst, but I took another mittenful of snow rather than put my bare hand in the water. My heavy fur coat was like walking in a tent. The bottom hem gathered snow and added to my burden.

Shun led us along the path of the stream, moving against the current, until she found an easier place for us to try to climb the opposite bank. While it was easier than it might have been, it certainly was not easy, and the brambles on this side of the stream were savagely thorned. By the time we reached the top of the steep bank, we were both sweating and I opened the neck of my coat.

Im so hungry, I said.

Dont talk about it, she advised me, and we hiked on.

As we crested the second hill, my hunger began to tear at my insides as if Id swallowed a cat. I felt weak and angry and then nauseated. I tried to be a wolf. I looked around the white-swept landscape and tried to find something I could eat. This hill was cleared and in summer was probably used as pasturage for sheep. Not even a seedhead of wild grass peeped up above the snow, and nothing sheltered us from the wind that swept across it. If I had seen a mouse, I think I would have pounced on it and eaten it whole. But there were no mice and a useless tear dared to track down my face. The salt stung on my cold, chapped cheeks. It will pass, Wolf-Father breathed to me.

Being hungry will pass? I wondered aloud.

Yes. It does. I was startled when Shun answered. First you get very hungry. Then you think you will puke, but theres nothing to vomit up. Sometimes you feel weepy. Or angry. But if you just keep on going, the hunger goes away. For a time.

I toiled along behind her. She led me across a craggy hilltop and then down into a forested vale. As we reached the trees, the wind grew less. I scooped a bit of snow to wet my mouth. My lips were cracked and I tried not to lick them. How do you know about hunger?

Her voice held little emotion. When I was little, if I was naughty my grandfather would send me to my bedroom in the middle of the day, with no supper. When I was your age, I thought it the worst punishment of all, for at that time we had a magnificent cook. His ordinary dinners were better than the best holiday feast you have ever tasted.

She trudged on. The hillside was steep and so we were cutting across the face of it. At the bottom of the hill, she turned to follow the flat land instead of crossing it and clambering up the next snowy hill. I was grateful but I had to ask, Are we trying to find our way home?

Eventually. Right now I am just trying to get us as far away from our kidnappers as I can.

I wanted to be walking back to Withywoods. I wanted each step to be taking me closer to my home and my warm bed and a piece of toasted bread with butter on it. But I did not want to clamber up any more snowy hills and so I kept my peace. After a short time, she spoke.

But I was never truly that hungry in my grandparents home. It was after they died and I was sent to live with my mother and her husband that I went days without food. If I said or did anything that my mothers husband thought was disrespectful, he sent me to my room and locked me in. And left me there. Sometimes for days. Once I thought I would die, so after three days I jumped out my window. But it was winter and the snow was deep over the bushes below. I was scratched and bruised and limped for ten days, but it didnt kill me. My mother was worried. Not for me, but for what her friends would say if I died. Or simply vanished. She had marriage plans for me. One suitor was older than my grandfather had been, a man with a loose wet mouth who stared at me as if I were the last sweet on the plate. And another family had a son who had no wish for the company of women but was willing to marry me so his parents would leave him and his friends in peace.

I had never heard Shun speak so much. She did not look at me as she talked, but stared ahead and spoke her words to the cadence of her trudge. I kept silent and she talked on, speaking of being slapped for insolence, of a younger brother who tormented her with surreptitious pinches and shoves. Shed spent more than a year being miserable there, and when she adamantly refused the attentions of both her suitors, her stepfather expressed his interest, cupping a buttock as he passed, standing over her if she sat reading a book, trailing his fingers over her bosom as he became bolder. She had retreated to her room, spending most of her hours there and latching the door.

And then one day she received a message and slipped out of the house in late evening. She met a woman with two horses at the bottom of the garden, and they had fled. She halted suddenly. She was breathing heavily. Can you go first for a time? she asked me.

And I did, and suddenly appreciated the work she had been doing since dawn. I led us by a more winding way, seeking shallower snow in the lee of trees and clumps of bushes. Even so, it was heavier work than Id been doing and sweat began to run down my spine. I had no breath to speak and she seemed to have run out of words and stories. I pondered what Id learned of Shun and rather wished she had shared such tales when first she had come to live with us. I might have been able to like her if I had known more about her. When we paused to rest the sweat cooled my body and I shivered until we trudged on.

I did not last as long as Shun had. I told myself it was because I was smaller and had to lift my feet higher at each step to push my way through the snow and work against the drag of my coat. Shun took the lead again, when I had slowed beyond her patience, and led us on along a widening vale. I hoped desperately for a shepherds cottage or a farmstead. But I saw no chimney smoke rising and heard only birdcalls. Perhaps sheep or cattle pastured here in summer but had been herded home to their pens for the winter.

The shadows of the hills began to creep across us as the sun moved and I realized wed been traveling east. I tried to decide if that meant we were closer to Withywoods but I was too tired and my hunger had begun to creep back, setting claws in my belly and up my throat. We should look for some kind of shelter soon, Shun announced.

I lifted my eyes. Id been looking only at the backs of her legs. There were no evergreens here, but to the south of us I saw bare-limbed willows along a watercourse. They were gray and twiggy and the snow had penetrated to lie shallowly on the ground beneath them. Perhaps under the willows? I said, and If we find nothing better, Shun agreed, and we walked on.

It began to get darker, and the clear day that had seemed almost kind now seemed crueler as the cold seemed to descend from the sky. Ahead we could see the brushy line that indicated another watercourse would soon cut our path.

We had good fortune. Evidently that stream ran wild and raging in the spring, for it had cut a deep path through the meadow. Now it ran quietly under the ice, but along the undercut banks, roots of trees trailed down and there were hollows in the earth behind them. They dangled like ropy curtains. We beat the clinging snow off the lower parts of our coats before we pushed the roots aside and forced our way into the earthy darkness.

This is good. Settle here and be safe. I felt Wolf-Father relax inside me.

Im still hungry, I said quietly.

Shun was settling herself. Shed pulled her hood well up over her head and had sat down and pulled her feet up inside her coat. I copied her.

Go to sleep. At least when youre asleep you dont think about food, she told me.

It seemed good advice and I followed it, resting my forehead on my knees and closing my eyes. I was so tired. I longed to take my boots off. I fantasized about a hot bath and my deep feather bed. Then I slept. I dreamed of my father calling me. Then I dreamed I was home, and meat was roasting on the kitchen spit. I could smell it and I could hear the noises flames make when fat drips into them.

Wake, cub, but make no sound. Untangle yourself. Be ready to run or fight.

I opened my eyes. It was deep night. Through the droop of my hood and the screen of the roots, I saw flames. I blinked and it was a little campfire by the edge of the stream. A spitted bird carcass was propped over the flames. I had never smelled anything so delectable. Then the silhouette of a man passed between me and the flames. A Chalcedean soldier. Theyd found us.

I could have slipped quietly from our den and very slowly crept away but instead I put my hand into Shuns hood and softly patted her lips, and then covered her mouth more fully as she came awake. She struggled for an instant and then abruptly stilled. I made no sound as she pushed her hood back from her face. The firelight reached to paint stripes of shadow on her face as she stared. She leaned over and put her mouth to my ear. Its Kerf. The one that said he would help us.

Caution, Wolf-Father warned.

I dont trust him, I breathed back.

Nor I. But he has food.

She tried to be quiet as she pushed her feet out of her coat, but Kerf turned toward us. I know youre there. Dont be scared. Ive come to take you home. Back to your family. Come out and eat something.

His voice was deep and gentle, despite his accent. Oh, how I wanted to believe him. But Shun gave me a small push to show that she could go first. She pushed past our root curtain and then stood straight. Ive a knife, she lied. If you even try to touch me, Ill kill you.

Im not like that, he assured her. I dont rape women.

She gave a short, ugly laugh. Youre saying youre not a Chalcedean? Or that youre not a man? Her words were edged. Oh, I didnt want her to make him angry. Couldnt we pretend we trusted him until after wed eaten that bird?

I am both, he admitted. His laugh was uglier, bitter, and old. Though my father might agree with you. He says I stayed too long with my mother, that I should have been removed from her care when I was seven, like his other sons. But he was away at the wars, and so she kept me until I was fourteen. Neither she nor I was happy to see him come home. He was quiet for a time. He went down on one knee by the spit and turned it a bit. For five years, I have shamed and disappointed him. He sent me off with my brother, on this raid, to make a man of me. Kerf shook his head.

He was not looking at us, and Shun made a small motion, bidding me come out of the den. I did, moving softly, and stood well back in the shadows. Im going to fetch more wood and build up the fire, he told us, and walked away into the night. We heard a horse snort and stomp. He spoke to it and walked on. Shun made a brief run and leapt the stream. I followed her immediately.

She knelt by the fire. I dont think its cooked yet.

I dont care, I replied.

She took the spit off the fire and waved the bird about to cool it a bit. It flew off the spit and into the snow. I sprang on it, picked it up, and tore it in half. Some parts were too hot, some were cold from the snow, and some were raw. We ate it standing, making small huffing noises as we hit the hot places. I could hear Shun swallow, and the cartilage crackling in her teeth as she ate the ends off the bones. It was not a large bird and was too soon gone but I found myself panting with relief at the easing of my hunger. The horse, Shun said. I didnt want to leave the fire but I knew she was right. I felt not a morsel of shame for eating his food and stealing his horse. I followed Shun to where we had heard the animals. After the firelight, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. Two horses. A brown one and a white one, both hobbled. Their saddles were stacked nearby. I looked at Shun. Id never saddled a horse before. Nor removed hobbles.

Be careful, I whispered as she crouched down by the white horses front legs. I saw her groping for the straps.

I cant feel how they come off.

Take off your mittens. I was struggling with one of the saddles. I could barely lift it to drag it. How would I get it up on the horses back?

Do they tie?

No. They buckle. Kerf spoke from just behind us. Let me put the wood by the fire and Ill unhobble them. If you truly want to go riding off into the dark.

We froze as we were. I felt only a little ashamed. Shun straightened up. I wont be in your debt. You were in league with those who stole us. So we owe you nothing for your righting the wrong done to us.

I know that. He walked to the fire and dropped the wood. He crouched and carefully added a stick. He appeared not to notice that wed eaten the bird hed been cooking. Im here for one reason. To take you back to your people.

And you expect no favors from me for your kindness? Shun asked sarcastically.

None. He looked at her guilelessly. I wont deny that I find you beautiful. I think you must already know that from how I look at you. But I understand you owe me nothing. I wont try to take advantage of you.

It was as if he had stolen all our weapons from us. Slowly we walked back to his fire. I held my dirty hands out to the flames and felt the warmth on my face. He was well supplied. He unrolled a piece of canvas so that Shun and I might sleep on it near the fire. We had to crowd to fit, but it was warmer that way. He had another piece for himself, and bedded down on the other side of the fire.

I still dont trust him, I breathed to Shun as I hovered at the edge of sleep. She said nothing.

He knew how to get food. The next morning when we woke, he had already built up the fire and had a lean winter hare cooking over it. I lay still, curled in the weight of my too-large coat, and watched him as he did things to his bow and to the arrow that had slain the hare. I wondered if he was the one who had shot at Perseverance and me as we fled. The one who had shot my friend. It was still hard for me to recall parts of that day. The moments when the fog man had focused on me were all gone. But I knew they had not gone back to look for the boy they had shot. I had only that one passing glimpse of him. I hoped he had returned to Withywoods and not been too badly hurt. I suddenly recalled Steward Revel, dead in the corridor, and a deep sob ambushed me. It woke Shun.

Whats the matter? she asked, and sat up quickly, staring at Kerf.

They killed Steward Revel, I choked out.

Her eyes flicked to me and then back to Kerf. Did they? she asked flatly, but it wasnt really a question. Shun and I had spoken very little of what we had experienced and witnessed that day. We had been too drugged with the brown soup and too focused on getting from one moment to the next. There had been no privacy for comparing what wed seen. Neither of us had wanted to bare our wounds in front of our captors. Stop crying, she said to me, and by that sharp rebuke, I knew she still considered Kerf our enemy. Show no weakness before him.

Shes right.

I rolled my face, rubbing my tears off on my hood, and sat up slowly. It wasnt pleasant to move. My muscles ached, and moving opened gaps that let in cold air. I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw myself down and wail and weep and scream.

I only have one cup, Kerf apologized. We will have to take turns with it.

You have something to drink from it? Shun asked.

Warm broth. Snow-water and the bird bones you dropped yesterday. But we can only make one cup at a time.

Shun said nothing to that, did not offer thanks or rebuke. Instead we stood, shook our coats back into place. Together we shook and then rolled up the piece of canvas. She handed it to me to carry, a reminder to him that it was ours now. If he was aware of that subtle declaration, he ignored it.

There was little more talk. Shun and I had little to do to prepare to travel, other than eat the hare and drink what he offered us. He melted snow in a tin cup and added the bird bones and warmed it over the fire. Shun drank first, then he made more for me. It tasted wonderful and warmed my belly. I savored the last of it as he saddled the horses and packed his gear. I watched him load it onto the horses and a vague discomfort stirred in me, but I could not place why it seemed wrong.

You take the white. Ill put the girl behind me on the brown. Hes sturdier and better trained.

I felt sick. I did not want to be on any horse with that man.

Thats why Bee and I will be taking the brown, Shun said firmly. She did not wait for a response from him, but went to the horse and mounted it with an ease I envied. She leaned down and reached out her hand to me. I took it, determined that somehow I would get up onto the animals back if I had to shinny up his leg. But before I could try, the man seized me from behind and lifted me up onto the horse. I had to sit behind the saddle with nothing to hold on to but two handfuls of Shuns coat. I settled myself silently, seething that he had touched me.

Youre welcome, he said tartly, and turned away to mount the white. He tugged at her reins and rode away following the stream. After a moment Shun stirred the brown and we followed him. Why are we going this way? I asked Shun.

Its easier for the horses to get up the bank down here. Kerf was the one who answered me. And he was right. The cut banks eased down to a gentler slope, and we rode behind him in the tracks hed probably made the night before. Once we were on level ground again, he began following his own tracks back.

Youre taking us back the way we came! Shun accused him.

You were going in the wrong direction, he responded calmly.

How do I know that youre not just taking us back to your camp, back to the other soldiers?

Because Im not. Im taking you back to your own people.

For a time, we rode behind him in silence. It was discouraging to see how easily the horses moved through the snow that had so hampered us yesterday. A light wind had begun to blow, pushing a bank of gray clouds across the blue sky toward us. Midmorning, he cast a glance at the sky and turned the horses away from the trodden path. Is this right? I whispered to Shun. My heart sank when she replied, Im not sure. Im turned around.

Kerf glanced back at us. I promise Im taking you back to your people. I know it must be hard for you to trust me. But I am.

The horses moved more slowly through the unbroken snow. We crossed the face of a hill to gain the top of it, and when we did, we looked down on a lightly forested meadow. In the distance, I saw a road, and beyond it, a small farmstead. Pale smoke was rising from the chimney and dispersing in the wind. I longed to go there, to beg to come inside and be warm and still for a time. As if he had heard my thought, Kerf said, We have to avoid the roads and we cannot go through towns or stop at houses. Chalcedeans are not welcome in your land. Again he turned his horses head, and we now followed him along the spine of the gently rolling range of hills.

The sun passed overhead and the clouds began to darken as the afternoon passed. Shun spoke aloud. I dont think we want to be on these hills if it starts to snow. And weve been riding all day. We should look for a place to stop soon, rather than ride until dark.

He gave a sigh. Ive been soldiering for two years now. Trust me. Ill find a good place for us to overnight. Remember, Im taking you back to your people. Youll be safe with them. He pointed ahead of us and said, Just there, where the evergreens are? Well go down into that valley for the night. I looked at a forested hillside where rough stones jutted out of the snow among the trees. I finally grasped what had bothered me earlier.

I tugged at Shuns coat and hitched myself closer to speak by her ear. That night, everyone was screaming and fighting and running away. Why does he have two horses and everything he needs?

Not everything, Shun muttered back. No food supplies, no pans for cooking. I think he was just lucky to catch these two horses.

Maybe, I agreed reluctantly. It began to snow, big flakes that clung to our coats and flew into my face. I put my face against Shuns back. My face grew warmer, and the steady rhythm of the plodding horse tried to lull me to sleep. I felt a change in that rhythm and lifted my head. We were riding downhill now, threading our way between the trunks of big spruce trees. Here and there, stones stood up. It came to me that they were worked stone, as if walls and even buildings had once stood here. Our path meandered between the tumbled stones and the down-sweeping limbs of the trees. The snow was shallower here, but sometimes we brushed against one of the drooping branches and triggered a slide of snow.

Not much farther now, Kerf called back to us, and I felt grateful. I was so tired and sleepy. The trees were blocking most of what remained of the days light.

Then Shun stiffened in the saddle. Not much farther to what? she demanded.

He glanced back at us. Your people, he said.

I had one glimpse of firelight through the trees and then Shun pulled the horse around hard. I clung to her coat, nearly sliding off, as she kicked the horse and shouted, Go, go, go!

But it was too late. Their white coats had been almost invisible against the snow in the dimming light, but there they were. Two abruptly blocked the trail behind us and when Shun tried to rein the horse aside, Reppin jumped and seized its bridle. Shun tried to ride her down but the brown snorted and half-reared and then I was torn free of my grip on Shuns coat as another White seized me and pulled me from the horse. I have him! I have the shaysim! Alaria shouted.

Dont hurt him! Dwalia commanded, coming toward us. Shun was screaming and kicking at the lurik who held the brown horses head, and Kerf was shouting at her, Be calm! Youre safe now! Ive brought you back to your people!

You bastard! she shouted at him. You treacherous wretch! I hate you! I hate all of you! She tried once more to stir the horse, but Kerf had dismounted and was tugging at her, saying, What is the matter? Youre back with your people, youre safe now!

I had ceased my struggling but Shun fought on, shouting and kicking. Vindeliar was there, smiling a warm welcome at me, and I knew then how Kerf had been used against us to do Dwalias will. Alaria held me captive, firmly gripping the back of my coat and my arm as she pulled me toward the small campfire. I had dreaded to see the soldiers still there, but there was just one horse, a blanket pegged from the ground to a tree as a sort of shelter, and a small fire burning. Dwalias face was bruised. She rushed at me and seized my other arm.

Hurry! she whisper-shouted at the others. They are still hunting for us. Two of them passed at the bottom of the hill not long ago. We must get the shaysim away from here as quickly as we can. She shook me roughly by the sleeve. And dont think to pass yourself off as a boy any longer! A girl. Not what we were sent after. But youre the only coin we have to buy our way back into good graces at Clerres. Hurry! Get her under control! Dont let her scream! Shell bring them down on us if she hasnt already!

They had dragged Shun from her horse and Kerf had a firm grip on her wrist. Whats wrong with you? Youre safe now! he kept saying. She bared her teeth at him, still struggling.

Hold her! Dwalia ordered the two luriks and thrust me at them. Alaria seized my wrist and Reppin took my other arm. They gripped me between them, holding my arms so tightly that they almost lifted me off the ground. From a pouch at her hip, Dwalia had pulled out a scroll and a single strange glove. I could not tell what it was made from. The hand of it was pale and thin, almost translucent, but to three of the fingertips a shriveled silvery button had been attached.

I dont even know if this will work, Dwalia said, and her voice shook. She unrolled the scroll and held it by the tiny fire. They had shielded it with packed snow on all sides to keep us from seeing it too soon. She had to bend close. She studied something written on it, then straightened and ordered, Bring her, bring both of them to the stone. I will go first, then Vindeliar. Alaria, take Vindeliars hand and grip the shaysim tight. Reppin, you take the shaysims other hand, and also Kerfs. Kerf, bring the woman. Soula, you are last. Well have to leave the horses.

My head was spinning. Still caught, still dragged along with them, into ever greater danger. I could imagine no good ending for us. I had no idea why she wished us all to hold hands. Reppin gripped my wrist as if she wished to break it. Perhaps she did. Kerf was not as mean but he had stripped his mittens off to grip my other wrist. There would be no tugging free. I tried. He smiled benignly as I struggled. How had I not seen how dazed he was?

I heard voices through the trees. Chalcedean. They were calling to one another in Chalcedean. Now! Dwalia cried, and she sounded almost hysterical. I could not make out what she intended to do, and then I saw the standing stone that now leaned drunkenly, nearly toppled by the immense spruce that had grown up beside it.

No! I cried as Dwalia gripped Vindeliar and reached toward the faded glyph with her gloved hand. No, its dangerous! My father said its dangerous! But her hand touched the stone and I saw her dragged in. She did not release Vindeliar and he followed her, and then Alaria. I screamed and I heard an answering scream from Shun. Then, in an instant as brief as a flash of lightning, I saw. I understood. Change it. One tiny chance to change it. Not for me. My escaping was too unlikely. Reppin would never release me, and if she did, theyd come back for me. But I could change it for Shun. I suddenly coiled down, mouth wide, to where Kerfs bared hand gripped my wrist. I bit his forefinger as hard as I could, sinking my teeth into the second joint, tasting his blood as he yelped. He let go of Shun to slap at me but I held tight to his hand, teeth, and fingers as I dragged him with me into a tarry darkness dotted with distant stars.

Chapter Twenty-Five Red Snow | Fool's Quest | Chapter Twenty-Seven Aftermath