The beasts! The beasts in the beyond. They’re coming, get away – they’re coming for me!

Gavirn Sahar Durasoona

 Save me? Save yourself. Run from them and they will find you, false brother. Hide and they will track your coward’s scent. Fight and they’ll tear you apart. Bow. Beg. Then, yellow-bellied fool, you’ll live.

Gavirn Sahar Durasoona

They’ll come in silence, fool, and nothing more.

Gavirn Sahar Durasoona

 

When Sarea woke up, she was alone.

She blinked dazedly in dim blue light, a dream slipping away from her. Something about crystals, reflections, and horses…

Blue light? She rolled onto her back, shading her eyes with her arm. A ball of blue light hung above her bed. But Ionas wasn’t here. It didn’t take more than a glance around the room, sunlight showing in cracks through shutters, to see she was the only person in the room

She wandered downstairs. The inn stood empty. She padded across the wooden floor barefoot to the kitchen, the cool soothing her aching feet. Bethilde turned around, spoon in hand. They stared at each other for a long moment before Betty gathered herself.

“Your fellow took Jesse off somewhere,” she said. “Said they’d be back by midday. You’ve hours yet.”

“He’s not my fellow.” Sarea pushed stray hair out of her face. “Can I get a bath?” she said.

Betty frowned, shifting on her feet. “It’ll take a while for the water to heat up, mind.”

“I can deal with the warmth,” Sarea said. She hoped, anyway. “I just need the water.”

:-#-:

The bath itself was beaten circular metal, four foot wide and two tall. The bathing room wasn’t much bigger. Betty poured the last bucket of water in. “You’re sure?” she said. “It’s straight from the well, that.”

“I’ll be fine,” Sarea said, looking away. She waited until Betty had squeezed out of the little room before crouching down and dangling her hand in the water. Not freezing, at least. She frowned at it. So if Ionas isn’t talking out of his ass, this should work. Warm. Enough to ease hurt muscles and clean dirt out of almost anything, or heat a soaking cloth to put on Tineke’s bad knee, or to lay on her chest to help her breathe –

Sarea yelped, snatching her hand back. The water had gone searing hot. The skin on her hand was red.

She sat on her heels, back against the wall. Ionas didn’t talk about anything she didn’t talk about, and she wasn’t going to talk about that night in South. Not yet. Three died because of her then. Three before that, one of them at her hand. Ionas was the mad monster killer. If she told him what happened, he might wind up dead too

She fingered her necklace, the only impractical gift she’d ever been given. Maybe not…

She dropped her head, closing her eyes. Helena, our goddess, save fools from themselves. Helena, harvest spirit, bring me home safe.

Sarea shook her head. When had that statue ever answered a single woman’s prayers? She had a bath. That was miracle enough for now.

:-#-:

Back in her rumpled trouser and tunic, Sarea sat on her bed in the attic, brushing her wet hair.

The floor creaked behind her.

“Jesse can’t sleep alone,” Bethilde said. “He sleeps on the clean straw in the stables most of the year, and the rest he finds a girl to sleep beside.”

Sarea turned her head slightly. In the corner of her eye she could see Betty had a comb. “So?”

“The only thing you ever asked for when you came here was a bath. It took two hours lugging hot water from the kitchen to get you clean.” Betty shifted. “I know Tineke used to braid your hair -”

“What did Ionas say to you?” Her voice was quiet, but it seemed to cut straight through Betty. The older woman stepped back, dropping her hands, silent. Enough for an answer. “I don’t want anything from you if you aren’t giving it of your own will,” Sarea said, and went back to her hair.

Betty looked down. “You’re a hard girl to like,” she said, and turned away.

“You were never going to like me,” Sarea muttered. “You didn’t even try.”

:-#-:

The clock on the building next door chimed midday. Sarea repacked her entire bag just to get out Tineke’s book. She unwrapped the oil cloth, running her hands over the leather cover. It was thicker than three fingers, thin pages crinkled by humidity and age. One hand – Tineke said it’d been her own teacher’s – recorded everything from herbs and medicines to old recipes and crafting techniques. It was bound up with Tineke’s own writing, notes on notes, how to make this more efficient, a joke about two men and a goat…

Sarea flicked through until she found Tineke’s pages. There had been two dozen empty pages near the back, once, and Tineke used all but one of them. In her tiny hand, she talked about philosophy, family, love. At some point she’d stopped mind sentence, and in a new line written, Amisine. Sweet child. We were too late.

Not one more word after that.

She wrote it when I came to South, Sarea thought. I remember, that night, she was curled up by the fire –

Footsteps stomped up the stairs. “Sarea!”

She slammed the book shut, twisting around. “Ionas, where have you been?”

He grinned at her. “Out and about. You’ve got everything out of the bag. Good! Have this.” He dropped a cloth-bound bundle on the bed beside her and flopped down on his, stretching out. She pulled the bundle apart, and stared down at a dozen small, flat bread loaves. Under them was… two books?

She shifted the bread out of the way – it’d go well with what they had by way of remaining food, if they were careful and he still had some money left to buy some in a village on the road – and lifted the books out. One was thin, inscribed with a simple Runes on the front, and the other nearly as fat as Tineke’s. It had no name, and every page was crisp, clean, and new. She looked up at him.

“Work book,” he said, by way of explanation. “You’re going to need one. Everyone does, when they do runes.”

She stacked the books. Now she had to find room for these and bread, and find quill and ink besides. “You said I had to gain focus to to use them.”

“You do.” If he stared at the ceiling any more intently, he’d start courting it. “But that doesn’t stop you learning what they are. I didn’t recognise Nettinam until I looked at the stone. The old guild house is hundreds of years old. I had a stash there. Bit of a word with a couple of fellows, and we’re halfway set.”

“If any more of these stashes have books, I’ve no idea how I’m carrying them,” she said. And how did a hidden book look brand new?

“Magic, Sarea.” He sat up. “And Jesse is waiting downstairs. Can you hurry?”

:-#-:

Waiting downstairs meant sitting in the cart outside the front door. Sarea stumbled out into blinding sunlight, blinking, pack stuffed full on her back. Ionas hopped up into the back of the cart and helped her up.

“Red,” he said, patting her shoulder. The exercises. Wonderful. She sat down and shrugged the bag off before she focussed, staring at her coat intently. Her red came out a soft pink.

Ionas snorted. “It suits you.”

She glared at him. His coat went yellow. He yelped, looking down at himself. “Sarea!”

She folded her arms. “I refuse to do anything until I’ve eaten.”

“You haven’t?” He blinked at her. “Why?”

“Someone left with all the money, and we didn’t include breakfast in our barter.” She pressed her lips together. “Two meals. Dinner and supper.”

He frowned. “Betty didn’t offer you anything?”

“She wasn’t in the inn when I went to ask,” Sarea said, lying through her teeth. She wanted as little from Betty as she could get.

“Right. Right.” Ionas looked around. “Hey,” he called out. “Can you stop here a minute?”

Jesse brought the cart to a stop. “I got other places to get to, mate,” he said.

“I won’t be long.” Ionas hopped down and disappeared into a shop.

Jesse said, “Look,” and fell silent. She turned to stare at him. He gazed back at her, one hand holding the reins loosely. He said, “Here,” holding his free hand out. A ring sat in his palm. She took it, looking at the raised crest. Half sun and half moon.

“You’re shut up tighter than a stone box,” Jesse said, rubbing the back of his neck, “But a city boy’s got to trust his instincts, and mine say something’s up. When you get to Durabilis, there’s people I know, in the old north bell foundry. If you need help, go there. Tell them I sent you, and everything you know about it, and they’ll help.”

Sarea said, “Help.”

“Or try to, anyway.”

She rolled the ring around in her hand. “Who are -”

“There we go!” Ionas bounced back into the cart. He dropped a paper bag into Sarea’s hands. “That’ll keep you going. What are you two talking about?”

Jesse shrugged. “Weather looks good,” he said. “But word from the villages say a Wall storm’s coming.”

Ionas nodded like he understood. Sarea pocketed the ring whilst he wasn’t looking and opened the bag.

Sweets. He’d bought her sweets. She’d only had them in Durabilis, stolen from stalls…

“Amazing flavour,” he assure her. She picked one up, licking it. It tasted like rose-hip tea. Not so bad.

“Ey up,” Jesse said to his pony, and they rolled onwards.

“We’re leaving Nettinam better off than we left South, at least,” she said, and popped the sweet in her mouth.

Ionas said nothing. She glanced at him. He winced. “Er,” he said. “They saved most of the wool from the wool barn?”

She pushed the sweet against her cheek. “What happened to the wool barn?”

“It caught fire,” he said.

She huffed. “Ionas!”

I didn’t do it,” he protested.

 

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