Tomorrow will not mourn me, in its peace.

Where I have passed, others shall follow,

Where once my breath stirred the air, it will cease,

And all my dreams will become as hollow

As the rotted tree, doomed to break and fall.

Unknown

 

 

Three days. Three long, stumbling days along an unnaturally straight road overgrown with grass, shrubs and young trees lining the edges. Three nights putting together a fire and sleeping under clouded skies, watching Ionas draw the ritual circle with a charred stick, drawing lines and shapes that somehow made runes she could find in her book. Protection, security, wards against evil…

Three days of turning her coat one colour or the next, with Ionas doing everything he could to startle and distract her. He even sang, although maybe it was chanting, in some high, strange language she couldn’t quite grasp. She thought she’d gotten better, but there was no way of knowing how much. At least whilst she worked on that, she didn’t think about how much her feet hurt.

And if she met another book as dry as the one on runes, she might just walk all the way home again. Having to ask Ionas what a word meant twice a page was galling. She could read and write better than anyone in South, but this – this – showed her how much she didn’t know.

“Blue!” Ionas sang out. “Sky blue will do nicely.”

Sarea glanced up. The sky had cleared. Since they’d left Nettinam, it had threatened to rain, but thick grey clouds kept the world warm. Now it was blue, wisps of white cloud blowing across the skin in an arc. She glanced down at her coat. Blue, blue, blue –

Wait. In an arc?

She spun around. Behind them was a bank of curved black cloud, looming over the road. She swallowed. If they were lucky, it’d come at night, in the dark. If they weren’t –

“You’re not blue,” Ionas said, popping up next to her. “What is it?”

“Wall storm,” she said. “We have to find shelter. Now.”

“For that? I’ll toss something up under the trees. A bit of rain hurts no one.” He grinned at her. “Maybe I should make that blue and green at the same time -”

She turned on him, jabbing him in the chest. “We need wood,” she said bluntly. “Four square walls and a roof. Wall storms kill.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Right now? It’s barely midday. And it doesn’t look like there’s a building in sight.”

Sarea frowned, glancing around. It made sense to switch to the winding road rather than this. There wasn’t as much shelter. In winter a wall storm could come on in hours. But there had to be something… she turned, hitting Ionas in the shoulder with her pack, and waded into the scrub.

“Ow,” he protested, trailing her. “Really. Ow. What was that for?”

“You’re an idiot,” she said, ducking under a low tree branch.

He huffed. “I am not.”

She bit back a sharp, yes, you are, stamping her aching foot on the ground. Was this earth or stone covered in leaf mould? She pushed her way up along the road, stamping every few strides. Tineke had said something about way stations once, hiding in one when she was young. There weren’t many of them still around, but there was meant to be one every mile or so. If the road was as abandoned as it looked, no one would’ve come up and taken them apart for the materials.

“What are you doing?” Ionas stepped in front of her, walking backwards. “I didn’t think insanity was infectious.”

“At least you admit you’re mad,” she snapped at him.

“My mind is well organised,” he said, raising his head, “And that’s the only thing that matt -”

His foot caught on something. He fell over backwards, yelping. “This is hard!”

“Try looking where you’re going,” she said, hands on hips.

“No,” he said, tapping the ground. “This is hard. Give me a hand?”

She sighed, helping him up. You’d think a beanpole would be able to stand up on his own, she thought. She pushed at the ground he’d fallen on with her feet, shifting inches of mud and old leaves and finding stone underneath. “Thank you, Ionas,” she said.

“For what?”

“You found something that will keep us alive.” She patted his shoulder.

He rolled his eyes. “Woof,” he said flatly. “What is it?”

“Follow me, for once.” She stamped her way along the path, through overhanging bushes, and into the shadow of the trees.

It’s seen better days, she thought. Shrouded by the tattered canopy, the door buried under a good foot of debris, the way-station was a small, moss-covered, squat building. It still had a door, just about.

“Huh,” Ionas said behind her. “It’s not bad.”

She gestured at the mess. “You magic or I dig. Your choice.”

“Oh, if I must.” A click of his fingers and every inch of mud and tricks and dead leaves began to roll outwards. She stepped forward before she was dragged back with it. The stone platform around the way-station was dirty, but she could see crystals glitter in the solid red rock.

Ionas sighed. “The mile houses. If you’d just said -”

“The what?” She glanced at him.

“Mile houses. They had stables, too. Somewhere around there.” He gestured at the trees. “Old tradition. They’d almost stopped doing it before I was born. Revived it a little during the fiend war…” He trailed off, catching the look on her face. “For messengers,” he said. “And soldiers. It’s easier to set up a checkpoint if you’ve got a base.”

It still didn’t make much sense. Sarea shrugged. “We need wood and water,” she said. “You’ve still got the water skins.” In one of his pockets, somewhere. How did he do that? “You get them and I’ll make this place usable.”

“Oh,” he said. “I get the drudge work.”

She frowned at him. “You can collect more wood than you can carry,” she said. “Go. And hurry up.”

:-#-:

Ionas hurried back with half a forest floating behind him, wishing he had a hood like Sarea’s. The blowing wind chilled his head. Maybe he’d get a hat.

The mile house door was open just wide enough to get it. He sent the wood flying in to line the back wall and ducked his head under the door frame,. He blinked. “How do you do that?” he said. Dim-lit or not, the room was dust free, with only the acrid scent of burnt dust to tell him how she’d done it. A fire of twigs and grasses danced merrily in the fireplace. Sarea had produced a set of silvery cutlery and a pair of bowls and cups, all sat on the floor next to a pile of plants and a vicious-looking knife.

She frowned, stripping leaves off a bushy stem and dropping them on a tattered piece of cloth. The bread had been in that! What was she doing? “Do what?”

“It’s almost domestic in here.” Not much space, but it was only one night. He flopped down next to her pack. “So. Wall storms. Explain?”

She shrugged. “They’re cold and windy,” she said. “They take down old trees and freeze you. You can have a week’s rain in a night, snow to your knees. And you only get a couple hours warning, at best.”

“That’s new.” He frowned at her. “When did they start?”

“Jimny used to say he saw the first one, when he’d barely started walking.” She systematically stripped another plant, setting the flower head to one side, the stem to another, and dropping the leaves on the cloth.

“Another symptom,” Ionas said, more to himself than to her. “Wonderful. But not affecting the inner towns, and I’d know, so breaking on the inner defences…” She was looking at him again. He cleared his throat. “I’ll explain later. So they’re bad.”

She nodded silently. “You stay indoors,” she said. “You herd your animals in. Enclosed spaces and lots of heat.”

That explained all the tiny rural houses. “I probably need to get more wood. Oh!” He waved the water skins into the room, setting them by her. “There’s fish,” he said, grinning. “Decent sized. I think I can catch one.”

“Then do it,” she said calmly. “And take those.” She gestured at a pair of pans hanging above the hearth. “Give them a scrub and I can put together some soup. Maybe brew tea.”

Food is the way to my heart, my darling sun. He bounced up. “Deal!” He stopped. “Wait, where did the pans -”

“They’re here, they’re clean, they’re mine now.” She gestured at the door. “Time is precious.”

 

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