In the Shadow of the Gods (23 page)

“See me through this, Fratarro, and I shall,” Keiro promised, head swirling with the heat, eyes fixed on his dark feet so that he would not wander toward the illusions. “I swear I will find you if you let my walking take me out of this place.”

So fixated was he on his feet and ignoring the distant visions that he almost missed the first bush.

It was a scrubby, half-dead thing, alive purely out of stubbornness. But it
was
alive, there in the midst of the endless sand and heat. It was the best thing he had ever seen, in all his long walking. A croak of a laugh burst out of him, and he stumbled
toward the bush, falling and scrabbling on sand-burned knees, to cup its scraggly branches with both hands. The bush blurred in front of him, and for a moment he feared it was an illusion, a vision of the former land sent to taunt him. Then he felt the thorns piercing his skin, a sharp sweet pain, and he realized it was only tears blurring his sight.

There were more bushes over the next hours, singly, as starving as the first, firmly jealous of the ground they had claimed. As he walked on, the sand gave way to a green-tinged land, and the scrub became friendlier, more willing to share space with their neighbors, until Keiro was forced to walk at the very edge of the river to avoid the clustering thorny-brush. The sere grass was sweet against his hardened feet, and though his lips were still cracked from the heat, he found himself whistling softly.

As the bushes faded to yellow-green grasses, the hard dry earth beginning to roll into hills, a final current of unbearably hot air brushed against Keiro's face, enough to rob the breath briefly from his lungs, and it carried a whisper:
Find me.
It was not a plea, not a request. It was a command, as soft yet unyielding as the sand Keiro had left behind.

It was the only time he looked back at the Eremori Desert. It was distant now, trailing behind the scrub, but he could still see the sands swirling, the air rippling with heat. Keiro's hands began to shake entirely without his volition.

Priests of the Parents and preachers of the night alike agreed that Fratarro had broken apart when he fell to the ground, a mighty crashing that rent his limbs from his body with such force that they flew far and wide, landing themselves
heavily enough to be buried deeply where they fell. Lost, unfindable, gone as surely as Sororra, wherever she had fallen.

It would be fitting, Keiro thought, if jealous Patharro had pushed his children from the godworld so that they would land at the heart of Fratarro's destroyed creation, the land he'd shaped and named Eremori. Fitting, to give Fratarro a grave surrounded by the husks of the mighty creatures he'd created, the winged
mravigi,
who had fallen burning from the sky at Patharro's wrath.

The grass rustled, the river-that-ran-from-the-sun burbled on its way, and birds—real birds—cried out overhead. It was too loud here for any god to speak to one who might be listening. The breath of desert air was gone, but the command remained, hanging heavy in the air. The desert shimmered at him, warning him away like a dog with its hackles raised even as the summons beckoned him back. His death waited there, a slow death, and painful. Keiro knew that as sure as he knew anything in the world. He had felt the brush of death on his back among the sands; it would certainly find him if he dared set foot on the sands again. Perhaps he could find more than death in the desert, find redemption before the heat made his blood boil—but there was no surety to the thought, and his hands still shook as he watched the hot air dance.

It was the hardest thing he had ever done. Harder than walking away from living twins, harder than the blinding, harder even than watching the drowned babes, their memories still so clear in his mind though it had been years since he had seen a drowning. Every piece of him cried out in protest.

Keiro turned, putting the deathly heat of the desert once more at his back, and walked deeper into the growing green. He walked with his shoulders hunched, for he would swear he could feel glaring eyes boring into his back as he walked away, shaking.

CHAPTER 18

T
he woman would not stop staring.

Scal had felt her eyes the moment he had walked into the tavern. Though if he was going to be honest, and he did try to be, he had felt
all
the eyes on him when he had walked inside. It was nothing he was not used to. There was the difference, though, for all the other eyes had looked away. Some more quickly than others. Some after looks of speculation or hatred or fear. All of it, he was used to. They had all looked away. They always did.

Except for the one set of eyes that he felt on his back even now as he sat in his quiet corner and cupped his hands around his mug.

He thought, for a moment, of standing. Turning. Walking to the table where she sat alone. Telling her to stop, or perhaps asking for a reason. He thought these things as he drank the ale that was warm against his tongue, and knew he would never do them.

A man must know himself above all else,
Parro Kerrus had told
him. All the paths of all his lives had given Scal more than enough time to know his own heart. He was not a man who would confront a staring woman. He was a man who would sit quietly with hunched shoulders until he finished his drink and could leave this place and her eyes. He knew what kind of a man he was. He was comfortable being such a man.

He looked up from his mug, and saw that she had moved. For now she sat across from him, her eyes no longer on his back but on his face. He was not an easy man to sneak up on, and it startled him badly. Smiling with one side of her mouth, she mopped up the spilled ale with the flowing sleeve of her yellow cassock. Scal stared with his mouth hanging open.

He had not spared her more than a glance when he walked into the tavern. One person among a sea of staring faces. He had not
seen
her. Not truly. Not as he saw her now.

There had been one caravan, one of the first he had guarded. One of the wagoneers had been a devout man. He had shown Scal his hand, where he had leaned too close to an everflame as the priest added his prayer herbs. “So much prayer,” the wagoneer had joked, “that Patharro blessed me right then.” The skin of his hand had been red and twisted where the fire had touched it.

The woman's face was much like the man's hand had been. Scarred by fire, deeply scarred, from her dark hair to the neckline of the cassock. Her nose was flat, the tip all but gone. One ear, too, was little more than a curl of skin, making her hair fall forward. There was one eye that seemed to have no lid, the same side of her face where the mouth did not move with her smile. Old scars, but scars that would not fade.

Scal realized he was staring and quickly looked down. Her
hand, where it rested on the table near his mug, was as badly scarred.

“Well met.” Her voice was soft. The sound of a lute as a musician ran his fingers over the strings. Scal glanced up, and she was still smiling. As much as she could. He quickly looked back down.

“Well met, merra,” he returned, though he could not say it with the same enthusiasm as he would usually greet a priestess. It was unworthy of him, he knew, to act so. But knowing did not make the sight of her easier.

Fingertips touched his cheek, the center of the cross only half hidden by his beard. He flinched away from the touch—more for the act than for the woman, he told himself. He did not know whether or not that was a lie. Her hand dropped back to the table. Glancing up, he saw sadness in her eyes. They were green, the color of sunlight on the leaves of a forest. Still she smiled, though, the half smile.

“I've been looking for you,” she said.

Scal shifted uncomfortably. Held his mug tighter. Stared at the ale within. “Forgive me, merra,” he said, “but you have the wrong man.”

“I saw you,” she said, “in the flames. It was a strange vision . . . the first I've doubted. A yellow-haired man with the convict's mark on the wrong cheek. I thought it impossible. I've been looking for you for a long time.” She reached out, laid her hand over his around the mug. Her skin was warm, her palm smooth. Untouched, it seemed, by the fire that had scarred her. “Will you tell me your name? Please?”

Scal pulled his eyes up from the mug, from her hand over his. Made himself look at her. Beneath all the scarring, he saw
that she was young still. She could not be much older than himself. “Scal,” he said, deeply unsettled.

She grinned wider, even the stiff side of her mouth pulling up a very little bit. Her eyes lit with joy.
“Fire!”
she said, and she laughed. It was a sweet sound, a sound that did not belong with the ruin of her face.

Scal was learning that he did not know himself so well as he had thought.

Slipping his hand from beneath hers, he pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. Nearly he knocked the chair over in his haste. He looked down at the woman, looked at her shoulder so he would not see her face. “Forgive me,” he said again. Choked on any other words he had been meaning to say. Fled.

Hevnje was waiting outside, eyeing the horse she was tied next to. She had spirit, this new horse. He had paid too much for her, near all of his wages from Attemo, but she was, so far, money spent well. She spun eagerly as he mounted, and ran into the wind.

He had been hoping to find new work in Bastreri. No caravans would be traveling, for the snows would come before they could find a bigger town. There should have been others, though—merchants traveling alone, musicians, families, all hoping to beat the winter on its way south. But Bastreri was close to the deep snows of the North. In Bastreri, they did not trust yellow hair. Two days he had spent, searching for work. Time enough wasted. Sivistri, some days to the south, he thought would provide better luck. And less staring women.

He was no more than an hour from Bastreri when she caught him up.

“You owe me five guilders,” she said cheerfully as she appeared at his right. Hevnje snapped at her horse's shoulder,
and the old nag nearly threw her as it twisted away. Despite himself, Scal leaned out to grab her reins, to still the horse. “Thank you,” she said.

“The horse is not worth five gids,” he told her. “It is not even worth five rames.”

Pushing her hair back from her face, she smiled. The hair did not stay behind the twist of her one ear, but she seemed not to mind that. “That's what I told the farmer, but you didn't exactly leave me much time for haggling, did you?”

Scal shook his head at her. “I did not ask you to follow me.”

“Men so rarely
ask
to be followed by priestesses. They teach us stubbornness, at the convents. I learned very well.”

“I am not the man you are searching for.”

“You certainly look like him.”

Never argue with a priest,
Parro Kerrus had told him. Though Scal had long suspected that particular aphorism to be more a tool to gain obedience than holy writ. He shook his head again, and tapped his heels against Hevnje's sides. Still the woman followed him. Her horse kept a careful distance from Scal's. Refusing to look at her, to acknowledge her presence, Scal kept his eyes fixed on the space of road between Hevnje's ears. Looked at nothing, said nothing. The silence was a space between them. Wide as her horse's fear of Hevnje. Thick as the lump in Scal's throat and heavy as the one in his stomach.

She was the one to break it. Softly, but in the silence it was not hard to hear her voice. “You and I, we're just different kinds of monsters.” His hands were hard on the reins, and Hevnje rocked to a halt, tossing her head. Scal looked over sharply at the woman. She stared unflinchingly back. “Your horrors are easier to hide. That's all.”

Never,
Kerrus had told him, when he had been too young to understand,
let a woman know you too well.

“Who is it that you think I am?” He spoke softly, too, though there was no reason for it. The road was empty. They were alone. Yet her eyes on him felt like a thousand eyes. He could not hold her gaze for long.

She shrugged easily. “You're the one I was sent to find.”

“You do not know me.”

“You're Scal. The Parents showed you to me in the flames. That's all I need to know.”

“Why?”
The word burst from him before he could bite it back.

Her smile now was soft, gentle as her voice. Barely a smile at all. “That,” she said, “is what I'm here to find out.”

There's no arguing with a woman who's made up her mind,
Parro Kerrus had told him, and,
Sometimes a man's wisest course of action is to bite his tongue and bide his time.
These he took to heart as he put his heels to Hevnje once more. The woman, of course, followed.

There was little enough, between Bastreri and Sivistri. Some farms, some small collections of huts that could be called villages. No places that would smile at a Northman. Places, perhaps, that would welcome a merra, but she did not suggest any stopping. She did not speak at all, which Scal found a good thing. The sun began to lower, and there was a stand of trees that would shield them from wind, and perhaps from sight. It was a strange thing he had learned, in his years on the road—a man alone had little to fear from bandits. Often they would wait, for fatter prey than a single man. Two, even, was a safe number. Likely little enough between two travelers worth
stealing. As Scal set up camp, he tried to make himself believe that the woman was merely setting up her own camp that happened to be near his. He could not deny, though, that she was competent. By the time he had finished brushing Hevnje, the woman had gathered a respectable pile of kindling and sticks. She had left her horse, though. The poor old beast still saddled. It looked as though she had no intention of tending to him. That made Scal angry, but not angry enough that he would let the poor horse suffer to prove a point. So he removed her saddle, and cared for her horse as he had done his own. When he had finished, the woman had a pot of roadstew bubbling over a fresh-kindled fire.

Scal stood by the horses, staring. Disgruntled. He did not like to share the road, to share a camp. Even when a job demanded it, he would build his own fire, his own bed, a distance away from any others. A long habit. He most especially did not want to share his camp with this woman who was following him. And yet the camp, as it stood, was more hers than his.

He did not know he made the sound, but a deep, unhappy growl rumbled up from his chest.

Resolute, he went to gather his own wood for a fire.

He set his first armful near the horses. When he returned with the second, the first pile was gone. The woman's pile of sticks was noticeably grown. He set his down again, and went for more. It happened the same.

There was a knot in his stomach. One he knew well. Twisting and grumbling. A boiling fury.

He stomped, though he knew it was the act of a child. He gathered half of her pile of kindling in his arms. A stick poked
him in the eye, and he left a trail of sticks behind him that he could not keep hold of. Hunkering down, he began to build his own fire. He kept his back to her.

When the fire was burning well, he looked up to see that she had snuck up on him once more. It was a dangerous thing, that. She planted her cooking tripod over his fire, hung her pot of stew, and crouched down across from him. Staring again, over the flames.

“You,” she said, “might as well get used to me now.”

“I travel alone.”

“You used to.”

The knot twisted, fire bubbling up his throat. “I do not want you here.”

“And I don't particularly want to be here,” she said easily. “But I do as the Parents command me. That fire over your heart says you should be doing the same.”

Instinctively he reached up to grab at his chest. Two pendants, strung on the same circle of leather. The painted flamedisk, to mark him as a different man than he had been. The other was a reminder from his last life. That he was, always, who he was. Usually he kept them tucked inside his tunic. Hidden.

“They have not demanded anything of me,” he told her.

“Then you're not listening well enough.”

He did not wish to speak with her anymore. The stew was boiling, and he was hungry. If she was going to force herself into his camp, he was not going to feel any remorse at eating her food. Retrieving his well-used wooden bowl from his pack, he dunked it into the pot. It burned the tips of his fingers some, where he was careless, but that he hardly noticed.

“My name is Vatri.”

The stew was not bad. She had used dried meat, torn into pieces, and it was fresh enough that the taste was good. There were some berries he recognized, and leek and onion mixed in.

“We should know each other, if we're going to be traveling together.”

The broth was thin, though. He could have made it better. Still, it worked well enough to soften the hardbread he pulled from his pack.

“You're going to talk to me eventually.”

Scal licked his bowl clean and stowed it away. He pulled his snowbear cloak around himself. Lay down with his pack for a pillow. The fire would spend itself. It was warm enough outside that a fire was not needed for sleep.

The words were quiet, so that he almost thought he dreamed them among the night sounds. Cracking one eye open, he saw her staring into the fire, her eyes not on Scal as her words drifted into the dark night. He stared up into the sky, at the stars. She had a nice voice. Nicer when it was not matched with her face.

“I hate the dark,” she murmured. “I learned how to make a fire almost before I learned to walk. My papa taught me. I was marked.” Her hand lifted, touched the side of her neck where the skin was rough and ridged. “It's gone, now, but I was godmarked. That's why I was sent to the convent. The day I arrived was the first time Metherra spoke to me. That's not a common thing, you know. Priests say all the time that they hear the gods, but most of them are lying. She spoke to me, though, she really did. Welcomed me home. It was years before I heard her again. I couldn't sleep, went to tend the everflame.
I built it too big, but I heard her again. Nothing clear, nothing I can remember, but it was her voice.”

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