“You should let her rest,” said En Shevil, putting her off.
“Where is my daughter?” the woman shouted, her tone desperately urgent.
“I really don’t think…” En Shevil began, and then everyone started talking at once. Some wanted to know where Ribbon was, some said they should trust En Shevil, and all begged to hear the story of the previous night, especially Detlev’s twin ten-year-old nephews.
A door creaked open, and a second silence filled the room as they looked at Ribbon, her apparel far worse than En Shevil’s. The girl gave a sob and rushed into her mother’s arms. The noise began again doubly loud, and En Shevil resumed her place in the chair with Axel at her feet. Her glance met with the chest beside her, the strong box from the troll cave, and she remembered the silver bracelet. She knelt, feeling bruises on her knees, and opened the chest, drawing the band out.
Axel mumbled something and awoke. “What’s this?” she heard him say from behind her, his words most likely in reference to the crowd in his house. Turning, she kept the wristlet concealed beside her.
“I found this in the trolls’ fortress last night,” she said.
“You went to the troll for-” He saw what she held, and sluggishly reached out a hand for it. Almost hesitantly he closed his fingers around the treasure and took it. “You have avenged her,” he whispered.
“I killed them all,” she replied in like tone, “and burned their place.”
He looked at her in wonder. “Who are you?”
Her fingers crept to the scar on her lips. “I am she who was called Deathscar,” she said.
For several moments he continued to stare at her face. Then he sat up and threw his arms around her, weeping almost inaudibly, pressing her bruises and rubbing the chafing cloth of her oron against her raw skin. He clasped her tightly for some time and did not release her until someone spoke her name.
“En Shevil,” Ribbon repeated as she climbed slowly to her foot (the other she kept a little above the floor). The girl left her mother’s protective embrace to hug the warrior, to the latter’s further discomfort and probably Ribbon’s as well. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“It’s fine,” said En Shevil. “But why wasn’t something done about the trolls earlier?”
The townspeople all looked at the floor. Nobody answered. It was finally Axel who spoke. “When Katharine disappeared, I asked the town to help me destroy the trolls’ fortress. Trolls had never been seen on Rustinmount before, and they thought I was crazy. There were also a lot of strangers moving through Milau at the time, and the general belief was that Katharine had tired of Endensol, run off, and thrown in with them.”
“Not everyone thought that,” said Karl, Ribbon’s father, quietly. “Old Angeldorf — her father — never really had all his wits, still to this day thinks she’s lost on the mountain somewhere.”
Uwin’s face held its typical starry-eyed expression, and he broke the trance long enough to say, “I’m sorry, Axel,” then returned.
“Even when Ribbon told us about your fight, we only half-believed in trolls and didn’t take much heed,” said Karl.
No one spoke for long moments. Finally Ribbon, who had returned to her mother, said, “I want to go home.”
You’re not the only one, was En Shevil’s inadvertent thought. She wondered what Achim was doing. “I’ll wake Detlev,” she said. She was brimful of slender annoyance at nobody in specific, more a restlessness than an emotion. Katharine might have been saved if it hadn’t been for the stubbornness of the Sechburg people. Had Diande had anything to do with that? Not only this, but En Shevil hadn’t seen the man she loved in months. “Good morning,” she said loudly towards the pile of bedding that was the innkeeper’s son.
He started up with a gasp. Last night when she’d returned she’d found him half-distracted, alone with a sleeping Axel and his endless thoughts to wonder what would become of his fiancée. His nervousness had apparently not yet worn off. “Ribbon’s going home; I assume you want to go with her.”
He sprang from the bed, seized his boots from their haphazard position on a chair, and ran into the common room, where the noise immediately recommenced. En Shevil followed sedately and dropped once more into a chair beside Axel. They listened to the chatter and hesitant laughter, and finally Axel remarked, “You’ve changed.”
“I hope so,” she replied.
“We’ve got to leave,” said Uwin. “We’ve go to get some men to deal with these trolls. And make sure they believe… us… this time.”
“Oh,” she said, jumping up (which was stupid). “Didn’t I mention that?” She took great pleasure in her next words, for what reason she knew not, though feared Deathscar had some part in it. “I did that last night. They won’t bother anyone again.”
“Destroyed their entire fortress.”
Here was the third long silence of the morning. In their eyes she saw awe and respect, and in Uwin’s intensely thoughtful gaze a new understanding.
“Come to Sechburg,” said Ribbon.
“The burgomaster will want to reward you,” said Karl.
“I’d like to,” she said, “but I’ve got things to do up here, and there’s Axel.” She gestured as she spoke. Why don’t they just leave?
“We’ll find some way to reward you,” said Karl sincerely.
“Fine,” she almost snapped. “I’ll be in town again soon enough.”
Finally they left. She sat down, leaning her head back and trying to rest before she even thought about getting herself cleaned up.
“You told me you weren’t a warrior anymore,” said Axel in a mild, thoughtful tone.
“I lied,” she said, eyes closed.
Later that day, in a far warmer setting, Rakeesh dropped down beside Achim’s prostrate form on a sunny rooftop. “You must find it pleasant simply to relax,” he said. The prince sighed and rolled over, sitting up.
“Yes, I suppose so,” he said at last. “Being ‘Hero of Tarna’ on top of everything else is getting tiring. The parties are fun, but I will need to go home sooner or later.”
“To which home do you refer?” Rakeesh’s brow lowered as he followed Achim’s face after this remark; it had touched a bitter chord somehow, and the liontaur assumed he knew what it was.
“Shapier,” he said quietly. “It’s been a long time since I had much of a home in Spielburg, but I have a definite place in Shapier. The sultan plunged me into administrative business so quick it made my head spin, but now I’m almost anxious to return.”
Rakeesh knew that there was more reason for this than that the prince had become accustomed to activity, and felt he must say something. “Your pain will ease over time.”
“I know. I just don’t understand how…” He waved a hand in the air, pulled his knees up to his chin, and let out a long breath.
“We cannot understand,” said the Paladin. “We can never understand. And even if we put ourselves in her situation we cannot say we would or would not have done the same thing, not without the emotion to temper the decision. Nor can we judge her for it.” He fell silent, looking as did the prince over the bright savanna, glowing in the red light of a massive sunset. Achim’s eyes crept to the long triple scar across his arm where his skin had been ripped by liontaur claws as he fumbled for a dispel potion in a lost city. He could not help but think of her when he saw it — think of the scars on her forearms, the pain in her eyes when she spoke. She had been haunted, lost, and now she was gone. He stood abruptly and turned from the dusky splendor of the horizon, letting the heat warm his back.
“I–” he began, but never finished. For just then something gripped him, so powerful and intense that he writhed under its influence. The world went black around him, tiny stars lighting his way into unconsciousness. Rakeesh, who had jumped up at the first tingle of danger, rushed to the prince’s side, reached out to grasp the Hero. But Achim was gone with a flash of light that left the liontaur blinded for several moments.
“Dark magic,” he murmured to the air. How was he going to explain this to his brother?
The runoff from higher up the mountains saturated the ground, making it impossible to sit. The goats were discontented as well, as she and Antwerp prowled the east meadow. Not that she liked walking any more than sitting, being as sore as she was and her ankle being so tender, but having her pants soaked was equally disagreeable and not nearly as healthy. A shadow of her old thought circle had returned as she went over last night again and again. What right had she had to do what she’d done? The prospect of having been in the wrong did not particularly frighten her, for she knew what it felt like to have misbehaved without another choice; at least this time she’d consciously acted in response to someone else’s needs rather than instinctively to her own sadistic hungers. Surely that must justify some of the deaths she had caused last night. But had she reawakened Deathscar? That was the most important question in her mind.
At any rate, either because she had become hardened to guilt or because her tattered emotions were learning by evasion to avoid its effects, her thoughts left the trail for a fairer one and she began to think about Achim. She remembered what she knew of his history:
Born in the northeast of Spielburg… where? An orphan child, he’d been practically raised in the thieves’ guild of his town, and there he’d earned his bread until, though he must by that time have been fairly high up in the unsavory ranks, he’d become an apprentice… what had it been? He’d only mentioned that part briefly and hadn’t given his age, though apprenticeships usually began in the early teens. Somehow he’d applied to the F.A.C.S. and eventually graduated, at which point he’d grown bored of his town and position and gone out as an adventurer, even though he must have been almost old enough to make journeyman. Then of course he’d found his way to the valley that gave name to this disjointed country that swore its loose allegiance to the noble line of the barony and was lucky no nearby countries were warlike. He’d mentioned some minor adventure on the way to rescue Stefan’s children, but hadn’t told her about it; she guessed its outcome had not been favorable.
Then after he’d become Hero of Spielburg he’d come to Shapier… where he’d met her. And what had she done to him? Almost destroyed him, perhaps. She thought she had a vague memory of him detailing his victory in Rasier, while they’d walked in a forest that now seemed dark in her recollection, but she could not fill in his Shapierian story. But he must be the Hero of Shapier by now, whether officially or not. She hoped the Sultan had rewarded him well for… whatever he’d done. And now he was in Tarna, being a Hero there. Maybe with Rakeesh. Where would he go next? Would he ever think of her? She was dead to him, but what she wouldn’t give to see him again…
She breathed deeply, feeling the peculiar pressing on the inside of her ribcage, an old, odd, throbbing, aphysical desire for what she knew not. It was then she realized that, not matter what she’d done to him, what he thought of her, or what new person she’d made of herself here, she had to see him again. She hadn’t been able to kill Deathscar in Sechburg, but at least now she had a reason to let them both live for a time longer. She would have to tell Axel. She knew, though, with a pang of very mild, quickly-repressed annoyance, that she would not let herself leave until he was taken care of.
Such thoughts, comparatively cheerful, kept her company more than uncommunicative Antwerp on the way back to Endensol. She put the goats away, and went inside to get a hot drink and join Axel where he sat in the main room. They went for some time thus without speaking, she staring at the portrait over the hearth and he turning the silver bracelet over and over in his hands. Finally he spoke. “You’re leaving.”
“Where will you go?”
“I’ve never been out of the Lost Towns. There was never a need.”
“For seventeen years I stayed in Shapier,” she said with a sigh, thinking of her parents. “If my hair weren’t blonde I’d be there still.” She gave a slight chuckle and waited for the inevitable question, but he was apparently determined not to pry and said nothing. After a moment she continued. “As I told you, I was once a thief, and being one of maybe four blondes in the whole city makes you pretty recognizable, even in a dark room.”
He apparently took her meaning. “So you decided to travel?” he guessed.
“Not really. I went to…” She chose to leave out the embarrassing details. “…Rasier, and through something I haven’t figured out yet got transported far away.”
“Where?” he asked when she did not continued. He was clearly fascinated by her history.
“Itsumo Kawai.” He shook his head to show his lack of recognition. “It’s an archipelago southward of the Punjabi coast; people on the mainland say it Ytsomo Kwai.”
“And Punjabi is to the east of Shapier?” he said with his brow crinkled.
“Yes. Shapier is in the greater land of Fricana, and the lands of Inja lie to its east. Punjabi is one of them. Itsumo Kawai is leagues out to sea, very isolated.” She sighed from some subconscious realization that presently surfaced: she was going to tell Axel the entire story, which meant talking about things she would rather forget. “I learned the Maruroharyuu in a school there and something…”
She fell silent abruptly, staring into the dying fire as if in its embers she saw the smoldering relics of everything she’d lost. Like a poison ponderously creeping through her blood came over her a stilling depression, congealing her emotions and enervating her will. This is eternal, it told her: this dying light of a fire you can never be again, this cold sorrow.
Axel stood suddenly and threw a loose-barked log onto the hearth. After a moment the flames swelled once again, forcing her melancholy into retreat like a night-loving creature at the touch of dawn. But as it fled it sent out a parting shot: Without me, nothing is real… Thus she was left with a strange fantastic sense of the room being disproportionate around her, and a resultant desire for the depression to return. This confusing ring of emotion was going to destroy her unless she defeated it first. How she wished she could simply cast it into the fire! But would even dragon fire avail against such a nonsensical web? She shook her pained head — too many symbols.
Axel had returned to his chair, and obviously wanted to hear more. She did not remember where she’d left off until he prompted, “Something?”
She looked at him, following the ghostly flickering golden light up his haunted face out into the shadow-ballroom beyond. “Something drove me crazy,” she said at last. “I don’t know what, though I have my guesses. I killed some people, and forced a ship captain to take me from the island. I wanted to get away from something there, but I still don’t know what it was. And then… I’m sure you’ve heard… through Punjabi, Avva’rel, and Spielburg until Achim found me.”
“You l–what happened then?” She stared at him, her gaze sharpening. What had he been about to say? He knew she would continue; there was no need for such urging. And why had he looked so thoughtfully surprised at the mention of Achim’s name?
“He had Erasmus cure me of insanity. Then, so he wouldn’t have to drag me around with him, I faked suicide.”
“So he thinks you died,” Axel said, totally deadpan. There was something behind that remark, but En Shevil could not tell what it was. “Why are you here?”
“I thought I could kill Deathscar. She’s still here,” putting her hand on her breast, “not far inside.”
“And you have not succeeded.”
“No. I think I have…” This was hard to say. “I think I’ve come to grips with the fact that I am a warrior. But Deathscar still lives.”
“When Katharine died someone told me this: No matter how fast you run, you can never catch time that has already passed. You can only keep up with the time that is passing now.”
En Shevil did not understand, and said so.
“Perhaps this Deathscar you hunt is an illusion of the past — something that died in truth with your madness. Perhaps what is left for you now is to lose that past, and find a future.”
“Perhaps,” she said, appreciating the concern but knowing him to be wrong. The light was falling once more, and she roused herself before apathy could take her again. “I’d better start supper,” she said.
The next morning she was cooking breakfast as usual when there came a knock at the door. Axel, though well enough now to move about the house, still did not arise at his previously accustomed hour from the bed to which he’d at last returned. Since she simply could not leave eggs unattended on the stove and did not want to awaken her employer by shouting, she ignored the knock. This agitated her (she hated not answering a knock), but she had no choice. She heard the knob rattling as the visitor decided simply to enter and found their way locked. Wondering how long they were willing to wait she continued her task. Her cooking, though still not what she would have called good, had certainly improved, and she would not have her hard work spoiled by some impatient caller.
Finally she had the eggs finished, the meat strips laid out, and the sweet buns in the oven (she had still not mastered breadstuffs, and these did not look very appetizing). Of course, even after months of practice, she’d still managed to do things in the wrong order: the eggs and meat would be cold by the time the buns were done. She shook her head and went to the door.
Antwerp was bouncing lustily up against it. “Yes, I know,” she said as he moved out of the way, looking at her expectantly. Antwerp loved it when people came to the door.
Without stood a man she did not know. Rather portly, he had an indifferent-looking, somewhat ugly face adorned with a long grey, black-streaked beard. He was finely dressed, even for the relatively wealthy Sechburg people, and after a moment she realized from the medal-like pendant around his neck that this was the burgomaster himself.
Here she had a momentary confusion, for just as sometimes before, two respectful gestures came to mind immediately: the half-bow of Shapier, hands pressed together before her breast, and the full bow of Itsumo Kawai, hands clasped behind her back. As it was, she somewhat awkwardly bent her upper body forward and lowered her eyes.
The burgomaster stepped in quickly, followed by another, shorter man she did not know, and Ribbon’s parents. Wonderful, was En Shevil’s sarcastic thought. Here we go. “Good morning, sir,” she said.
“En Shevil of Shapier,” began the important one imperiously. “It has reached my ears that you, a stranger to our town, have done what no native has had the strength, will, or courage to accomplish: that is, destroying a group of loathsome and detestable trolls in the act of kidnapping one of our esteemed townspeople. Those men who went yesterday to inspect the scene of this most advantageous destruction have reported that your actions were well and succinctly done.” Men? Why hadn’t Axel mentioned that? “Moreover, besides having served the valley by this removal, you have also given present couple cause to rejoice at the prolonged life and safety of their daughter, one Ribbon by name. Thus, with the thanks of all Sechburg and on behalf of our good Kleiderbonnens, I now present you with this purse of fifteen golds for your deeds and extend to you an official invitation to a banquet in your honor to be held at the town hall on the evening after tomorrow.”
En Shevil was now speechless, only because she was unused to such verbosity from a visitor who hadn’t even been offered a seat yet. She received the heavy purse from the man she now guessed to be an aide of some sort, and stood holding it while they all looked at her. Finally she said the first thing that came to mind: “A banquet? But… Axel…”
“He’ll stay with us,” said Tallien, Ribbon’s mother, stepping forward to seize En
Shevil’s arms. “Please, you must accept these things. They aren’t really enough, but they’re the only way we can begin to thank you.”
“Uh-of course,” En Shevil stammered, seeing the tears in the woman’s eyes. “Yes, of course I’ll come to the… banquet, provided Axel will be taken care of. He still shouldn’t be walking too much, you know.”
“We’ll send horses for you both,” Karl assured her. This was rather a surprise, for such creatures, though not rare, were neither common, and hers had sold at quite a handsome price. She doubted the Kleiderbonnens had any horses of their own, which meant they would have to rent some. And as the burgomaster did not seem to want to step forward for costs, the expense would have to come from Karl and Tallien’s pockets. But what polite way was there for her to refuse, or else offer to hire the horses herself? Probably none, so she would have to be rude.
“Let this be for horses, then.” She pushed the moneybag into Tallien’s hands. “I don’t need it.”
“But…” protested the burgomaster’s aide.
“I have sufficient money of my own.” She thought of the troll chest.
“But…” protested the cloth merchant.
“I refuse to have you paying for horses to carry me to my own banquet. If I must go, let me get there on my own money.”
“A horse doesn’t cost nearly…” began Tallien.
“Then save the extra for Ribbon’s wedding.”
They could argue no further, and the burgomaster was decorously silent during the discussion. Looking at him, En Shevil had the sudden thought that he disapproved of the entire reward scheme and had other uses in mind for the money.
“Truly you are a most honorable person,” said Karl. “A Heroine!”
She actually smiled as she heard this, for the very word gave her more felicity than she’d felt for some time. Of course she modestly denied it, saying she’d only been helping a friend, but the idea became set in her brain, and something whispered the word redemption to her mind. Was it possible to dismiss her evil past in the face of a virtuous future? What Axel had said last night came back to her. No matter how fast you run…
She smelled her sweet buns suddenly, and excused herself to check on them. When she returned she found Axel up and speaking with his guests. How many days had gone by lately when he had not been awakened by unexpected visitors at some time in the day?
“We must take our leave of you,” the burgomaster said as she appeared. “There are preparations to be made.”
“Of course,” she said with a polite smile.
“Are you sure you won’t…” began Karl.
“Yes,” she said firmly, and they were gone.
“Herr Schatz did not want to reward you at all,” said Axel. “Monnal stopped by here yesterday to ask the way to the fortress, and he said the burgomaster wanted to give you a title only. I have no doubt this banquet was all Monnal’s doing, and the money was probably a collected sum acquired by the Kleiderbonnens.”
“Well, I didn’t want the money,” she snorted. “I’m no mercenary.”
“No,” he said, “you certainly aren’t.”
Ignoring the odd tone in his voice, she headed for the kitchen. “A trip into town should do you good, at any rate,” she said cheerfully. “Come on. Breakfast should be ready.”
En Shevil hated horses. This one was so slow and kept stumbling and threatening to throw her off. Axel’s, in front of her, was gentler (a good thing, though it had been pure luck she’d chosen the worse mount), but the man still looked a bit jostled by the time they rode into Sechburg. They dismounted at the stables, where the stablemaster offered to keep the horses for free though she insisted on paying him. Then Axel slowly (she wouldn’t let him walk any quicker) led her to the town hall; she had quite forgotten where to find it.
Torches and lanterns adorned this entire street area, and tables were set out for those not favored enough to sit in the hall itself. The torches outside its double front doors were blazing, and townspeople were clumping around its exterior. When she and Axel appeared an enthusiastic cheer went up, and En Shevil wanted to roll her eyes. A banquet? What stupidity! She smiled at the villagers, who pressed themselves into the already-crowded building after her.
They were immediately ushered out again, and En Shevil was presented to the small group with which she was to eat. This entire banquet thing was becoming increasingly more embarrassing and awkward, and she felt terribly self-conscious as she was gestured over to the burgomaster’s side to face the small assembly. The latter included Monnal, the Sonderson parents and Detlev, the Kleiderbonnens, and Kelli Machein the guildmaster. She was given at place to Schatz’s right (she was unaware of the offense she could have taken at this, as the “head-of-the-table” custom did not apply in Shapier and she’d never been to a banquet elsewhere), and Axel sat beside her.
The food was good, especially compared to her dubious cooking, but she found herself terribly restless. Not only that, the doors of the town hall remained open the entire time, letting in a draft that the Spielburg people didn’t seem to mind but she did. She realized at last what her problem was: the snows were melting, and she wanted to be off. She chided herself that no thought of Axel’s condition crossed her mind.
The other people at the table were chattering loudly to one another, which sound mixed with the subtle roar of the rest of the assembled folk outside: not the whole town, but a great many voices. Even the burgomaster talked to his aide about the price of wheat and other spring imports. Only En Shevil and Axel partook in silence.
“En Shevil,” said Uwin after a while, obviously in response to something within his conversation, “what manner of fighter are you?”
She smiled politely, still not wanting to be here. “Maruroharyuu,” she replied. “It is a ninjutsu-kenjutsu method used and taught in Itsumo Kawai.”
“And how long have you practiced this art?” asked Monnal curiously.
“I was trained last summer,” said the warrior, knowing it sounded strange. She still wondered herself at her own proficiency, and could only attribute it to her katta pin, now lost, and her previous acrobatics training that she’d never used. There were murmurs of amazement from all at the table, except the mayor and Axel.
“Were you never any kind of warrior before?” Karl questioned.
“None,” En Shevil answered, allowing the woman waiting on her to refill her mug with coffee (had Erich told them? otherwise how had they known?).
“No previous training?”
“I did learn some acrobatics from my parents, but never really practiced it after I’d learnt it. I knew how to throw daggers fairly well.”
“Is it true you were a thief?” shouted old Machein suddenly, almost as if he had not been listening to the conversation and the thought had just occurred to him.
The entire table fell silent, some eyes on En Shevil but most downcast: how could he ask her such a question? The burgomaster cleared his throat as if to speak, but no words followed. En Shevil smiled broadly, seeing no reason to lie and amused at their discomfort. “Certainly,” she said, opting for a longer word just for effect.
Ribbon, down the table, giggled suddenly, and the noise resumed, somewhat embarrassed. “The dignity of certain professions is still in question here,” said Axel in a low tone.
“I’m not a thief anymore anyway,” she responded, wanting to say it to someone.
The burgomaster stood ponderously, pushing his chair back a full five feet before he was able to stand straight. “I would propose a toast!” he said in his thick voice. The table quieted, as slowly did the outside noise. “A toast,” he continued more loudly, “to our noble visitor and friend from Shapier, who had the courage and resources to complete a daring rescue and annihilation most profitable to our valley and the one neighboring.” They were all standing up as he spoke, except En Shevil (she hoped she was doing this right — toasts like this were not customary in Shapier), and fumbling for their small wine glasses. En Shevil guessed there was more fumbling outside, due to the fact that there was more beer. “I give you En Shevil!” Tremendous cheering from outside, where the laughter and speech immediately recommenced, while inside the others voiced their agreement and drank the toast quietly. After resuming their seats (En Shevil hoped she didn’t have to do anything specific at this point), they all smiled at her and continued eating.
All in all, the evening lasted far too long, and En Shevil was almost shaking from excessive politeness by the time they dispersed. She pitied those who had to clean up after the more rowdy villagers outside the town hall, shaking her head as she headed for the Mien. The Kleiderbonnens had offered to put her up for the night, but she’d refused on the grounds that she would not inconvenience them further.
As she walked, stopped periodically by home-going townspeople to shake hands (that she was not used to), she felt that the entire banquet had been strange. Wryly with mild and endurable resentment she realized that Herr Schatz had arranged it all very nicely for himself: the town had apparently come together for the cost, all appreciative of what she’d done, and he’d gotten away with no more than a toast. No title, no particular euphemisms of gratitude, and very little money. She smiled.
The Mien was crowded, filled with villagers who wanted heavier liqueur than the light beer from the banquet. A general cry of drunken good will was raised at her entrance, almost making her more nervous than the approbation of those sober, and a path was made for her through their ranks to the bar. Not that she wanted to go to the bar, but that was where the company inadvertently forced her. When she reached it, Erich smiled, and six or seven drink offers hailed from different sides. She shook her head, powerless but to smile, and turned towards the room she’d rented earlier.
“So,” slurred a voice she did not want to hear from nearby, “I hear there weres’m trolls up there afterall.”
Hot anger at the thought of Katharine’s fate slowed her turn as she faced Diande. He leered at her, intoxication hazing his eyes and his mouth slackly grinning. With a vindictive smile she backed up and kicked him, not so hard as she would have liked, in the face. His form went reeling backwards into the crowd, who basically parted until he hit the ground. Then after a moment another cheer filled the room, drowning out her low statement: “We’re even.” Smiling genuinely now, all the tension of her high-strung nerves quite released, she turned to go to her room. Pats on the back followed her there, and even Erich was openly showing his approval with a half-smile. Her general state of mind much improved, she left the room and climbed the stairs to go to bed.
Wandering dark streets and somehow unable to see — why weren’t the sconces lit? — she felt her way along the wall. Where was she? The street markings were gone, and she did not recognize the turnings. Where was she headed? There was something ahead, someone. Or was it someone behind? As she came to what seemed the same turning again, she realized it was both: she was moving in circles. Horror crept over her, fear of the dark nature of that which she pursued — and fled. Or was it herself that she sensed, ever behind and ahead because she continually walked the same path? She could not tell, but knew she must keep moving. Whoever overtook the other would be the destroyer. The sound of her dark companion’s footsteps reverberated between the walls — or was it the echo of her own footsteps? Their originally near-inaudible breath sounded loudly in her ears — or was that her own breath? The occasional swish of their garments slid through the hallways to her hearing — or was that the cloth of her Maruroha attire? As the darkness increased and she was finally blind to all senses but hearing and the feeling at her fingertips, she lost track of the differences. She was her pursuer, the one she hunted. They were one, and yet not a unit. Their hearts beat on the same pulse, their breath was drawn in the same rhythm, their eyes saw the same sights, and yet they were separate entities. For time unreckoned she plodded on, tracing the same path through darkness in search of herself.
When she awoke from the endless journey that still continued somewhere within and without her, she squinted at the room around her, puzzled. Something did not feel right; the world was unreal. Dressing and gathering her things, she left the bed in disarray and went downstairs to buy breakfast. Erich had coffee waiting especially for her, and though Sechburg coffee was, comparatively, quite terribly bad, she was glad of the caffeine and the thought. When she had eaten her bread topped with meatballs and thick sauce — there was a disturbing lack of fruits and vegetables in this country — she headed for the Kleiderbonnens, hoping she remembered the way. She wasn’t sure for how long, or even if, Axel wanted to remain in town, and she intended to go back to Endensol at any rate.
“You want to leave,” he said when she arrived and sat with him in Ribbon’s house.
“Yes; the goats do need tending.”
“I meant you want to leave Sechburg.”
Though she’d known it before, it suddenly struck her like a blow to the head that she did, and very much. “Yes, I do,” she said.
“I thought so. I’ve arranged with Detlev that he’ll come help me until I’m up to goatherding again. I’ll be staying here for a few more days; you can leave any time you want.”
Her mouth opened, but no words came. She was overwhelmed with gratitude towards him, for his friendship, insights, and acceptance. “Thank you,” she said at last. “I can’t…” She didn’t even know what she was trying to say. “You’ve helped me. You’ve shown me something. Or, Endensol has. I’m not sure.”
“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he said. “I have something for you.” He leaned over and drew out something folded, deep blue and velvet. She knew it at once. “You have avenged my wife’s death and given me a treasure I never thought to see again to remember her by. I think it’s only right that you should have this.” He shook it open, revealing the soft trimming fur, and held it out for her.
Again she was speechless, but somehow very happy. She took the cloak in her arms and held it to her like a loved one. “I’ll always remember you as my friend,” she murmured, realizing as she did that her eyes were stinging.
“If you ever,” he said with a strange intense tone to his voice, “find your peace of mind — if you ever meet your goal and destroy Deathscar, promise me you’ll come back and see me.”
“Of course,” she said, pitying him. She saw now that Katharine had been his world, his all, his total happiness, and her death had made it impossible for him to live more than a shadow of his old life except through others. Thus her conquering of sorrow would be a triumph for him as well. She stood, smiling at him. “I’ll drop by tomorrow, on my way out.”
“All right,” he said, his voice light again. “Goodbye.”