Chapter 14: Whys and wherefores
Silence fell, yet again, around the fire. Kiran’s voice had been like an enchanted brush, painting stunning images in their minds. The story, strange and beautiful and sad, had left everyone speechless. And whether they believed any of it or just thought it was the most amazing tale spun by a person’s imagination, the fact was it had also soothed the fear and anger in their hearts. They had almost forgotten the pain and the weariness and, despite the very late hour, none of them would have gone to—
“Ho, there!” Ceri cried suddenly, breaking the spell. “You are a woman?!”
The realization hit them like a slap in the face. Had he not just said all Hosts had been women? So, ever since they met, the dinner around the fire and the night at the fort… the lustful soldier, the drinking, the unveiled jokes… he was a she?
“But you just said—”
“I never became. I had to leave the tribe before my Ritual.”
“So you are a man?” insisted Ceri.
Kiran paused, wondering what it was like to be in their place and meet someone like himself. How would he feel about it? Intrigued? Appalled? Sorry? The eager curiosity in the eyes watching him was unsettling. “Strictly speaking, I’m neither,” he said in a flat tone. “And both. I’m still a yanee.”
To his left Val rested his forehead on his hands, letting out a soft sigh. So complicated and intimate a matter demanded delicacy and—
“I don’t understand, do you have a…” Ceri gestured somewhere on the lower body, while searching for a less offensive word, “a spindle, or—” Bert kicked him not very subtly in the boot.
“Of my entire crazy story, that’s what bothers you?” But then he remembered Ceri had not seen him during the fight, had not felt that power. There was no emotional connection with that part of the story, but the gender issue, that was a detail the man could relate to. And Kiran dreaded talking about it. “I grew up as a man and, as far as I’m concerned, I am a man. And I have no physical difficulties.” I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Bredan bit his lip and leaned forth to place another piece of wood in the fire. The playful sparkle had returned to his eyes. Behind that mask of composure, he could tell Kiran was mortified. That he was able to face such indelicate questions without betraying his feelings or retaliating was impressive, but Bredan could not help finding the situation comical.
“But you said a yanee is younger than fifteen,” said Bert, quite confused himself. “How old are you, really?”
Indeed, how old, wondered everyone. Kiran was Eina, he could have been older than his father. His father? Was the doctor like them or like him? Her. Kiran.
“I left the tribe just over a decade ago. Being a yanee is not about age, Bert, it’s about being incomplete. The Ritual—which happens to take place at the age of fifteen—is what makes us transcend the yanee stage. It is something so complex, it cannot be explained… My Ritual never took place.” There was a lump in his throat and the last words came out a little strangled. He cleared his voice.
“I’m sorry,” muttered Bert.
“Five-and-twenty,” reckoned Bredan. “Very young.”
“When compared to our lifespan, yes, but it is considered the age of maturity.” The dawn of their physical ripening, in fact, but why say that. Some eyebrows rose. “We are a little different,” he brushed it off, hoping they would drop the subject.
The fire was burning with a pleasant warmth. The graceful dance of the flames and the throbbing glow of the embers had a comfortable, nearly hypnotic quality. Everyone seemed to have forgotten their surroundings. But there was not much wood left to burn.
“The Doctor is not really your father, is he?” asked Ceri.
“Of course he is, he raised me since I left home.”
“Why did you come to Laeden?” Bran finally spoke. “Would it not have been safer to seek refuge in your forests?”
Kiran’s gaze lowered, resting on the burning wood. He had wondered the same when his people had sent him away. Of course the prospect of meeting his old friend again had excited him, but there had been times, before he had adjusted to his new life, before mastering the new language and his new self, when he had felt exiled. Abandoned. It had taken him some time to understand and embrace his people’s decision. Had it not been for Val…
“The Vhareei and his Host are more than a tenant and his landlord,” came Val to his aid. “More than even a fetus and his mother. The Vhareei must build a connection with this world, a bond. To do that he must experience events, emotions, see places, understand our world. Otherwise he will not be able to keep the balance.”
“Things have changed very much since the birth of the Sireei,” said Kiran.
“The old king.”
“When was that?” was Bredan curious.
“Over two thousand years ago, it is said.”—Bredan’s mouth puckered in a whistle of surprise—“The Man—your kin, that is—were not even here at the time. The world is different, and keeps changing. Staying in our forests would have led to a weaker bond. I had no choice.”
“So those men were sent by King Arne,” said Bran, bringing the talk back to the present. “To take you back to Astur.”—Kiran nodded—“Why does King Arne want you?”
“I don’t know.”
“He wants that thing, obviously,” said Ceri. “The… what’s-its-name.”
“Tsk! To what end, I mean. What does he hope to achieve?”
“I don’t know, Captain,” repeated Kiran, a little sharper this time. “I was just a child when I met him and I left before I could learn his reasons.”
“The Vhareei is not a weapon or a tool,” said Val, “he is a living being. Powerful, indeed, but his power is one of preservation, not destruction. He is still an infant, though, and until the time comes for him to leave our world, he cannot live outside his host. Whatever King Arne thinks he can do with him—or my son—he is mistaken. He may have read something, but he has not understood this creature’s nature, nor that of his bond with the Host.”
“How could he have? Even my people’s knowledge barely scratches the surface. But that has always been enough for them. The Eina have never wished for anything else than the preservation of the natural order.”
“King Arne must think you could lend him power,” said Bredan.
“He is wrong. The Host does not have control over Vhareei. I cannot command or use him and he is not here to do my bidding. That is not the nature of Kiyun.” Kiran’s fingers were tracing small circles on his temple. After what had happened he could no longer fault these men for their inquisitiveness, but having his memories and secrets mercilessly raked through was painful and his father seemed to be the only one aware of it.
Ceri leaned closer to Val. “What is Kiyun?”
“Kirena ay yun, the bond of the heart. Kiyun.”
“You say his power doesn’t destroy, but earlier—” began Bert.
Kiran almost snapped, “Earlier you killed to save your lives.”
“What he means,” said Val, placing a steadying hand on his son’s, “is that the Vhareei protects his host by any means. It is the only way to protect himself.”
“I see,” said Bran, as if that answered his question. “King Arne can use that power—”
“No!” Kiran said firmly. “He doesn’t know that. His men would not have attacked if he knew.” Even so, there was a slight tremble in his voice.
“How?” asked Bert, but Bredan’s glance silenced him. Moments later understanding dawned on him, sending a cold chill through his body. “Bloody bastard,” he muttered, gathering the cloak around him.
For a while the crackling of the fire was the only sound filling their small circle. The horses were quiet and—only now they noticed—the unnerving sounds of the forest had died down. The world seemed to have finally retired to sleep: the creatures, the wind, even the dim moons-light.
Their eyes were growing heavier.
“Still,” said Bredan, folding his arms, “it would not benefit Arne, after all. What… he does is, in essence, an act of self-preservation. It doesn’t extend beyond you.”
Kiran smiled wanly. “The king doesn’t know that, though.”
Of course none of them realized that, instead of running away to save himself, as he was supposed to, the Host had returned to fight. That the Vhareei had not only saved him, but them as well. Because Kiran had besought him to. I will not tell you that.
“Why now?” asked Bran. “A decade has passed and King Arne finds you now, when his forces are moving towards us?”
Val shook his head. “Coincidence. Without a doubt he searched for us a long time, but there was an incident a year ago… I think you know of what I speak.”
Bran winced and looked at his friend.
“The mugger?” asked Bredan.
“Yes. Well, we assume that is how they found out Kiran was hiding in Laeden. A few days ago I learned some men from Astur were asking about my name. That is the real reason behind our journey.”
“Why your name?”
“Obviously because Kiri would have changed his. They were searching for a woman, anyway. But I gave my real name, back then. Someone must have remembered me in Maelifeld, the town close to the Eina village I lived in.” He turned to his son. “I suspect the bookshop keeper, though I’m sure he meant no harm. He was a decent fellow.”
“You lived with Eina?”
“For a whole year, yes. That was a long time ago, before Kiran became a Host.”
Bran’s eyes narrowed. “There is a book I read when I was younger, written by a man who claimed to have lived with Eina. Tonight’s story reminded me of it.”
“You read my book?” Val’s face lit up. “Did you enjoy it?”
“So you wrote that! But I’m certain the name was different.”
“A pen name. At the time I just thought it was interesting. Later I realized it saved me a lot of troublesome questions.”
How could I have forgotten about it, wondered Bran. Many details were now flooding his mind. Kiran’s singular physique was true to the book’s description of his people. There were other similarities, albeit that personality of his was not as gentle as Bran had envisioned. And that insolent mouth… Damn it! Had he remembered sooner, it would have explained many things. He met Kiran’s eyes—there was a mixture of surprise and doubt in them. “The child in that book, was he Kiri? You?”
They felt a few raindrops.
“We should retire,” said Bredan, looking at the sky. “It looks like it will rain again.” He stretched.
They had not noticed the clouds were veiling the moons again, despite the faint impression that the glade was darker. How late was it? Or, rather, how early in the morning?
“Yes,” agreed Bran. “Just one more thing. How did they know where to follow you?”
“That has been bothering me as well,” admitted Val, rubbing his brow. “They must have recognized us somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
“The inn!” said Bredan. “In Keln, when you spoke to that innkeeper, um, Combs. He was helping some guests with their horses.” Oh, yes, they remembered those. “They paid no attention to us whatsoever, but I thought it strange that one of them reacted when Bran called your name. He even moved around his horse, looking busy, but he might as well have been listening. We were talking loud enough.”
“Oh! I told Master Combs where we are heading.”
“And he told us what road to take.”
“That must be it.”
“What took them so long to catch up, then?” asked Bert.
“Between an open road to Keln and a forsaken forest, which one would you pick for a surprise attack?” sneered Ceri.
“The real question is how in the world did they manage to get so close to us without our knowledge?” said Bredan. “They were in the bloody tree!”
“I think we made enough noise before dinner to cover their steps,” surmised Val. “And by the time we started the fire, it was already dark.”
“They were skilled men. Trained as spies, most probably,” said Bran. “What’s more important is that we were careless. There’s no excuse for that.”
Of course you were, because you never really believed me, Kiran would have wanted to say. But that was not the reason, since he had not noticed anything either. The truth was Arne’s men were that skilled at concealing their presence, which was alarming.
It was drizzling. They would have stayed a little longer, the light rain felt good on their dirty faces and posed no threat to the fire, but they only had a piece of wood left. And when they were not speaking, they were too often yawning.
“Enough for today,” decided Bran. “Let’s get some sleep. We cannot set out too late, unless you want to spend another night in this forest.” He turned to Kiran. “Is there anyone else we should worry about?”
“No, we are alone. You can give up the watch, everyone needs rest.” He was exhausted.
“Um, what about animals?”
“Don’t worry, Bert, there won’t be any animals.” Kiran felt he will take care of that.
They put out the flames and levelled the bed, leaving the embers to cool in the rain, and moved the blankets closer to the tree, throwing the new packs near their own. Ceri was hurting, so Val gave him some medicine and helped him lay down. He was familiar with that pain and knew the following days will be unpleasant for the poor man—poor indeed, for he had also suffered from intoxication just days before. The others refused the medicine.
Only the excitement had kept them awake for so long, because the moment they wrapped themselves in the blankets, they all fell asleep.
The glade was dim and silent as a grave. In the middle stood a solitary oak, like a sentinel, widely spreading its branches warped by old age and the burden of their own weight. Compared to the ancient trees in his home forest, though, this one looked like a sapling. His eyes followed the boughs to the thick trunk and lower, towards the ground. At the roots of the tree a few men were asleep. Travellers. But where were their horses?
The air was crisp and smelled of rain. He stepped closer and the tall, damp grass brushed against his feet, soft and cold.
The camp looked ransacked. The face of the nearest man was strangely familiar. His fair hair was tousled and his handsome face was pale.
“Bredan? What are you doing, sleeping in this place?”
But if that was Bredan… He clutched at his chest and stepped closer. Bran… Ceri… Bert… There was something strange about their sleep—the pallor, the way their bodies lay sprawled and tangled in the blankets. A sinking feeling made him sway and he faltered. There was another man.
“Val? What is—”
Val’s familiar, dear face was smudged and a few trickles of dirt were glistening on his temple. His heart almost stopped. Fates have mercy on him!
“No, no, no, Val, wake up! You must wake up!”
He was sleeping, they all were, only it was that other sort of sleep. The everlasting one.
“Oh, no, please! Don’t take him from me! Almighty Sireei, please wake him up!”
He wanted to rush to Val’s side, but his feet refused to move. His body was frozen. Not by his own dread, but by something outside of him, a cold, baleful will he had not sensed before. It held him in place, curling icy tendrils around his limbs, coiling around him like a snake he could feel but not see. And the more he struggled, the tighter it bound him.
The air was still and the smell of blood and death invaded his nostrils.
“Val, wake up! Don’t go! Don’t leave me alone… Father!” His voice strangled. He turned his eyes to the others. “Bredan, Bert, Ceri! Wake up! Damn you, Captain, wake up!”
They did not stir, but he kept crying their names, over and over, until his words were nothing more than hoarse howls and his eyes were burning from the salt in his tears.
There is no use in calling them. They are long dead. And soon…
Was that someone’s voice or his own hopelessness? He dreaded the answer.
None of this is true. A thought, coming from the depths of his consciousness. It’s a dream. Wake up!
He startled awake. The room was dark, but he only felt the faintest pressure, like that of a blanket. No bonds holding him, no will taking possession. The air was stale, but the smell of blood was gone. Just a nightmare, he sighed, brushing his damp brow. He could move. A dog barked somewhere. He smiled. I’m home…
His body had no weight. He had no body. He was drifting with thousands of drops of light in a strange world. They were like a river, drumming with the beating of thousands of hearts. This is not home. Yet there was a familiar feeling about it, about this gentle flow, this steady beating, this warmth.
In the distance something was shining bright and the current was moving towards it. Not just this one, there were others, coming from both sides, drumming with life, flowing towards that light. He felt as if he were in two places at once: inside the river and above it, for he could see there were many such rivers, all flowing towards the same place. And from that place he felt a strong heartbeat, rippling back through the rivers. A great power, holding everything together.
What is that, he wanted to ask, but he had no voice. Only thoughts.
Sireei, came the answer. It was a thought, not a voice, but it was not his.
Who are you?
You know who.
Where am I?
You know where.
Oh, it was that dream. Is this Edesil?
An image of it. One of many. Yours.
Mine? I see what you show me.
You see what you can understand.
But I don’t.
You will, in time.
He was drifting with the drops of light in that peaceful world. Yet he felt a lingering pain, weak, like the lingering coolness left on his skin by a stray drop of rain on a sunny day, and fading still. Where did that come from?
Why are you showing me this?
I am not. You see because you wonder.
It made no sense. You never spoke to me before.
You told me to leave you alone.
When did I say that?
When we first met. You wanted me to go away. You were afraid.
He was? He could not remember, perhaps because he was dreaming. Ah, so comforting… If this is a dream, where is my body?
Sleeping. With your kin. The creature with many limbs is shading you.
The creature with many limbs? What kind of creature was that? I don’t understand.
What don’t you?
What creature is that?
Larger than your kind. Older, but still young. With many limbs and fingers. They are all around you, many, many of them. This one is alone.
Oh, that kind of creature. A growing thing. A tree?
A solitary tree and many, many others… a forest. He remembered. The glade, the oak, Val… dead. Now he knew where that lingering pain came from. It flared inside him. He had never woken up in his room, because he was not there.
Not dead. That is just your fear. They are safe. We saved them.
They did. They had fought together, he remembered that too. What had happened? The memories were not clear. Only fragments, scattered like the shards of many broken mirrors, each of a different dream. So scattered and jumbled he could not tell which was imagination—his fear—and which was real. How could he remember reality inside a dream? But he said they were safe. And he remembered both of them fighting. He wanted to believe that was real.
Thank you for saving Val.
Your feelings saved him. I only helped a little.
The view changed, as though he were high and far above the world. The rivers of light were like blood vessels, gathering around a giant heart, but he was drifting away from them—Don’t go, cried his mind—farther and farther away, until he found himself alone, in darkness. Talk to me, please… Will he talk to me again?
Sleep, came a distant answer. We shall speak again. We shall…
It was well into the morning when they finally set off, but the day was just as sullen as the ones before, matching their own mood.
After too few hours of sleep they had woken up sore, stiff and cold. They were all feeling bad, some worse than others, and Ceri felt the worst—the mere act of breathing was painful. Kiran was quiet and aloof, as he used to be in the first days. On top of everything, the rain kept falling, not heavy and drenching, but gentle and incessant, the sort of rain which slowly works its way into the heart and fills it with gloom. That and the cold morning air had made short work of the warmth their blankets had provided during the night, sending unpleasant shivers through their tired, beaten bodies. Breakfast had been more of a necessity, a duty to those bodies, than a want, for none had the slightest appetite. Especially after Bran had reminded them they had to get rid of the corpses before leaving.
Ironically, the most unpleasant task had proven the most beneficial. The dead were lying in the tall grass, soaked, but untouched, as they had left them. No animals had visited the glade during the night. Kiran’s suggestion had been to carry them into the forest, north of the road, where people had no reason to wander off. The forest, he said, would take care of the rest, leaving no trace of their passing. Since they had no time, nor any means to otherwise dispose of the bodies, they had done so without arguing. The effort had warmed them up better than anything else. That was the benefit. Only Ceri and Val had stayed behind.
They left the glade in silence. With five spare horses, they had loaded all the packs on them, taking some weight off their mounts. The animals were following them submissively—that docile behaviour had to be Kiran’s doing—each one roped to one of their own, save for Ceri’s. The arrangement resulted in a rather slow pace, which was concerning at first, but after a while the steadiness of that rhythm raised their hopes. Two days to the next village, the farmer had said, so there was still a chance to reach the other side before nightfall. Provided the man was right.
Beyond the glade the forest looked just the same, a mirror image of what they had seen the day before. Not literally, but the trees were just as old, the air just as still and the place just as quiet. The light reaching them through the thick clouds and the intertwined branches—dripping heavily—was dull. The marvellous foliage, a delight for the eyes with its brilliant colours, had lost all charm: nothing more than the outward varnish of what had started to feel like a prison.
And yet… something was different. The forest looked less eerie, the silence was less heavy, the echoes less unnerving. But in truth, it was not the forest which was different, it was them. Their feelings. Compared to what they had witnessed during the night, nothing seemed too strange or dangerous. And perhaps somewhere in the back of their minds, unbeknownst to them, there was the comfort that, should anything happen, they had the most unbelievable creature on their side.
“I’m a little surprised that the smell of blood did not attract any visitors while we were asleep,” started Bran. He had called Kiran to ride with him, because he still had questions. “I was expecting, at least, to find some of the bodies missing. Are there really no wild animals, or was it because of you?”
“Because of him.” There was no reason to avoid the truth now. “Though it’s true that I have not sensed any large animals yesterday. But there must be, you saw the trails in the grass.”
Kiran was not in the mood for more questioning, but he had no illusion that the captain’s curiosity was satisfied or that he had any wish to spare his feelings. However, he had hoped lack of sleep would put Bran in a disposition similar to his. Clearly it was not the case. At least the overture was promising a civil conversation.
“It’s a sad way to go, even for an enemy,” said Bran. “Being devoured by animals. It lacks dignity.” The remark had a flavour of regret.
“I do not believe feeding other creatures is devoid of dignity,” replied Kiran, after a moment of surprise at the unexpected direction of their talk. “Would you think the same about something you hunted?”
“That is different. If I found a dead animal, I would not eat it.”
“Because it could make you sick. So what would you do?”
“Bury it, maybe.”
“To decay in the ground and become food for smaller creatures.”—Bran made a slight grimace—“We take and we give back. There is no disgrace in that… However, animals are not what I had in mind when I suggested to take them in the forest.”
Was that relief in Bran’s voice? “How much of Val’s book do you remember?”
“Some of it. Not that clearly, but I remember a good deal about your kin, now that I think of it. It left a strong impression on me at the time.”
“Do you recall the feya? The creatures crossing from the other world?”
“I’m not convinced I understood that part.”
Nicely put. “There is a Blessed Ground in this forest, a place where our world and Edesil, their world, touch. It is where feya cross to this side. The forest is full of them.” Kiran glanced at Bran to see his reaction. He was oddly calm and, whether he believed any of it or not, his interest was genuine. No sarcasm? How unexpected! “Feya feed on many things. Some feed on corpses.”
That sounded grim.
“Like wolves?” Bran had never encountered wolves, but had read they do not shy away from a dead body.
“No, the way feya feed is different from that of other creatures… In this case insects or maggots would be a closer comparison, I think.” That was equally unpleasant, Kiran realized. “What’s important is they leave nothing behind.”
“Have you seen that?”
“No… But that is how our elders leave this world, I was told.”
In Laeden the dead were buried in a simple ceremony where family and friends said their goodbyes, unless they died of a sickness that could spread or, worse, a curse—or so people believed—in which case they were burned prior to burial. Was it so different, though? The dead decaying in the ground instead of on top? In the end they all disappeared, feeding the living things and leaving only the memory of their life behind. There was something sad about that thought, perhaps because they were going to war, so Bran’s mind pushed it aside and went back to the book, trying to remember more of it. If Fates were merciful and helped them return home, he would read it again.
“Is that why this place is so strange? Because there is a Blessed Ground?”
“It is not strange, just old… I suppose that’s why Man find it unnerving. Blessed Grounds are quiet, in many senses. But they are safe.”
Perhaps for your kin, thought Bran. He did not feel safe at all, not if he and his men were to venture away from the road. Certainly not at night. “You said you did not sense those men because they had something with them.” His thoughts were in disarray, but for once he had no wish to organize them.
“Odari. Feya which feed on emotions.”
That was far stranger than feeding on corpses. Bran could not think of anything similar. How, he was curious to know… perhaps after getting out of that place. “Which emotions?”
“All of them, starting with the strongest. Eina sometimes use odari in their healing, but they know how.”
“If you keep them close to the heart for too long, like those men did, you risk being left with no emotions. No fear, no anger, no joy, nothing. In their case, it was what they wanted, so I would not sense them.”
That explained why their attackers were so impassible. “But they still feared you… him.”
Kiran seated himself better. “I have no explanation for that.”
That made Bran realize something else. “Is it true, then, that we can see these creatures?”
“You already did, you just don’t know it.” Bran’s eyes darted towards the trees, though he had no idea what to look for. Kiran pointed to the forest floor. “The clusters of mushrooms on rotten wood, some of them are feya. Others are nested in the hollows of the older trees. Granted, it’s not easy to tell them apart, feya and the things they mimic. But not impossible either.”
“How do you tell which is what?”
“The mimicry is good, but not perfect. You learn the difference.”
“But you must be close enough.”
Kiran understood the implicit question. “I’m the Host. I see their glow.”
He had expected another interrogation—a few hours before it would have certainly felt like one—but the tone was different now. This was the closest to a normal conversation between two people they had ever had. This time the stubborn stick was not suspicious or hostile, just curious. And it was very surprising to discover that Bran had any interest in such unworldly subjects, for he had always seemed a pragmatic man. He did read Val’s book, though. Not just that, but there was no doubt in Kiran’s mind, now, that Bran had seen or felt something that evening, when they first met. Something that had led the man to believe he was deceptive and dangerous. What else could explain such strong, unprovoked aversion? Kiran winced inwardly. I feel he still dislikes me.
He looked over his shoulder at their companions. Their seat was slack and their shoulders sagged as if they were heavier that morning. Their faces were serious and drawn, dark shadows hanging under their eyes. Their voices were lower than the day before, too low for him to understand the words, but there was no anxious alertness in their attitude. They were tired and sore, yes, but not afraid. Even so, he reached to their hearts, just a little, for his own peace of mind.
Ceri’s physical distress had made him morose again, but at least the forest was not weighing on his mind anymore. Kiran needed no words to understand that Bert was giving him an account of everything he had missed the previous evening, or to guess the subject of Bredan’s conversation with Val.
He sighed, turning his eyes back to the road in front of them. How had it come to that? Why had fortune, after guarding his secret for so long, suddenly forced him to reveal it? Was there a reason or was his share of good luck all but spent? There could not have been a worse time for it. What was he supposed to do from there on?
“Is there something wrong?” Bran’s tone was concerned.
Is he worried? Ah, yes, for his men. “No, no. Everything is fine.”
“…What is he doing now? The… king.”
“Vhareei,” reminded him Kiran. “He is asleep. Dormant.”
“How can you tell?”
“I don’t sense him.” He met the captain’s questioning eyes and shrugged. “It’s as if he doesn’t exist.”
Bran’s forehead crinkled slightly. “Is he always so?”
“Yes. Unless something rouses him.”
“Such as you being in danger.”
“That always does.”
“So that evening, in Ardaena…”
“He was protecting me.” From the corner of his eye Kiran saw Bran’s chest falling, long and slowly. As I thought.
“If not for last night, would you have told us who you are? What you are?” Bran knew the answer, it was too obvious, but he was still curious whether the other would lie or not.
“No,” answered Kiran without hesitation, looking straight into his eyes. “I would never have told you. Nor anyone else. But the person you knew until yesterday, that was me. Who I am. Not the Host, but the man who shared with you the journey, the food, the drink. Me now, after living for eleven years in Laeden.” He could not help adding, with a taunting curl of the lip, “The one you seem to find so irksome.”
Bran flinched. Was that supposed to make him feel bad or spite him? “Nobody is perfect,” he said dismissively. The evening’s revelation may have lifted a weight from his mind, but it had not made Kiran’s company much less annoying.
“At least you admit it,” retorted Kiran, knowing the comment had been, in fact, about him.
That morning they rode almost without break. It was not just the presence of the new horses which forced them into a slower pace, Ceri could not even sit a slow trot, because the bouncing made it too painful. Not that the road offered too many occasions to speed up, the way it followed the slopes and curves of the land, but a little variation would have been welcome. Nonetheless, they made steady progress and the animals had no trouble sustaining that rhythm. None of the new ones showed any signs of fear or any inclination to disobey, and their own did not seem bothered by the addition. Grass was scarce, if any, but there were puddles here and there and they stopped once to let them sip. As for themselves, the provisions in the new packs had given them a little comfort. Now their concern was with the weather. The light rain and constant dripping from trees were soaking their cloaks again, sticking them to their bodies, cold and heavy. And there was nothing to be done about that.
It was probably early afternoon—though who could have said—when their ears caught a faint sound of water, burbling on its way to the plains below, before they saw the stream running at the bottom of the little valley the road had led them into. Where the two met, the stream was wider and shallow, easy to cross without a bridge, but further down it narrowed and deepened and its waters were faster, fed by days of raining. On the other side they took a proper break, for man and horse to quench their thirst and rest. They refilled the water skins, so now there was one less problem to worry about. The crowns of the old trees shaded the stream banks, but the light was stronger and the banks were covered with moss, ferns and various moisture loving weeds. As soon as they finished drinking, the horses moved on to chew on them.
“Don’t let them eat the ferns,” warned Val. “They are not good for horses.”
“What about moss?” asked Bert.
“…Just don’t let them eat too much.”
“We’re not staying that long,” said Bran.
Bredan drew closer to him. “Do you suppose this could be one of the streams that broke the bridges on the main road?”
“Possibly. The one near Appleby, if I had to take a guess.”
“It doesn’t look that strong. Perhaps the others found a way to cross it.”
Bran did not answer that.
A few feet away from the crossing Val found a patch of weeds with broad leaves and bristly burrs. Kiran pulled out a knife and started digging out a young plant.
“What are you doing?” asked Bran, following them.
“This is helpful with pain and swelling,” explained Val. “Not as effective as my powders, but I did not prepare for broken bones.”
“I thought this was just a weed.”
“Mm, yes, many think so. But burdock is a wonderful plant.”
They washed the thick roots and a handful of the larger leaves and tied them to one of their packs.
“We’re done,” he announced.
There was no use in lingering there, everything was wet and slippery, they could not dry themselves and they were not even hungry. All they wanted was to reach the end of that interminable woodland, which was beginning to wear upon them.
Val turned his attention to the wounded. “How are you two holding up?”
“My arm is not that bad,” said Bert, “but I’m not sure about him.” He looked at his comrade.
Ceri inhaled deeply and grimaced, letting out the air with a hiss. “I won’t die,” he cut him short, when the other opened his mouth.
Val frowned. “I’d rather give you something for the pain. Shallow breathing may feel more comfortable, but it will affect your lungs.”
Riding was not advisable either, but what choice did they have?
Ceri thought for a moment, glancing at his captain. “I can bear it. Keep those for the night, please.”
“Fine, but let me know if it gets any worse.”
They helped him get on his horse.
Just as on the previous day, the forest gradually changed. Younger trees were more numerous and more plants grew on the forest floor, but it was not until the fiery leaves of maples caught their eye that they became aware of those changes.
“Woo-hoo!” cried Bert. “This is it, the end of the nightmare!” He turned to Kiran, glowing. “It is, isn’t it? We’re getting close to the edge?”
“It appears so.”
“Thank goodness!… But you like this place,” he remembered, trying to moderate his enthusiasm. “It’s not that bad, just…”
“The air was growing a little too heavy,” agreed Kiran.
“We’re not out, yet,” came Bran’s stern voice from the front. “Save that energy for later.”
“Shouldn’t we take a look at the map?” asked him Bredan. “See where that village is on the other side?”
“When we reach the edge. Until then it’s useless. We have no idea where we are.” But his heart, too, was beating a little faster.
As if to prove him right, the road kept winding in the shade of the trees, as if the forest were refusing to let go of it. They rode for another hour or so before they noticed the first hints of people passing. And then some, before they saw light among the trees, but finally the world opened before their eyes. The light was so much brighter and the horizon so much farther, they were left without breath. To the north stretched the vast forest, but to the east and below the forest, to the south, the grassy land undulated as though giant fingers had pinched the surface and then let it set in gentle, rounded folds, tufted with trees, now fading in the mist of rain. And they had to stop and take in all that landscape, and then dismount to touch the grass, fearing it might be just an illusion. After two days spent in the dark, oppressive bowels of the forest, they were feeling like prisoners who had just escaped from the dungeons of a giant fortress: free, excited, overwhelmed and almost disbelieving.
However, they were sitting in the rain and, now their eyes had adjusted to the light, they realized the sun was very low. There were settlements down there, to their far right, barely discernible, but the road was not leading to them. Instead, it continued gently uphill and turned slightly to the north, disappearing beyond the top of the hill.
“Map?” asked Bredan.
“At the top, if there is nothing in sight.”
But there was no need for map there, because as soon as they rounded the top, they saw the small village tucked in the folds of the land, little columns of smoke rising from the chimneys.
The place in which they would spend that night was smaller than the first one, but it was separated from the byre and only used to store dried fodder. In an open shed just outside their own, filled with that year’s harvest of hay, the farmer and his children had made room for the horses, so they would not spend the night in the rain. The children had brought them buckets of water and food was aplenty. As for them, all they wanted was something to warm them up—tea, had suggested Val. With it their host also brought them cheese, salted meat and bread.
Of course they paid for all that, in fact more than on the first night, because the farmer had required a bit of convincing to take them in. Not because he felt no sympathy for their situation—every villager who had seen them coming in that weather, drenched and tired, felt sorry for them—but because they were coming from the forest, possibly injured, judging by their moves, carrying swords—blasted things, they were difficult to conceal—and five spare horses. That had made him and everyone else circumspect. They could have been highwaymen. Only when, after offering money and making up a story, Bran had finally shown him the royal sigil on the missive from Prince Feolan—under the farmer’s solemn promise of discretion—had the man accepted to help them.
Kiran crushed the burdock leaves and lined them on a piece of cloth. He wiped Ceri’s skin with another cloth soaked in warm water, patient and careful not to hurt him. Ceri’s eyes were following his every move. He was breathing with difficulty and his right side was badly bruised and tender. Despite Val’s morning dose of medicine, riding had been an ordeal and he was both physically and mentally exhausted. But the touch of those hands was very soft and had a comforting quality to it. It was different than when the doctor had done the same thing. Also strange, for now the talk about Kiran’s gender was coming back to him and, despite still regarding him as a man, he could not help wondering about it. That fine face, so close to him, so serious… even in that poor light, that face was too smooth. Ceri suddenly felt self-conscious. He had not paid much attention before, but in the light of the recent events…
Kiran placed the leaves on the bruised skin—“Hold this here, please,” he told Ceri—and began to wrap him in strips of fabric, which Val had made from a piece of old sheet their host had given them. Not tight, for that would have done more damage than good, just enough to keep those leaves in place without hindering the man’s breathing. And while he did so, his lips began to move, and Ceri first thought he was telling him something. But the words made no sense to him.
“Anaana sidaar mae edesti fallas, mae fenna leannas, mae kirena tualas,” murmured Kiran, while his hands were working. “Anaana sidaar…”
It sounded almost like a song, that strange, melodious language, mesmerizing like a… chant? An unusual warmth was spreading through his chest from wherever Kiran’s hands touched him.
“What are you doing?” asked Ceri, stopping him.
“Trying to help you reach Fiodhin before the war is over.”
“You were saying something strange just now. What was it?”
“Ah, that,” said Kiran, looking away. “I’m casting a spell on you. Tomorrow you will feel as good as new. But, um, your teeth and hair might fall.” He met the man’s uncertain gaze. “Quick healing comes with a price.”
Ceri recoiled and the sudden move made him groan.
“Pfff! I’m joking. Sit still and let me finish.”
“It’s an old Eina chant,” said Val, who had seen the scene from the entrance. He thought for a moment. “Bright sidaar flow into this world, heal this creature… find home in this heart… something like that.”—His son confirmed with a slight nod—“I never heard you using it, before.”
“It just came to mind,” replied Kiran. “I had forgotten it.”
“So, not a spell?”
“There is no such thing,” said Val, placing near Ceri a mug of steaming tea. “When he’s done, drink this.”
Ceri grimaced. “More tea?”
“Made from the roots.”
“Ugh! How can you drink so much of this thing?”
“You are beginning to sound like Rhun. This thing has more benefits than ale. How long do you think you can ride in your condition? The next days will be very unpleasant, I speak from personal experience. There is little I can do until we reach Fiodhin, but this tea can help. Just so you know, you shall drink it every day.”
Ceri’s shoulders drooped. He, too, knew he will not be able to endure that pain for another day. “You two are so odd, it’s annoying,” he grumbled.
If not for them he would not be in that situation, although he was aware the attack was not their fault. But just as he was thinking about his and his comrades’ misfortune of being stuck with them for the rest of the journey, he noticed his breathing was not so painful anymore. In fact the awful sensation was diminishing, just as Kiran was tying the last knots to his dressing. He inhaled deeper, than exhaled, but no stab of pain cut his breath short. It was still there, but so greatly reduced he could easily breathe through it.
“It’s almost gone, the pain.” How could that be? “What did you do?” he demanded, grabbing Kiran’s wrist. His thoughts scrambled. How could a man have bones so thin?
“For goodness’ sake!” snapped Kiran, pulling his hand free. “I didn’t do anything.”
Don’t be stupid, how can a woman be so flat?
Val stepped between them. “Eina are the best healers.” He handed Ceri his shirt, “Better dress before you get cold,” then took Kiran’s hands in his own. They were very warm. “It must be him. Hosts have powerful hands, your grandfather said. Your bond is strengthening. You should be grateful,” he turned to Ceri, who was fumbling with his shirt. “I could not have done so much.”
“You’re noisy.” Bran came in, followed by Bert and Bredan. “What is going on?”
“Nothing,” replied Val. “Just a small exchange of opinions.”
“How are you feeling, Ceri?”
“Better than I had all day,” he admitted, though reluctantly. He was a little concerned about whatever Kiran had done to him—not to mention those absurd thoughts—but the fact was he was feeling much better and that deserved some gratitude. “Thank you, Kiran… Can you do the same for Bert?”
“Do what?” asked Bert.
“Take care of your arm. He did a damn good work with my ribs.”
They kept watch one by one, otherwise none would have had enough sleep. Val thought it was unnecessary, but Bran was concerned about the village people. He had the nagging feeling that even their host had agreed to their stay, at least in part, out of fear. He did not want to take any more risks.
Kiran took the first watch. He went to sit with the horses for a while—he found them more by sensing their emotions and from memory, than by sight, it was that dark outside—then returned to the barn guided by the feeble light of the oil lamp burning on a shelf, given to them by the farmer. It illuminated the place just enough so they would not trip on each other when they woke up for their turns. He sat cross legged in the open door, perched on a bale of hay, watching the water drip from the eave. He could see very little beyond that, only the soft mud at the entrance, trampled by their feet, and the splashes of raindrops in the puddles in their footprints. But that only made him more aware of his other senses.
The rain was so calm he almost could not hear it beyond the snores of his sleeping companions. The horses were quiet. From time to time he heard movement next door, where cattle rested, ruminating or napping. The smell coming from there was strong—he had noticed the others wrinkling their noses a few times—but it sent his thoughts back home. Was it raining in Ulmaby? What were their friends doing? He missed them already: Drest’s grumpiness, Ansa’s motherly attitude, Alden’s strange humour, Belesni’s teasing, Noll’s naivety… Rhun’s unpolished manners, Glen’s—wait, why were the latter coming to his mind? When had he started to think about these soldiers so warmly?
The crisp air was sending shivers through his body and his feet were cold. The boots were caked with mud and he had taken them off. He yearned for a bath. It was the third day without washing and the thought alone made him cringe with disgust. The temptation to undress and go out in the rain—let it pour on him, cleanse him, chase the fatigue from his limbs, his mind, his heart—was irresistible, but if someone woke up and saw him… Thank goodness for that weather! Had it been as warm as when they left Ulmaby, he felt he would have rotted. How could these men stand themselves after sweating for so many days? Although, now that he thought about it, he had not noticed Ceri’s scent at all. Perhaps because his mind was too engaged with other things: those awful, painful bruises, their hurt, their fear… guilt…
His secret was out. Yet they had not rejected him.
“Thank you,” he whispered, staring blankly outside. “For easing their pain.”
It came from your heart. I only helped a little.