She awoke well before sunrise and immediately remembered that Who had come in during the night. Even in sleep she had felt his presence and taken comfort from it. Now his perch was empty once more.
Outside it was still dark, but the fragile glow that heralds the dawn hung low in the east, a thin nimbus of light gathering quietly behind the mountains, like a promise.
Illiom walked to the ridge and looked out. Starlight lit the ghostly blanket of cloud that filled the valley.
She stole a glance towards Tarmel’s bedding. It was unoccupied.
His horses stood nearby, still asleep.
Illiom turned back to gaze over the cloud-covered valley. Soon she would leave all this behind.
She felt in her bones the confirmation of Who’s prediction, that she would not return.
The moment she had dreaded and dreamed of was upon her, and now that it was here, what did she feel? Certainly not joy or excitement, not even relief.
Instead, she felt empty and tired. And beneath that, like the cooling ashes of a previous day’s fire, the embers of her anger at the Rider still glowed.
Without realising it, she reached out for Who.
The owl responded immediately, not with thoughts or images, but just with his fey presence. She drank deeply from his wildness, knowing that the time for words was almost over.
Owls, Illiom had learned, are not sentimental. They are not burdened with the past, like people. They live in the present and accept whatever it brings, without regret or fear. Sometimes Illiom sensed the difference between her and the owl to be like a great gulf that she would never entirely bridge, yet today was not such a time. Today she was just grateful for his presence and the connection they shared.
She knew viscerally that she would not have endured the torture of loneliness and retained her sanity without him. How could she explain to him that she needed and loved him, when his concerns were inevitably steeped in immediate necessity?
She had not sent these thoughts, but his next sending showed her that he had nevertheless picked them up.
You never found it hard to leave when the thaw came and the path down from the mountain opened up. You will leave now in the same way.
His comment stung her.
But then I was always coming back here, to you, she protested. Now things are different.
She could not bring herself to say that she might never see him again.
Yet Who’s comment had been true.
How easily she had left, caught up in the thrill of walking down to Velimoss each spring. Truth be told she was always a little glad to escape from his musty inner world for a time, especially after the interminable hibernation of winter.
The hardships she endured during the icy season always seemed ephemeral in the warm caress of the spring sun. The exhilaration she felt when the grip of ice succumbed to the thaw made the long moons of winter vanish as if they had never been.
It had been so every year.
Other memories arose, unbeckoned. She recalled the pride and optimism she had felt, descending from the mountain that first spring, and the respect accorded her by the simple folk of Velimoss for having survived the entire season alone.
There was little doubt that some believed her to be completely mad. Illiom had actively fostered this belief, for it kept unwanted visitors at bay.
Moreover, each year the villagers seemed happy to buy charms from this mad woman; for these, like she, must surely have been touched by the gods.
A soft sound from the shadowed end of the ridge drew her from her introspection. Illiom would have ignored it but the sound was followed by another.
She peered into the darkness but could see nothing. Illiom moved silently towards the sound.
Tarmel materialised like a wraith out of the semi-darkness of early dawn.
Illiom, wide-eyed, brought a hand to her lips to stifle her surprise.
She watched, fascinated, as the Rider flowed through a sequence of fluid movements and postures.
Using hands and feet, elbows, knees, and indeed his entire body, Tarmel traced a slow and supple geometry of sweeping, flowing arches and circles.
Illiom soon began to discern a purpose behind each movement. The sweep of a hand would distract the eye for just the right span of time before the other would lash out, serpent-like, from behind the artful decoy. The receding of hands splayed as if in self-protection, and the backward lean of his body, provided the counterweight needed for a foot to catapult out with frightening force.
Tarmel moved with the grace of a swan and the speed of a cat.
She never would have thought him capable of such elegance.
This dance – for surely that must be what it was – seemed to suit an artist or a performer much more than it did a soldier.
Feeling furtive yet undetected, she watched the Rider for a while, drinking in his nimble prowess, the sheer beauty of his physical mastery of this art.
As she watched, Illiom felt a reluctant attraction.
Abruptly she turned away and quietly withdrew before he could see her.
She was making her way back when a soundless scream tore through her mind.
She reached out to him tentatively as fear began to crawl up her spine.
The owl’s answer was not immediate.
When it came, it made no sense.
These two words were accompanied by such a disjointed flurry of images that Illiom did not know what to make of them. Her first thought was that perhaps a bear had wandered up from below, but then Who would have said bear.
What did ’not human’ mean?
The ledge before her was all darkness, outlined by the pallid light of dawn, so she immediately saw the shape when it climbed up over the ridge.
It was a human shape after all.
Almost immediately, a second shape followed the first.
Illiom instinctively shrunk low and began to backtrack as softly as she could. Human or not, what were these men doing up here?
Then the inexplicable happened. The second man seemed to suddenly sprout wings around his head and a scream of pain tore through the still dawn air.
As if startled by the man’s cry, the wings separated themselves from his head, banked sharply and flew off.
“Who!” Illiom called out before she could stop herself.
The first intruder turned to face her and, ignoring his wailing companion, lunged towards her.
The steel of his sword caught the tenuous dawn light and flashed cold malice at her.
In the grip of terror, Illiom turned to run and flew straight into the arms of a third man.
It was Tarmel.
His eyes met hers for a moment, then he pushed her firmly aside and sprang to intercept her attacker.
Easily sidestepping a scything blade, the Rider feigned a sideways lunge only to become airborne the moment his adversary turned towards him. His foot lashed out to connect with the man’s leg, just below the knee.
Illiom heard a sickening sound and the man went down with a howl of pain.
Tarmel didn’t pause.
Carried by his momentum he moved to intercept the second man, who stumbled about as though blinded.
But something closer to hand stole Illiom’s attention. The man Tarmel had crippled inexplicably picked himself up, retrieved his weapon, and to Illiom’s complete horror, was now hobbling towards her.
Every step he took was accompanied by a strangled scream, as though he was biting down on sheer agony. His progress was slow but determined. Illiom, transfixed, was unable to move.
She gaped as he covered the ground that separated them and as he drew closer she saw the insanity in his eyes.
Illiom turned in blind panic, took three steps and tripped.
Winded, off balance, she lost precious moments.
The assassin was almost upon her.
Then Illiom felt the power stir within her.
No, she shouted inwardly.
Ironically her reaction was not at her attacker, but at her emerging power.
She denied it.
“No!” she screamed at the tingling in her hands, at the maelstrom swirling inside her belly. Terrified by this burgeoning power, she forced it back down.
She scrambled away on all fours, trying to put any stretch of distance between herself and death.
She risked one backward glance.
This only confirmed her worst fears.
Her attacker had caught up, and was raising his sword to strike.
Whimpering, she scuttled frantically backwards, trying to get out of harm’s way, when Tarmel appeared behind the man.
He wrested the weapon from the attacker’s grip and a moment later sliced the man’s throat with his dagger.
Like a macabre grin, a deep gash opened, and blood fountained over the Rider’s arm and over Illiom.
The dying man’s eyes, still fixed on his quarry, held one final look of snarling insanity before growing dull.
Tarmel held him in a stranglehold until the man’s head hung lifeless.
Only then did he let go and allow the body to crumple to the ground.