“Keep that hidden,” Cab warned. “It could very well be the death of us.”
Ethamyn nodded, overwhelmed with emotion and eyes bleary he pulled the other items from his pack. Cairbre was solemn as he did the same. His pack did not contain a crown, because he would not be king. Only one can wear the crown of wings. This he had been taught all his life, he was nearly accustomed to the thought. But he could see his brother’s turmoil just by looking at his face and he so desperately wished the boy would cry, if only to justify his own tears.
The packs contained several extra sets of clothing, as well as some fine jewellery, and a pair of silver goblets. No water, no food. He sighed. Of course Innogen would not have had access to food in their haste to depart, but the jewellery and the goblets could possibly be used to barter food or supplies. What she had not thought, and a woman of her stature would never have had a thought such as this, was that the items were far too fine to be bartered in any village that Cab would feel safe entering. He would be called a thief and run out if he was not imprisoned or simply killed. A larger centre was simply out of the question, particularly because of the brigandine, embroidered with the hawks of Ur. Perhaps he could pick the stitching out.
All at once a wave of exhaustion washed over him. Though he did not want to sleep here, they really had no choice.
“Put these fresh garments on,” he told them. “And gather up some more wood for the fire. We will have to sleep here tonight.”
“Here?” Ethamyn asked, surfacing from his state of shock. “In the forest?”
“What about wolves?” Cairbre asked.
“We cannot,” Cab began and then seeing the looks on their faces, “I cannot go on tonight. We must rest, recover some strength. If we keep the fire burning the creatures of the forest will keep away. In the morning I will show you how to find something to eat and we will carry on our way.”
“I’m hungry now,” Cairbre said softly.
“As am I, but it is growing dark, we will just have to wait.”
“Where are we going?” Ethamyn asked.
“There is a monastery to the east. We will find help from the monks there.”
“And we are to walk the whole way?”
Cab smiled, closing his eyes. “If you prefer to fly...” He could not even finish the sentence, sleep overwhelmed him.
Some warden this Atholine was, Ethamyn thought as the man began to snore. He looked to his brother, who got to his feet and started to gather up wood. How was this man supposed to protect them if he was sleeping? And were they supposed to just curl up in their cloaks and sleep upon the ground like commoners? The thought that perhaps that was all they could call themselves now was chilling. All his life, primed to be king and now he was sleeping in the forest, running away from men who had killed his mother and would do the same to him. No one had taught him what to do if this possibility arose, though history had proved that it was possible.
“What are we going to do?” Cairbre asked, settling down beside his brother.
“What can we do?” Ethamyn asked. “This man swore a blood oath to protect us, we are safer with him than with any other.”
“He’s hurt,” Cairbre reminded. “Can he really protect us so well?”
“What choice have we?” Ethamyn asked. “We cannot go back home, we have no home now. Do you know where we are? Do you know where the nearest human’s are? I do not.”
No one prepared me for this, he thought angrily.
His brother did not respond. Only huddled into his cloak and stared out into the darkness.
Cab was running. Running with all the strength he had. Running from Innogen, and yet it did not matter which way he turned for she was always before him. She stood in the surf, the wind whipping her flame-coloured hair, the waves caressing her ankles. And then she burst, like a swollen sore, blood and flesh flying away from her in all directions. He ran, but he did not seem to get anywhere. Wind whipped her hair around her, waves caressed her ankles and she melted, seemed to sweat blood until she was a withering statue of dark red liquid. Wind whipping her hair, she turned hard and white as porcelain, the waves tipped her over and she shattered on an ocean as hard as rock. He tried to run harder, his lungs afire, his left leg stiff and limp, sweat soaked and burning up. The air came cold into his chest, pounding against his lungs like waves against the shore. She was there again, wind, hair, waves, caress; he reached out, touched her, she was soft as satin, and as he pulled away a thread of her gown caught on his sleeve. Before his very eyes her dress was unravelling, her entire being, unravelling, pulled on his sleeve. He tried to stop it, but it was much too late. She was just a pile of loose threads. And it didn’t stop there either. The sandy shore started to unravel, the waves and the wind, the cliffs around him, beneath him. A great unravelling and what was left was not black or white or green but a vast indescribable emptiness, the great nothing, opening like some terrible maw to swallow him, the only thing that was not unravelling: the unraveller. He tried to run, but there was nothing to stand on, no where for his feet to go.
He awoke to his own voice crying out in a darkness lit only by bare coals dying in the fire. The trees around him blocked the sky, but it was full of clouds. He could feel the rain that was to come, could hear the thunder, muttering in the distance. He was slick with sweat and his skin burned in a fever, but he got to his feet all the same and found some wood to bring the fire back to life. The boys were huddled together near the fire, one set of eyes glinting in the faint light.
“Sleep,” he muttered quietly. He was shaking as he settled himself back down and wrapped up in his cloak. He did not want to sleep, though he was so very tired. The dream had been more than frightening, it had settled into his bones and tried to make itself real. He shook with cold despite his burning skin and fell into feverish dreams.
The thunder was like the clomping of horses heavy with riders. The wind like the breath of beasts after running.
“Well, now,” came a man’s voice from beyond the realm of dreams. “What is this?”
“It is a hunter and his sons,” came another. “Leave them be, Bessas.”
“You know well they are no hunters,” Bessas replied as he slipped down off his horse. Cab pretended to sleep but opened his eyes, just enough to see vague shapes. There were men on strange, spindly horses, all cloaked in a stormy blue. One stepped over the sleeping prince’s toward the fire and their drying garments, he touched the brigandine, examined it with quiet probing fingers.
“Bessas,” came the other man’s voice, quiet as dawn yet carrying some weight of authority. He was still seated upon his horse. “I carry the Eye. So if I tell you they are hunters, that is what they are. If I tell you to leave them be, that is what you must do.”
“Hunulf,” Bessas muttered, leaving the brigandine and stepping over to Cab. Through slitted eyes Cab could see the man’s large face, his straw-coloured hair and beard unkempt, eyes a bright blue. Cab tried to ease his fingers toward the dagger without notice. The man turned away.
“Look at these fine things,” Bessas continued quietly. “Where are their skins, their furs, their traps? And the children are dressed like rich merchants sons. Who are these people? What are they doing among our trees?”
“Bessas, are you so blind?” Hunulf said. “Can you not see the man is ill?” Bessas turned back, eyes roving Cab’s pale, sweaty face, widened and he moved away with a quickness, grumbled as he walked past the princes and got up onto his horse.
“They could be the missing princes of Ur,” Bessas muttered. “We could turn them in, be rich.”
“They could be carrying the pox,” Hunulf said, his words punctuated by a loud rumble of thunder. “He has spoken,” Hunulf stated, raising his hand to the sky. The others turned their horses and started away, but Hunulf hesitated, staring at Cab. Cab watched him through eyes half closed, but somehow the man knew that he was awake and nodded.
“His Eye watch over you, stranger,” Hunulf said as he turned his horse and followed the others.
They were gone so quick and so quiet that Cab wondered if it had been a dream. It wasn’t until a long peal of thunder sounded that he could find the strength to rouse himself. It was going to be a rough day, he thought as he looked to the sky, shrouded in dark clouds. The storm was coming inland off the ocean, which meant rain if they remained here and snow if they moved farther east and into the mountains.
“Up, boys,” he said, struggling to his feet. His leg was stiff and painful, and he spent a moment stretching it, trying to ease it into the long walk they would have. The boys said little as they wiped the sleep from their eyes and shook the chill stiffness from their bodies. Cairbre tried to speak, but found his voice uncooperative. He was sore and still tired but most of all he had a hunger and a thirst like nothing he had felt before. He did not feel like a prince anymore. Ethamyn grumbled under his breath as he pulled himself together.
“We must eat,” were the first words from his mouth.
“Yes,” Cab said. “We must walk as well.” He stamped out the fire, scattered the stones, hid any traces he could. And then they walked east.
It was not so late in the year that the forest could not provide, though the fair was meagre and did not satisfy. They found berries of differing varieties, though they were seedy and tough. They gathered as much as they could and ate as they walked.
Cab’s wound was not healing well and he walked like a man half-asleep. The princes muttered their worries to one another as they followed. Had he been whole and well they would have complained at the pace he set for they were not well versed in travelling by foot, but in his feverish state they could easily keep up.
The storm seemed to pass over them, to move ahead and lie in wait.
His leg burned, his body burned and he limped, leaning heavily upon his walking stick. Fever visions swam before his eyes and it seemed that everywhere he looked he saw Innogen unravelling like some kind of doll. He shuddered and coughed and the pain drew up into his chest and he could not seem to get warm despite his body’s constant shivering and sweating. It was bad, he knew, but he did not know what he could do. They could not be seen in a village, any would be too close to Andrese for comfort. And even if they did, there were no healers of any worth in the villages, only herbalists. Serenity’s were a thing of cities and the nearest city Urasa, was still too far away.
A horse, he thought, if only they’d had a horse. And then he collapsed.
The children stopped in their tracks, fighting the fear that filled their chests.
“What do we do?” Cairbre asked, fighting to keep tears from his voice. “Is he dead?”
“No,” Ethamyn said. “I don’t think so.” He moved forward very slowly but could see almost right away that the man still breathed, in fact he was shuddering and shivering.
“Maybe we should build a fire to keep him warm.”
It was much colder here than their camp this morning had been, and they were travelling more uphill. The mountains and the forest were all around them and the sky was so dark with clouds that he could not tell where the sun was, and so did not know east from west. What could they do? He wondered. The gods could not have kept them from death in the castle only to lead them to their deaths in the wilds. Trees and more trees was all he could see no matter what way he looked. He could feel tears forming in his eyes and panic in his breast but he had to stay strong, for his brother.
Cairbre could see his brother struggling. Could feel the panic in his own breast and grabbed onto the first thing Ethamyn had said.
“Right,” he said. “A fire. Good thinking.” He bent and began picking up bits of wood and dry branches from the ground, setting his entire mind to the task so that he could not worry and fret. Once they had amassed a pile of sticks and wood that they felt was large enough they stood staring at it for a moment, fear filtering into their chests once more.
“How do we start it?” Cairbre asked, a whine entering his voice as tears spilled from his eyes.
He was running, hobbling really. When he looked down his left leg was gone and there was only a stick in its place. Still the leg that was not there hurt, as did his chest, his entire body, but he continued to run, for he had to escape from Innogen’s unravelling, from the open maw of nothingness that chased him. He slipped, fell into a pile of leaves and cried out at the pain. Trying not to sob he pulled himself to stand and saw a fire not far away.
“Come on,” he said, though he was uncertain to whom he spoke. He walked toward the fire, found four figures surrounded it. He recognized them and he didn’t, he knew them but he could not recall who they were. The figure nearest was a man, a hunter perhaps for he was clothed in the skins and furs of animals. He was a large man, larger than Cab even. The others were women, one heavily pregnant noblewoman, a beautiful creature, but when he looked at her he grew fearful and angry; another was a white sister, her face covered to indicate the highest order of dedication to Dreamer; the last was a poor woman in a dark dirty sack type robe, the hood draw up to hide her face in shadow. Her dark hands worked at a piece of embroidery. He was so close to them, to the fire, that he could feel its warmth but the feelings of fear and anger only grew greater the more he looked to these women. He wanted to ask the white sister for healing, but knew that he could never have his leg back whole now that it was a stick.
“Come brother,” the hunter said, though his back was to Cab and he could not possibly have seen him. “Put away your fear and anger and sit with us.” The words, or perhaps it was the man’s voice, deep and comforting, seemed to banish his fear and calm him. He stepped forward into the circle of light cast by the fire.
“Good evening,” he said, bowing to the women. “I am-,”
“We know,” the noblewoman said. Her words brought a lick of hot anger into his chest, but the man’s laughter halted it.
“Easy, Cabriabanus,” he said, stretching an arm out to guide him to sit. “Have some ale.”
The cup he was handed was full of a warm gently floral ale which did not quench his thirst but did seem to ease the pain in his body. The man beside him seemed larger now that they were seated together, and he bore a great dark beard the like to which Cab had never seen.
“He does not know us,” the noblewoman said.
“He knows,” the hunter said, grinning. “Give him time.” A sudden spasm of pain struck Cab like an arrow to the leg all over again and he cried out and reached for his calf, slipping off his seat and near falling into the fire.
“Please,” he said to the white sister. “Help me, I’ve-,” he looked to his leg, which had been a stick but was now a leg once more. His wound, wrapped in a dirty scrap of fabric, was swollen and oozed foul smelling liquid. It made him want to be sick just to look at it. The flesh around the wound was darkly bruised, spider-legs of black creeping away from the gash.
“I made a vow upon my blood,” he replied, suddenly angry. “And now it turns black in my veins.”
“You made a promise you could not keep,” the noblewoman said.
He hesitated, something tickling the back of his brain. He noticed another, a man, a warrior, lying in the shadows beside the fire, snoring loudly. Why had he not noticed him before, when his snoring was so loud? And then it came to him and the anger filled him and he stood up despite the pain in his leg.
“This is a fever dream,” he said.
“That it is, brother,” the hunter said. “But that does not make it any less real.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why have you led me to this?”
The noblewoman laughed, a haughty sound, and said, “He thinks we walk him through his life like a mule on a tether.”
“No,” he snapped. “I think you stand on the side and watch men blunder through their lives. I think you laugh at us. This is not a game, I made a vow upon all of your power, I-,”
“What right have you to vow upon the power of another?” the seamstress’ voice was a hiss, quiet and strong, dark and deep as a grave.
Men vow upon the gods and it is nothing to them to break their vows. The white sister’s voice was almost a sound in his head. Do you know the damage you cause?
“He knows,” the hunter said.
“Do not tell me what I know!” Cab cried. These women, these gods, were pecking at him like hens and he was in pain and worried and could not focus. The hunter got to his feet before Cab, swelling as he did so until he towered over them all. The skins that he wore seemed to gain life until one could not tell if he was man or animal or something in between. And a darkness came with the change, like the shadow of a mountain or the rumble of thunder. Only then did Cab realize the man had but one eye, and his hand fluttered up to his chest, to the sigil that hung around his neck.
“Forgive me,” he said, hanging his head. “You are wrong, my Lord, I do not know what I do.”
“You know, brother,” the Nameless God said gently. “You have seen it in your dreams.”
He thought immediately of Innogen unravelling. Of the world unravelling, falling into the great jaws of nothingness.
“What is it?” he said, wrapping his arms around himself. “I had thought it was Bella’s doing.”
“Bella’s realm is blackness, death and shadow. This is something other.”
Black is still black, white still white. The emptiness is nothing. It is a lacking, a hunger. A need to devour all that is. And it will not rest until the worlds are all empty.
“It is always there, gnawing on the edges of the worlds,” the noblewoman said. “It has been since the beginning. Some say it is the beginning. That the worlds were a mistake that it wants to take back.”
“When a man makes a vow on a power not his own,” the hunter said, settling back down on his seat by the fire. “And breaks it, it joins the emptiness.”
“Men vow upon the gods all the time,” Cab said shocked at the implications.
“Small victories,” the hunter said, sipping from his cup. “You broke a vow upon the gods, Cabriabanus.”
“Upon more than the gods,” he breathed, glancing down at his leg.
“What am I to do?” he asked. “How am I-,” his words turned into a howl as the pain in his leg flared up. He woke to his own screaming and the frightened faces of twin princes. They had been trying to move him, had grabbed his tender leg and pulled him from the dream.
“Gods,” he managed, breathless from the pain.