AVESTINE REMAINED COVERED with her bedroll, while she smashed flies as they wriggled their way underneath. She continued to scream out Kami’s name.
Her skin stung all over from bites, and the buzz of the flies made her skin crawl. She kept her eyes tightly shut, and she had to clamp her mouth firmly, when a few flies gathered at the corners of her lips. The flies penetrated her mouth, and it took all her willpower not to vomit.
She pressed her arms down on the edge of her blanket trying to seal off entry points. Every muscle in her body flexed, as if sheer rage could overcome the horde. Her rapidly disintegrating reason barely contained her wild thoughts of throwing off the blanket and swatting the flies with her sword. She managed to convince herself that no sword, no matter how fast, could destroy a cloud of flies.
When someone tore the blanket from her, she launched herself upright and drew her sword, but Rook greeted her with arms raised as the flies on her face flew away.
“They’re gone,” he said. Red bumps pocked his face. A few bled. She assumed she looked the same. She glanced around at the soldiers, most of whom were kneeling with exhaustion, some dripping, having returned from the river where they had taken cover.
“Merciless Coth,” muttered Avestine. “What the villages must have suffered.”
Rook agreed. “Eaten alive by a thousand mouths. Maybe you should make a prayer to Sahrot today.”
“You still believe this is Kami?”
“We must hope it is. Anyone else may be beyond our power to stop.”
“I could have brought all my legions for the good they’ll do me. Keep the division here, except for First Company. We’ll travel faster.”
“But you may not survive to reach her.”
“She’ll know I’m here before then, and if I don’t matter to her, then no army will save me anyway.”
After the men had rested, Avestine took Rook and a single company and set off ahead as the rest of the division began to set up a palisade.
Their mounts grew nervous, but they rode past sunfall before making camp. Avestine was restless, her dreams filled with both hideous and erotic visions of Kami. She awoke after sunrise to find some of the soldiers cooking a small pig that had wandered into camp. The smell of roasting pork made Avestine ravenous, since they had been eating only salted rations. She ate her fill.
“The pig was a gift,” Avestine told Rook as they headed out on horseback.
“If she knows we’re here, why doesn’t she come to us?”
“I think she needs me to tell her what to do.”
“She doesn’t seem to need anyone at all. No army in thirty years has been able to stop Darklaw.”
She hadn’t thought of Kami in quite those terms, a woman with such power. She had felt many new sensations since meeting Kami—most recently, an embarrassing fear of insects. She could still feel the flies crawling on her, and she shuddered.
They rode most of the day and made camp near a muddy lake.
“Why didn’t he kill her?” asked Rook as they sat together after eating.
Avestine had been thinking about her brother, too. “Maybe he wanted to control her instead.”
“For the reason he was killing the Essanti to begin with.”
Rook scoffed. “That’s what got him his epithet. Thinking he would bring the gods into the world so he could kill them.”
“You’ve told me you feel a god stirring in you.”
“Of course. Every Essanti does. We carry sparks of the gods, but it’s foolish to think of sparks like logs in a fire that we can gather into a single blazing pile. Your brother has a way with people. He can convince them of anything. There was the time he talked the Wafsimy slaves into giving up their revolt. Seventy men walked into Sahrdon without a fight, even though they knew they were to be executed.”
“People want to believe him. They think he’s gentle.”
“It’s his beauty.”
“You were beautiful once.” Avestine turned away, an odd sensation making it difficult to meet Rook’s intense gaze.
“I still am. It’s a shame if you don’t see that, Your Grace.”
In their years together, she had rarely had to chastise Rook for defiance, but he seemed to be challenging her on something every day since his return from the Katan Ri. Something between them had changed. She was sure the change was entirely within him, but she didn’t know if he was aware of it, too.
Soldiers were cutting brush, clearing a great circle around the encampment. They had stripped a hundred small trees and were finishing a short palisade. Avestine watched their disciplined, methodical work.
Sunrise arrived after a dream-empty sleep, and then another meal of roasted pig awaited Avestine. They left camp early, and by evensun arrived at a valley blackened by fire. Though fires had followed the bestial army, the animals did not cause them. Victims used fire to keep the animals back, but seldom could they contain the flames for long.
The smell of burnt flesh made the valley stink. Avestine found it necessary to wrap a cloth around her nose, but no amount of coaxing or lashing could force her horse through the killing field. She took Rook, along with two-dozen soldiers, and passed through on foot.
The cliffs were rocky, providing uneven footholds. At higher elevations, expanses of grass eased their passage. As they left the foothills, they entered a forested plateau dotted with pristine lakes. Fields and flowers grew lush. The bestial army had not ravaged the land here, and the bounty was breathtaking.
Avestine and her men passed through a narrow gorge and into a sweeping plain. It was oddly quiet. Despite the chill in the air, Rook removed his black, hooded cloak, which left his arms bare. He wore a sleeveless blue tunic, long and belted. He held a sack over his shoulder.
Avestine turned suspicious eyes on him. “There will be no judgment today.”
“Be ready with your blade.”
She glanced at the bag that held the book and wrist caps, but as many times as she had imagined it, she wasn’t sure she could take Kami’s hands. Rook knew her uncertainty, which was why he threatened the Judgment. Their years together had brought to light an understanding about duty: the distance between master and servant was not a great one.
Trees were sparse but regular, and a knee-high layer of scrub grew thick as far as she could see. She gestured for her men to drop their supplies and spread out. They hustled into a line a few paces behind her. Rook examined the landscape, too. A wolf stepped out from behind a tree. Then, from behind another tree emerged a second wolf, and then a third. Rapidly, the field filled with wolves, and then bears, and bobcats. The trees suddenly shook with life as birds of every kind lifted into the air and circled.
Rook said, “But where is she?”
Avestine’s keen eyes searched the distant trees. Black and brown bodies stood poised like soldiers awaiting orders. The hawks were making a terrible racket, their chilling cries unnerving her as few things did. The only movement was the excited fidgeting, like a spread skin vibrating, but nothing moved in a direction, except for a silhouette at the horizon.
The shape grew larger as it came closer, and she knew she had found Kami. Even with Rook’s assurance, she had not believed Kami was still alive. Even when the flies had left and meat dropped at her feet, she had not risked the hope that Kami was alive and waiting for her, but now everything in Avestine’s body cried out to run to her, until the noise from the birds drove her back.
She clamped her hand around the pommel of her sword but didn’t draw it. She knew Kami could hear what was inside her more loudly than anything that came out of her mouth. Surrounded by fidgeting beasts and noises she thought might mimic Bala’s Hell, Avestine waited.
At twenty paces away, Kami stopped.
Rook had been right. Avestine didn’t recognize her. Her hair was like a bird’s nest. A patchwork of ragged fur covered her entire body. Mud caked her face. Before Avestine could take a step toward her, Rook blocked her way. She pushed at Rook, but he suddenly raced at Kami, who fell forward, screeching.
The wolves began to whine.
Avestine ran at Rook, but Kami found her feet first. As soon as she straightened, hawks fell from the sky like lightning, tearing at Rook’s head with their claws. Avestine shouted for Kami to stop as she swatted her sword at the birds. Wolves pursued the soldiers who had already turned to run. A bear charged Rook.
Avestine felt a burn where sharp teeth tore into her arm. When she cried out, she heard Kami scream, and the wolf dropped its hold on her shoulder. Another wolf sniffed Kami, nuzzling and then licking her.
Avestine looked back at Rook who lay motionless. The bear had left him, too. After a moment of indecision, she ran to him. Cuts and blood covered his chest but nothing looked terribly deep. He was still conscious.
“Run,” he whispered.
Avestine pressed her palm to his chest. “It’s done.” She turned around and saw death in Kami’s flat brown eyes, but she refused to believe she had lost her. She walked to her. “Send these beasts away.”
Kami’s eyes flickered.
“Send them away!” Avestine sheathed her sword.
Kami’s chin rose. “You’re a liar.”
“Of course I’m a liar! What does it matter? I came for you. I came, didn’t I? I risked my life for nothing but the chance that it was you. You’ve killed so many. Don’t you see what you’ve done? See it, Kami!”
Kami’s jaw flexed.
Avestine couldn’t hear Kami’s thoughts, or more accurately, she couldn’t make sense of the noises. “No more running. No more fighting. No more death. You belong to me. Do what I tell you. Send them away.”
The animals began to move off. Avestine was most relieved when the hawks finally dispersed and the skies quieted.
She watched the weight of realization fall upon Kami, the memory of who she was and who she was not. It was a cruel thing, perhaps the cruelest yet, to return Kami’s rational mind to her, since Kami’s bestial army had killed thousands of people. Kami had always been the voice of compassion, prodding Avestine’s conscience, but she had become a hurricane wind with no calm center.
Avestine wasn’t sure which of them bore the greatest burden. The tradition of centuries, the demands of destiny, the weight of duty threatened to crush her, and she didn’t want Kami to be this. She wanted Kami back. The reckless, rebellious girl. Not this monster. “It’s time for you to come home.”
As soon as Avestine mentioned “home,” Kami dropped to her knees and began to sob. She lifted her face to the sky and cried out, “Kill me. Blessed Mother, kill me! I want to die. Kill me.”
Avestine felt her chest tighten. She tried to comfort Kami, but Kami wouldn’t listen. She bent to the ground and hugged herself when Rook shuffled up. He sank to his knees and pushed Kami onto her back. She went without a fight, still sobbing. He pushed aside the bear fur, drawing it away from her arms.
Avestine began to pray silently, but when she saw him rise and back away, his eyes wide with horror, she looked for the cause.
Avestine tried to move, to touch Kami, and it took several tries before her body responded. She struggled against the feeling of contamination, of repulsion. She told herself this was Kami. Needy, passionate Kami. Slowly, she was able to kneel down. Slowly, she touched Kami’s shoulder, but she jerked away when Kami’s wrist threatened to brush against her. Avestine bundled her back in the fur and helped her to her feet. They walked down the hill as soldiers straggled into formation behind them.
Avestine took her to the last place they had camped and let her sleep. Although Rook asked several times for an audience, Avestine refused to speak with him. She remained alone in her tent thinking of the past, thinking of the future. Losing Kami in this way was worse than losing her to death. Avestar had taken her hands. She had sworn her oath to him.
Avestine drank and cursed every Essanti she could remember. She destroyed everything she could find—cups, a map, her chair, and her bed frame. Throughout the fit, her guard occasional peaked in, and when once she noticed, she threatened the man with immolation.
Her brother had the right idea. She should have killed every Essanti she met, even Kami the day she met her at Queenscourt, or even the first day she saw her scurrying around at Fat Rosi’s. How much suffering the world would have been spared.
The ride back to Ureth Mourning over the following days was somber. Kami was weak and said little, but she did whatever Avestine told her to do.
Before they crossed the Wealth, messengers reached them, sent by Gerard. Avjakar’s movements along the border mirrored the Sovereignty’s.
Rook insisted Avestine ride ahead, but she was reluctant. She didn’t want to be around Kami, couldn’t stand the thought of touching her. She couldn’t stand to be away from her, either.
With Rook’s help, she managed to focus on duty and left for Ureth Mourning with her two fastest guards at her side.
Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |