Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Second Realm 2.2: She Stoops to Conquer

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Falling With Style

2: She Stoops to Conquer

The sky darkened as Pevan followed Van Raighan's trail North. The thief had trampled the grass flat in his rush to get away, but down in the fold of the valley his footprints went into one of the reedy, silty pools and didn’t come out. Not for the first time, Pevan cursed Rel’s absence; a single glance with his Clearsight would probably be enough to say which way Van Raighan had gone.

Well, her brother was away, and on a mission important enough that Dora had gone with him, whatever it was. Pevan let out a long sigh. Returning without a clue to the thief’s destination would make her look damned stupid in front of Notia, and the Four Knot was already out for her blood. Not that standing in a swamp getting rained on would be any better. At least the chill the moisture added to the air soothed her throbbing head.

She needed to get some height. Any good drop and she could jump out of a Gateway, getting a good hundred feet of vantage. But the towers of the old city were ten miles away, and even the cliffs in the last valley were piddling little things. She’d lost the thief, and along with him the secret of his strange Witnessing that showed her as his lover.

Gusting wind slapped her across the face with a spray of rain, left her spluttering and blinking up at the sky. The blanket of cloud slid ever closer, its front edge seeming to harden until Pevan got the impression of a quilt being drawn over the world. Inspiration struck, almost hard enough for her to miss the sickly tinge of her own desperation in it.

When the old Gatemaker had trained her, Temmer had never outright admitted she’d made a Gateway in low, thick cloud to get the better of the Ragehound that had been her most famous victory. She’d just winked and told Pevan she’d ‘fallen out of the sky on top of it’. And reminisced at length on the dreary weather.

Did clouds have a flat surface? It was hard to tell from so far below. The grey mass now hanging above Pevan certainly looked flat, and theoretically there was more Wild Power to be had the further North you went. She could make it flat up there, if her brain didn’t burst from the logic fatigue. Even as she thought it, something subconscious and automatic in her mind reached out, kneading and stretching the cloud like dough.

She pressed her consciousness to the task as well, distracting it from wondering how far up the cloud actually was. And whether Van Raighan was really worth the risk. Quicker than she expected, the cloud yielded, giving her a firm mental grasp on a flat surface up there and driving the blunt probe of her headache deeper into the crack between the halves of her brain. She narrowed her eyes, grimacing against the pain, bowing her head and holding it in her hands.

Her cloud-surface hung at the limit of her impaired range, and she could feel the Gate slipping before it spun open at her feet. The opening sucked in enough wind that Pevan almost lost her footing and fell in. The thought that this was a foolish extreme to go to made one last, futile attempt to take over, but she forced it aside and stepped through the Gate.

Her ears popped instantly, painfully. Her stomach lurched as she realised just how high up she was. Cold, thin air pricked her skin to goosepimples even as it ripped the moisture from her eyes. She managed, just, to keep her skirt from blowing up around her, instead tipping herself forwards so she fell parallel to the ground, legs spread to keep the flapping skirt tight and in place. Drag tipped her further forward, so that her fall became a steep glide – the heavy fabric of the skirt proving useful rather than irritating for once.

It would be hard to predict the exact spot where she'd land, but she could tell from the battering force of the wind on her face that she’d already reached close to terminal velocity. Her eyes watered almost as fast as the air dried them, leaving the skin atop her cheekbones raw with tear-salts. By wincing tightly, she could hold her eyes just open enough to see the ground below. There was a lot of it.

The stinging, freezing assault of the air below Pevan made searching the ground for signs of Van Raighan impossible. Instead, she looked out ahead towards a horizon impossibly distant. The East glimmered with sunlight skittering off wave crests on the old North Sea. Between the coast and whatever was beneath her, a hundred miles or more of mottled green-and-brown wilderness spread.

Off to her right, she could see the grey sprawl of old Federas. Her vantage point made even the towers look like a child’s play-blocks; the ruined outskirts lower down the valley were nothing more than a smear, the new town an indistinct blob on the nearer side of the city. To her left, Pevan saw only rolling hills of green, patched with dark cliffs in places, occasionally marred by the indistinct black shape of a tree that still waited for spring.

She saw, she realised, not just almost the whole Northern Wilds but well beyond the bounds of the First Realm itself. The boundary was too distant for her to make out the individual Sherim that were its fence-posts, but she could tell roughly where it was. Peering through the unfathomable twists in space there gave her a sick feeling in her throat.

Pevan knew she fell at over a hundred miles an hour, but distance robbed the fact of any urgency. The horizon raced towards her just as it would in a lower fall, but from so much further away that she could barely see it shrinking. The effect deceived, dangerously; forget the ground she might, but it would not forget her.

She put the thought aside. Placing a Gate so that she hit it was going to be hard enough without the pressure. The wind tugged at her clothing, squirreling in around the collar of her blouse – she regretted leaving her top button undone back in town – and slowly worming her skirt lower over her hips. When she thought of it that way, a shiver of intimacy ran through her, robbed of all pleasure by the cold and the lingering memory of Van Raighan's Witnessing.

Eyes squeezed shut against a wind that only got more violent as she descended, she managed to focus on the scrubby hillside below. Fear and exhilaration numbed the pounding of Pevan’s head as she pushed out her mind toward the grass, taking the simple option of matching her entry point to an exit point only a few yards to its right. Allowing her vision to stay blurry, she spun the Gate in her head, thinking it only as a loose link between two indistinct patches of green hundreds of yards – a handful of seconds - beneath her.

Leaning back against the air, letting her knees drop below her elbows, steadied her fall and slowed her glide. The ground accelerated at her. In her mind’s grip, the half-formed Gateway writhed, eager to leap into the wrong place. Grimly, Pevan fought it back into line. She closed her eyes, close enough to the ground now to feel it through the slight contact it already made with the Gate.

She made her final judgement for where to place the Gate’s mouth with only a second to spare, gasping as the pent-up tension in her brain unwound. The switch in gravity wrapped her like a hug, and if her breath choked off it was only with relief from surviving.

Released from the fear, she rose into the face of spattering rain, her air-speed making the water vicious. Already raw, her cheeks stung, but at least she could hold her eyes open and look around. The valley spread out before her, rain misting it to a fuzzy, indistinct blur in the distance. There were shapes down that way that might be people, but that was true of the boulder-strewn terrain in every direction.

The peak of her jump gave her shivers; from the cold, the adrenaline settling back to normal levels, the usual sense of magic that came from hanging hundreds of feet above ground. Pevan took the time to take stock. Dropping from the cloud had taken a long time, longer than she’d expected. Not as much as a minute, she hoped, but Van Raighan had to have gained ground. Still, the angle of her current jump wasn’t too bad; little of her speed would be wasted going sideways.

She tipped herself over in the air to fall head-down, streamlining herself to get better height on the next jump. Churning numbers in her head, she picked a spot for her next Gate, a few hundred yards down the valley. Each jump would take about ten seconds. She knew roughly how much area she could look over in a jump, roughly how far her quarry could have gone without help. She’d get him, but it might take a while.

Pevan hopped down the valley in four jumps, but the dark shapes she’d seen all turned into rocks or trees. The fingers of fatigue squeezing through the middle of her brain pressed a little harder with each Gate, but she went back up to the head of the valley and in the next fold over spotted moving figures. A group of people, rushing up to meet a lone walker. Van Raighan meeting his allies.

She put aside the question of why he’d run what had to be the better part of a mile to meet them and placed a Gate to bring her out along the ridge, closer to them. Have to assume they’d see her sooner rather than later, but if she kept her distance she’d make a pretty hard target. Pevan knew she should return to the town and fetch reinforcements, but her headache had a low opinion of that idea. Could she snatch Van Raighan from the middle of his gang now?

He stood a little apart from his group, which left her clearance to grab him. Careful timing and doubly careful aim would do it. She’d practised the manoeuvre never expecting to use it, but she knew how at least. There was no sign that Van Raighan and his cronies were going to move on any time soon; Pevan had time to slow down and collect him at a safe speed.

Pages of painstakingly-memorised charts flipped past in her mind. Fall rates, deceleration due to drag, air time. She sorted the numbers methodically, dropped through her next Gate and started counting. Arms held straight out ahead of her, fingers pointed, she flew close to straight as a javelin, a steep arc almost as good as vertical. Four seconds to its peak.

Pevan took a last good look at the thief and his friends as she fell, then rolled over in the air so that she dropped backwards through her next Gateway, rising splayed out with the sky like a house-beam resting on her back. Hair that had remained obediently out of the way through head-first falls whipped around her face, threatening to prick her in the eyes.

She relied on her steady count – two, three – to tell her when to worry about the ground again and concentrated on watching her prey. They showed no signs of having spotted her as she bounced along the horizon, a dark speck against grey sky, but there was no way to make her plan stealthy. Would they see her before she was ready to strike?

Successive jumps in what Pevan thought of as the pancake position robbed her of height and time in the air. By the ninth, she had less than three seconds between Gates. It left her very little time to execute the plan. Her tenth Gate strained her fatigued Gift as she reached for that patch of grass just beneath Van Raighan’s feet, stretching the aperture as wide as she could push it. Catch an ankle or a wrist on the way through, and she could still break it at these speeds.

The Gate opened, time slowing for her as suddenly she found herself accelerating towards Van Raighan’s boots. She had time for a tight cry of warning, snatched away by the battering air, and she was on him, right as his fall reversed. She buried both fists in his jumper, careful to keep her arms slack as the fabric – bless him, it was coarse-knit wool, with lots of give – stretched taut.

His weight yanked against her hard enough to send shocks of pain all the way up her arms, through her shoulders and into her spine. She held on by sheer death-grip reflex as he gasped. The jumper creaked with the strain, beginning to tear. The world spun.

Confused impressions rushed past. The thief’s eyes met hers, wide with shock above a set jaw. She looked away to see the horizon perform a perfect, nauseating spin. Pain exploded in her knee as their bodies snapped together, bringing his shin into it. The circle of mysterious figures, apparently all too stunned to raise a weapon, whirled past beneath them. Van Raighan’s arm wrapped around her, clinging for dear life.

The ground came at them from where the sky should have been.

Just barely, Pevan found enough wit to push open one last Gate. It spat them out just out of sight – she hoped they were just out of sight – over the hill. The angle of the slope gave the planet the last laugh. Soft with fresh rainfall the earth beneath the thick grass might have been, it hit them like a lead brick wrapped in a quilt, side-on, with the ground squashing Van Raighan’s arm into her flank.

As they slithered to a stop, they rolled apart, both gasping. Pevan curled into a ball against the tightness in her chest, her back to the thief. She doubted he’d have the breath to do much to her before she recovered, and he had to be as battered as she was. Her knee stung so badly from where their legs had come together that she worried for a moment the skin had split, but her skirt had bared her knees and there was no blood seeping through the tights beneath.

Her wind returned slowly, dragging with it the tally of aches and pains. Besides the knee, her strained wrists were worst, and she didn’t fancy the prospect of pushing herself to her feet. Her wind- and rain-ravaged cheeks itched a firestorm, and Van Raighan had given her a half-dozen other bruises along her legs and abdomen. In total, it was almost enough to push aside the headache and its warning of imminent burnout.

She let herself flop onto her back, face up to the rain. Her legs demanded a stretch, and she pushed them up the hillside above her, even as the pressure of blood sinking toward her head began to build. Van Raighan, in a similar position a few feet away, burst into hoarse, wild laughter. She tried to frown at him past the pounding ache behind her nose, but she met his eyes and found herself laughing too.

Well, she’d survived doing two crazy things few Gifted ever tried today. Laughter probably was the best way to stave off the panicky, frantic return of her better judgement. At very least, it gave her the animus to roll over awkwardly and regain her feet. Returning to vertical, and to solid ground, added a spinning head to her woes, but it only took one staggered step to steady her.

The brow of the hill was only a few dozen yards above them. If she had kept out of sight of Van Raighan’s gang, it couldn’t be by much. The thief still cackled at her feet. Best to be away from here before he recovered enough of his sanity to struggle or shout for aid.

Pevan felt no obligation to be polite. She spun open a Gate beneath Van Raighan and jumped on him, snapping it shut the moment her back cleared the opening. That left him on top of her, but he wasn’t much of a burden. His heavy jumper, stretched out of shape by her handling, couldn’t disguise the bony hardness of his narrow torso, skeletal testimony to his self-created isolation through the winter.

She shoved at him, but instead of rolling clear, he levered his shoulders and head up, leaving his legs pinning her down. The pose fell just short of threatening, but Pevan felt the uncomfortable thrill of a tremor running through the man atop her. She met his eyes, surprised to find them twinkling with open innocence, a guileless smile beneath them.

"Thank you." He spoke quietly, but with his face so close to hers she could feel the tickle of his breath on her skin.

Hopelessly, she fought a rising blush. "Get off me." Maybe her cheeks were already pink enough from the cold to hide the reaction.

Van Raighan’s eyes widened, just ever so slightly, and he rolled away into an ungainly crouch. As Pevan sat up, he said, "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to- Well, I didn’t... I’m sorry." He looked down, then away along the valley. "We’d better get moving."

Frowning, Pevan followed his gaze, but whatever he saw, she didn’t. She’d barely managed to move them from the crest of the hill into the bottom of the valley, testament to the fatigue pounding spikes into her brain. How far from Federas had she come? It seemed unlikely she’d be able to get Van Raighan back home without marching him there.

His odd choice of wording caught up with her. "What do you mean?"

"Those Noncs won’t be far behind us." He glanced up the hill. "Unless this isn’t the same valley we were just in."

"Noncs?" There hadn’t been a reliable report of actual Noncs – feral survivors of the Realmcrash who’d refused the Gift-Givers’ peace – in Pevan’s lifetime. It was just about conceivable that some tribes survived out in the Northern Wild, but only because Van Raighan had no reason to tell that lie. If he’d said the men he’d been talking to were hunters out from Federas or Petrigra, maybe, but why Noncs?

He sat back onto his ankles and shrugged. "That’s what they looked like to me. I’d rather not go back and ask them."

"They weren’t your..?" Pevan pushed to her feet, watching the ridge above them with a new sense of unease.

"You didn’t get a good look at them, huh?" He drawled. "No, I’m alone out here."

Which brought up the more chilling thought. "Why did the Wilder who got you out abandon you?" The thief wouldn’t be this confident if he didn’t have something up his sleeve, would he?

"You won’t believe this, but it was so I could get some time alone with you." Again, he glanced at the floor, lifting a hand to push damp hair away from his face, then looked away up the hill.

Pevan tried to ignore the chill that shot down her spine. "Well, that doesn’t sound creepy at all. What the hell’s going on, Van Raighan?"

"I’d really appreciate it if-" A high yell, unmistakably aggressive, cut him off. The Noncs had reached the crest of the hill and were running down towards them. Van Raighan met Pevan’s eyes, his face turning hard. "Later. Let’s get out of here."

Against a headache that felt like someone had walled off the front of her brain, Pevan focussed. It was all she could do to get a Gate open from their feet to the next brow. Van Raighan dived through with a speed and precision that spoke of arduous practice, and she followed, pursued by the angry calls of the Noncs.

Up on the ridge, the wind and rain regained their teeth, counterpoint to the fevered edge that her fatigue had put on. In the valley, the Noncs poured forward, untroubled by the uneven slope. Pevan said, "I hope you’re a good runner."

"That bad?"

Pevan glanced down across the dell ahead. Steeper-sided, with thick brush in the bottom hiding a river, it would be hell to cross, but the far ridge was beyond her range. She pointed. "The best I can do is get us past the river. After that, I can’t be sure I’ll have another Gate."

The thief cursed. Behind them, the Noncs started on the long climb out of the valley. He said, "Do what you can."

Finding a flat enough surface on the far slope to open a Gateway on was harder than it had any right to be. Pevan felt her eyes glazing, dizziness and the floaty sense that her feet weren’t pressed to the grass the latest warnings of impending burn-out. With the Noncs on their tail, her Gates were the only chance they had. The savages came on with frightening swiftness.

When it opened, the Gate fought her control like a snake, like a storm. Like a storm of snakes. She resisted the urge to shake her head. That kind of thinking could only come when her logic stood on the brink of breaking down, but shaking her head would make things worse, not better. Van Raighan was already through the Gate, waving at her from half-way up the far side of the valley.

Traitor to his kind or not, he knew his stuff as a Gifted. She dropped through the Gate, fatigue leaving her graceless and clumsy, and the thief caught her arm. Carefully but firmly, he got her clear of the opening. She let the Gateway go, suddenly discovering how much pain it had brought. Her brain felt numb. The world reeled in a mean attempt to throw her off, but she staggered a step closer to Van Raighan and he held her steady.

As one, they turned to the wall of whortleberry and heather ahead of them. Van Raighan said nothing, but neither did he run off ahead of her. Pevan leaned forward and let her weight carry her into a weaving scramble up-slope, her hands finding prickly purchase on the low bushes when she stumbled. The thief matched her pace with no more than the occasional grunt.

Pevan only looked up once, the distance still to climb crushing with no guarantee of safety at the top, not to mention the wind and rain in her eyes, the swirling aches inside her skull. At least with her eyes on the ground in front of her she could watch where she was stumbling. They were still well short of the ridge when the cries of the Noncs found them.

Pevan felt herself sag sideways until she lay on the rough scrub, looking back. Van Raighan turned to follow her gaze. Two dark-clad figures stood on the brim of the far slope, one calling back to his comrades. Muted by the weather and distance, the shouts sounded like a yapping dog. When Pevan could hear them through the rasp of her breath and the roaring in her ears, anyway.

As she watched, the pair burst into a run again and plunged down the steep hillside. The rest followed, straggling over the crest without a break in stride. The descent fascinated for its horror; the Noncs ran as if the ground were flat, but the falls and tumbles left Pevan wincing in sympathy. One of the men flipped clean over, came down head-first into a dimple in the slope, bounced once and failed to rise, but the rest came on without him.

Pevan met Van Raighan’s eyes, read the desperation in his face. Already stiff from rescuing him the first time, her arms screamed complaint as she levered herself up and attacked the hill again. Maybe she had enough for one more Gate, but where to? There was no way any of the spots she had memorised for long-distance jumps were in range.

If the next valley didn’t offer them some cover, the Noncs would have them. Pevan distracted herself with grim amusement that her best hope was for Van Raighan’s Wilder to come back for him. The Noncs might just want to rob them. Breath sawed in her throat and lungs. Van Raighan had gained a few feet on her, but slipped and cursed.

When he rose again and pushed on, she could see he was favouring his left ankle. A glance back down the hill showed the pursuit fighting through the thicker undergrowth lining the river. At least that seemed to slow them a bit.

She stumbled again, reached out a hand to steady herself against the heather, and found herself falling away after it. Even as spring-stiffened new growth scratched at her face, she scrabbled forward. A twinge in her wrist warned of yet more damage, and she faltered as she reached for a handhold to pull herself up.

Hands seized her shoulders, pulling her blouse tight under her arms. Ice shot through her veins before she reached the thought that the Noncs couldn’t possibly have climbed so fast. Van Raighan pulled her upright, helped her into clumsy forward motion, too awkward even to be called a stumble.

The ground dropped further away than she’d expected. Each step came easier, and then easier yet. Pevan got her head up, let her brain catch up with the idea that they’d reached the crest. With a start, she recognised the terrain; the broad northern arm of the Cloverleaf Valley swept away to the right. Ahead, water sang from the rain-swelled cascade where the valley’s three ‘leaves’ met, and below that the river coursed westward into rich, dark woodland.

She pointed, leaned into Van Raighan to turn them in that direction. He resisted for a moment, looked up and yielded. The safe cover of the wood lay a long, hard dash away yet, but all she had to do was get in range for that final Gate. If they could get out of sight long enough for the Noncs to lose interest, they’d be safe. She knew the wood down there. The seven remaining hunters couldn’t search the whole thing.

High and shallow, the Cloverleaf valley offered them no shelter from the wind, which gusted at them from every direction, now urging them onward, now fighting them back. The rain had thinned, softened until its only effect was to further chill soaking clothes. Pevan drank the air, slapped wet hair from her cheek and discovered it was Van Raighan’s, not her own. She could feel a sneeze coming on.

The thief lost his footing and staggered a few steps, dragging her down. She flung her own arm around his back, somehow found strength to rally. The Noncs’ calls had faded, snatched away by the wind or swallowed by the hill, but she had no difficulty feeling harried. Through all the other pains and discomforts, the pounding of her head remained an unrelenting constant.

Van Raighan stumbled again, his leg catching against hers. Pevan pushed him away, gave him room to right himself. They were getting in each other’s way too much. His limp had grown more pronounced, her run was barely worthy of the name. She couldn’t support him, he couldn’t support her, and they were only slowing each other down.

It was only as Van Raighan grabbed her again, shouting something she couldn’t understand, that she realised the additional burst of speed she’d gained from letting him go had been the better part of a head-long fall. His words washed over, communicating nothing except the half-angry, half-terrified tone of his voice. Well, she knew how he felt about the situation.

Pevan looked up, trying to judge the distance to the forest through the wool fog in the front of her brain. She didn’t dare reach out to form the Gateway until she was sure of the range. Get it wrong, she’d burn out and be unconscious when the Noncs caught up with them. Better not to think about what they wanted.

As if to deny her that option, the valley rang to yet another high-pitched cry. Van Raighan’s grip on her shoulder prevented her turning to get a look at the ridge. Her attempt caused another stumble. The thief had his hand wrapped around the leather strap of her harness. Well, it was there for other Gifted to hang onto when she was hauling them around. She couldn’t help if it also made an effective restraint.

The single high call of the leading Nonc gave way to a chorus of echoes. Again, Pevan got the impression of the eager yelps of a pack of hunting dogs. How far to cover? It took her a moment to identify the line where silver-green grass transformed into the richer hues of tree canopies. The fold of the hillside hid the treacherous descent past the cascade, but she could Gate them past that. If she had the range.

It looked close enough, just. Pevan forced herself into a deliberate effort to relax. The Noncs weren’t right on their heels just yet. She couldn’t manage a deep breath, her ribcage felt like steel clamps around her chest, but she closed her eyes and counted an extra ten paces, trusting Van Raighan’s guidance. No time to stop and ponder the incongruity of that idea.

They had to be close enough now. She didn’t have the energy left for any of her special tricks. Just enough to find a faintly-remembered flat patch nestled between tree-roots up ahead. The Gate drilled through her skull like a pickaxe, but, blessedly, spun open in the grass a few paces ahead. Van Raighan’s grip tightened as he saw it.

Pevan found her sight failing her. Fire burned where her eyes should have been. Before her, the world was a flat plane of green, a swelling brown patch leaping up to swallow her. Everything seemed to whirl, drawing a choke of nausea out of her. Tactile sensation proved more faithful; Van Raighan gathering her into his arms, pressing her face to his chest. They were off the ground, somehow, and her training reasserted itself, wrapping her arms around him.

The Gate hit like a waterfall to the face, followed by a shower of stings as they plowed into some stiff-branched plant. It caught them, not unkindly, then let them slide to the floor. Pevan barely felt the twinge of released tension as she let the Gateway close, but the all-subsuming ache in her head stopped just short of logic burnout.

She rolled away from the thief, resisting the urge to bury her face in the soft mulch to shelter from the light. It would have to be enough to cover her stinging eyes with her hands.

"Pevan?" Van Raighan held his voice feather-soft, but there was rough camaraderie in the arm he laid across her shoulders instead of tenderness. Even with her brain non-functional, she was glad of that. He said something cheery that she couldn’t make out. Were her ears buzzing?

"Wheh?" Her teeth ached as speaking pushed air across them.

He gave her shoulder a little shake, almost gentle enough not to bounce her brain around. She managed not to retch. When he spoke, it was slowly, every word clipped clear. "How bad is it?"

"Bad. Not burn-out." The words felt as squishy as the dirt under her hands. A shiver ran through her and didn’t stop. With the panic over, she had time to notice she was soaked to the skin. The woodland broke the wind, but not enough to preserve her flagging body heat.

She didn’t protest as the thief pulled her closer to him. Voice still soft with concern, he said "Can you stand? We could do with getting a bit more cover, in case they don’t give up."

"-think so." If she kept to a mutter, speaking was almost tolerable.

Van Raighan helped her sit back onto her ankles, waking a whole new brood of aches in her exhausted legs. Somehow, the familiarity of the pain helped, pulled her a little way back into focus. The muddy, indistinct sound cluttering up her ears resolved into the rustle of the leaves above them, cut by the occasional distant shout of the Noncs.

Before her tired brain could waste itself wittering over taking things slowly, she threw herself upward. With a sensitivity – and reflexes – that surprised her, Van Raighan matched her motion. Just as well, since her legs melted half-way up. She sagged against the little man, yet again glad of the strength in his deceptively narrow arms. His wet clothing left his embrace without much warmth to offer, but there was a spiritual warmth in not being alone in such desperate conditions.

She couldn’t reconcile the man beside her with the nightmare Federas had lived through the winter. You won’t believe this, but it was so I could get some time alone with you, he’d said. Even if circumstances hadn’t thrown them together, the thief had earned that much. He’d probably earned release from her thinking of him as ‘the thief’, too.

Good. Her brain was clearing up. It still took a moment to remember how to say his name. "Van Raighan-"

"Call me Chag." His voice stayed soft, but his face put an edge on the words. "Please."

Pevan couldn’t tell if the desperation she saw in his eyes was his, or just something she projected onto him. "Sorry. Chag."

He smiled. "Don’t worry about it. Let’s find a better spot."

She tried to carry her own weight, she really did, but the forest floor was against her. Dimly, she realised that if Rel or Dora saw her cuddling up this close to Van Raighan – Chag – they’d be outraged. She indulged in a silent curse for their judgement. Chag’s guidance proved more than adequate, and her head steadily cleared as they headed deeper into the wood.

With him concentrating on where they were going, Pevan had the opportunity to study Chag in a way she hadn’t even when watching him in his cell back in town. Close contact showed him barely taller than her, and she’d have bet she weighed more. She’d thought his face rattish, feral, but up close it was just narrow and a little gaunt, overwritten with a thousand little strains.

As he lowered her to the ground, back to a tree-trunk, cosseted in the nook between two finger-like roots, she pondered those strains. It was supposed to be only the Second Realm that human beings couldn’t understand, but as Chag squatted down, facing her, she allowed herself a wry smile; he certainly competed with the Children of the Wild for incomprehensibility.

He met her smile with one of his own. "You look a bit better."

Pevan screwed her eyes shut, rubbed them, and opened them again. "I just need to rest." She folded her arms, shivering again. "Looks like you’ve got your time alone with me."

"I could wish it came at less expense to you." He stirred a hand through the leaf litter. "How long do I have?"

She shrugged, the gnarled old tree scratching her through her blouse. "I need to sleep, really. I should be able to get us back to town with a couple of hours’ downtime."

"Town? No, I mean-" For a moment, alarm hastened his speech to the point his southern accent vanished. He caught himself and resumed at a more even pace, smiling wryly. "This is what it comes down to, doesn’t it. If I asked you to come with me for a little while before returning to Federas, would you at least hear me out?"

Pevan bit back the urge to snap at him. The request was carefully-phrased, she couldn’t argue with that. He hadn’t asked for his freedom, but he’d definitely left the question open. "And after that, you’ll come quietly back to Federas?" She was too tired to keep the scepticism from her voice.

"If I can’t persuade you to reconsider," he said affably.

She felt her face turn hard. An uncomfortable twitch of self-reflection identified the emotion surging through her as disappointment. He just wanted a chance to rationalise. Had she wanted him to produce a good explanation? "You really think you can talk me out of it?"

Chag blinked at her, then winced. "Sorry, I’m not explaining this well. I..." He picked up a twig, spun it between his fingers, snapped it. Then he took a deep breath and met her eyes again. "I want to show you something. Things. Introduce you to some people. Explain where that Witnessing came from, and the one I showed your brother-"

"Rel? What did you show him?" Her anger lasted only as long as her feeble attempt to sit forward, but it warmed her a little.

Maddeningly, Chag smiled. "You were there. In the Warding Hall, when you caught me, remember?"

"I remember." Something in that Witnessing of Van Raighan’s brother had sent Rel haring off across half the length of the First Realm. "That wasn’t a real Witnessing either, then?"

He took the barb hard, rocking back on his heels before he spoke. "It’s not exactly unreal." He bit his lip, looked away. "It’s hard to..."

"I’ve never kissed you!" She blurted the words without thinking, and they left ringing silence in their wake.

Chag looked down, then away through the forest. Pevan almost wished one of the Noncs would stumble on them. Instead, the thief turned back to her, cruelty in his bitter smile. "Well, I live in hope."

The words sickened her. She gaped at him, fully conscious of the line they’d just crossed.

The pain and shame in his eyes came between her and any further speech. He said, "Sorry, bad joke." His voice faltered, robbing his smile of any mirth. "You need to sleep. If I’m still here when you wake up, will you take it as proof of my good intentions?"

"I’m not sure I should sleep anywhere near you."

"What other choice do you have?" Only the hard edge on his voice told Pevan she’d hurt him. "You’re a long way from home. Unless you fancy walking, what, ten miles? In the dark and the rain."

That wasn’t fair. They had hours of daylight left, and the rain was lighter here than it had been when they first saw the Noncs. One by one, her body’s aches gave voice, warning just how long that ten-mile walk might take.

In the end, the decision was as simple as that. No other options. She had nothing to say to Van Raighan, either. She shifted against the tree-roots until she could rest her cheek on one. It had all the comfort and warmth of, well, damp muddy wood, but it prevented her looking at the thief. The fact that trusting him was her only choice was going to make sleeping difficult.

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