Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Second Realm 5.4: Back in the Wild

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A Light in Her Violet Eyes

4. Back in the Wild

Pevan closed her eyes and let Chag kiss her again. His lips were cold, soft and tentative. The tree against which she lay dug bony knuckles into her back, and Chag, lying half on top of her, was no better. Her blouse had hooked on some twig or branch and pulled tight enough to pinch at her shoulder. It was still the best she'd felt in a long time.

She was surprised at how much she enjoyed Chag's tenderness. Since they'd met a month earlier, she'd felt his hunger for her in his gaze, the way he stood when near her, often in the way he spoke. Now that she'd given herself to him, though, he was hesitant, slow, either incredibly patient or incredibly nervous. He touched her as if she were a snowflake, to melt at the first sign of heat.

It was too cold a night for that. She put a hand up to stroke his forehead, then ran it around to tangle in his lanky hair. Held him to her when he started to pull away. He tried to mumble something, shifted slightly against her, but didn't resist.

Eventually, she did let him pull back a little way, holding him close with her other arm tight around his back. There was just enough firelight to reveal the shape of his face, but his dark eyes held no spark. He was barely breathing.

"Why so nervous?" She teased, keeping her voice low. Rel and Atla were sleeping off their fatigue on the far side of the fire and waking them would be cruel.

"Does it... I..." A shiver ran through him and he tried to pull further away, but she held on. He glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to face her. "It's not... bad for you?"

She raised an eyebrow. "We might need to work on your technique a bit. You kiss like you've never kissed a girl before."

"I... uh," He went tense. Had she said the wrong thing? It wasn't like he wasn't used to her badgering. From the way his voice sunk even lower, though, she'd touched a nerve. "I might... I kinda haven't."

"What?" She couldn't help a gasp of laughter. "But you're, what, twenty?"

"Twenty-one." He mumbled the words so low that the crackle of the fire almost stole them. "Twenty-two in a couple of months."

She put her free hand to his cheek, trying to offer him some warmth. "Really? You've never..." And at four years - almost four and a half, really - older than her, too. How long had it been since her first kiss? Back before she'd been Gifted, after Rel had gone away to train with Ciarive and she'd started hanging out with the boys in Federas because the girls didn't want to play at fighting Wildren. Of course, the boys hadn't much wanted to play lets-pretend games either, by that point, but they'd turned out to have plenty of other interesting ideas. The better part of two years ago.

He tried to shift again, and this time she let him roll off her and sit up, facing the fire. He said, "No-one seemed to be interested in me."

"Well, I think most women are a little afraid of being with a Gifted." It was lame blandishment, and it had never really made Rel any happier when she'd said it to him either. Still, there was an edge to Chag's voice that demanded some sort of answer.

"They liked Rissad well enough." There was enough bitterness in his voice that she half-expected the words to drip from his mouth. They'd put some distance between themselves and the Sherim, but there were still occasional hints of Wild Power now and then.

Chag's pose made a lot more sense with that revelation, though. She tried to sound bright. "Really? I sort of assumed he wouldn't be interested. He sounds so focussed." Like Rel on his good days. Chag's brother had earned more of Rel's respect than any Gifted except Dora, and Rel wasn't prone to admiring frivolity.

"He is." Chag looked back at her for a moment, face hidden by shadow, then turned to the fire again. "But girls throw themselves at him all the time. He used to joke that it was easier to give them what they wanted than drive them away. And he doesn't half play up the hero act sometimes."

She leaned forward, laid a hand on his back, between his hunched shoulders. "Forget about him, then. He'll never find happiness like that."

"He seems pretty happy."

"Oh, for God's sake." She wrapped a hand in his collar and started to pull him back to her, ignoring his startled cluck. "Get over here and be happy with me, alright? Whatever he's up to, you have want you wanted, don't you?"

It was probably for the best that she couldn't see his face as he leaned in for another kiss. At least he held her a bit more tightly this time. And when he pulled away, it was only to gaze into her eyes. She whispered, "Happy?"

"Maybe." The tone of his voice stopped her short of rolling her eyes. He finished, "I'd be happier if we were going home. Or at least, if we could go home."

An image of the Court with one of its towers toppled rose, unbidden, to Pevan's mind. Whatever it was she'd done to get Chag out of the Gift-Givers' prison, it had shaken the Second Realm to its foundations. And the site of Chag's most notorious First Realm crime was less than ten miles away, too. Small wonder he felt so hopeless.

She stroked a lock of his hair back behind his ear. "We'll find a way to earn forgiveness." Her voice didn't sound convincing even in her own ears.

"You're really, uh," Chag shifted slightly, as if trying to make some gesture with a hand trapped under her. "This... with me? Like, for real?"

Pevan rolled her eyes, resisting the urge to snip at him. Well, he was new at this. He'd earned a chance to learn. As firmly as she could, she said, "Yes," and lifted her face to his again. Their lips brushed, and she held herself there, just sharing his air. He rested his forehead on hers, and for once it didn't matter that he touched her as if she were fragile and weak.

She lay back, slowly, let him rest himself on top of her. It was a moment worth savouring. Bony the little man might be, he was still warm, and in more ways than the purely physical. He laid his head on her shoulder, his ear to her collarbone, and a curl of his hair somehow climbed inside the collar of her blouse. It tingled through her long, slow breath.

Not that she planned on giving Chag an easy ride. She couldn't keep a sideways smile off her face as she said, "You know, eventually you're going to have to stop doubting me when I tell you I'm with you."

He stiffened, just slightly. Then, still halting, still awkward, "I- it just seems too good to be true. After yesterday and all."

"We weren't thinking clearly yesterday, either of us." The way he lay was pinning her upper arm, but he weighed so little that when she shifted her shoulder, he was just dragged into a more comfy position. He lifted his head to peer at her, but she patted him back down. "You've done much better since."

"You're still worried?" His voice rose a little in surprise. Had he really put the day's events out of his mind? No; when he spoke again, his voice was stiffer, darker. "We might not have been thinking too clearly today either."

No point letting him dwell on things that couldn't be un-done. Pevan let herself laugh. "No, today we were rash. Important difference. But yeah, whatever we did to the Court..."

She tightened her arm across Chag's back just as Rel shifted noisily on the far side of the fire. Chag stiffened and started to pull away while Rel made a show of coughing a couple of times. Pevan tightened her grip on Chag, stopping his escape. Damned if she was letting her brother scare her man off. Rel sat up, and she glared at him, having to squint to make him out past the firelight.

Letting the words drip from her mouth like honey, she said, "Sorry, Rel, did we wake you?"

He shook his head. "I was waking up anyway, I think." Then his eyes met hers with a frown. "So is this... Are you serious about him?"

It was a good job she was still holding on to Chag, otherwise she'd have had to go over there and slap Rel. His 'waking up' had been far clumsier than he normally was. "How long were you listening?"

"Since we escaped the white cave." His tone matched hers, because Rel never let the opportunity to pass judgement go by. "Two days ago you didn't know how you felt."

Chag started to shift, but Pevan tightened her grip around his waist, put her hand up to silence his mouth. He'd only say something stupid and put Rel's back up. The best bet was to keep anger to a minimum; after all, there was still the possibility of scouts from Ilbertin finding them. Keeping her voice mild, Pevan answered Rel's challenge. "He's earned his chance."

The firelight carved strange shadows out of Rel's cheeks, hid whether his expression was glaring and stern or just perplexed. She softened her voice and asked, "Rel, did you see the Court at all after we rescued you?"

"No, why?" His tone told her he suspected something serious, though.

Chag shifted against her again, and she gave in, letting him sit up properly. She pushed herself up to follow, awkwardly pulling her skirt straight. How to put it? It was hard not to sound sheepish as she said, "I think I might have made us all outlaws."

"What? What did you do?" She felt more than saw Rel tense. He made no sound, but even Chag seemed to sense it, hunching forward, just a little closer to the fire.

Did Rel think she was still a Separatist? Pevan swallowed. "To get us out... to get Chag out of his cell..." She raised her eyebrow, trying to sound sardonic. "I think I've discovered why it's frowned on to make Gateways in the Second Realm."

"And the results were visible from the white cave?" From the tight, hoarse edge on Rel's voice, her attempt at levity had failed.

She glanced at Chag, reached over to clasp his shoulder. They'd been over some of his Witnessings from the day's action, and he'd definitely spotted something amiss. Precisely what, they hadn't decided. His voice subdued, Chag turned to Rel and said, "It looked like one of the spires had fallen. Here."

Rel actually flinched as Chag lifted his hand and brought the bubble of his Witnessing into being. It was a simple image; a broad expanse of green leading up to a sharp, flat horizon beneath a smudgy, blue-grey sky. The view they'd had just after escaping the white cave. The Court hung in the horizon, but while six black spikes drove down from it into the green, only five reached up into the blue; the sixth top lay along the line of the horizon, almost lost in the contrast.

After a moment, Rel came up on his haunches, then scrambled around to kneel next to her, peering across her at the bubble. To Chag, he said, "Hold it. Let me take a Clear look."

"You know, when you did that in Federas it was one of the most unpleasant things I've ever-" Chag finished in a throaty noise as the bubble vanished, leaving Rel staring fixedly at the floating image. Pevan glanced from her brother to the little man, amused to note how similar their expressions had become. They both looked like men with cats clawing their crotches, bug-eyed and breathing shallowly.

At least Rel had the excuse of Clearseeing, which always made him look a bit uncomfortable. Pevan stroked Chag's back, trying to calm him down. He melted against her, gratefully, and she nuzzled his hair for a moment before returning her attention to Rel.

He blinked away Clearsight and turned to her with a long, heavy sigh. "Doesn't look good. Atla say anything about it?"

"Hasn't stirred yet. Whatever he did to get us out of there..." She craned her neck to look over the fire at the sleeping trainee. He wouldn't be a trainee much longer if she had any say in the matter. Big 'if'.

"Yeah." Rel twisted his legs out from under himself, sat half-facing her. To the fire, he said, "As if we didn't have enough on our collective consciences as it is."

"We'll just have to prove we were doing the right thing." She couldn't keep her voice from wavering as she finished, and she could tell the boys felt her uncertainty.

Chag swallowed. "Can we? Really?"

She poked his cheek. "We've been over this. You need to stop moping."

"But what can we do?" He caught her hand, but released it when she pulled back. She didn't want Rel to think she was giving him the shoulder.

"We rescue Taslin. Stop the Separatists. Show what they were up to." This time, she did hold her voice steady. It was easier when talking about concrete goals, things she could actually hope to achieve.

"That's a lot to ask." Rel's tone was heavy, but at least he didn't sound quite so broken. She could almost hear the wheels turning in his head as he started evaluating plans. "I'd better take a look at the future."

"Are you okay for fatigue?" She'd learnt to always check. He'd had a couple of extra nights in the Second Realm, and no proper break after fighting Keshnu at the Abyss.

He blinked at her, rubbed a hand across his forehead. "Yeah, I'm fine. I was pretty raw last night, but so were we all."

"It's still last night."

"I slept for a good few hours." He shrugged. "I'll keep it careful, I promise. You should get some sleep yourself."

She yawned, and that seemed to set Chag off too. She shouldn't have let him stay up with her, but they had needed to talk.

Chag gave the broad, incoherent moan of someone trying to speak through a yawn, closed his jaw and tried again. "You don't need someone to keep watch while you..?"

"I've got my ears." Rel glanced at her, a sting in his eyes. "You two need your sleep. And I mean sleep, too, not snuggling."

Heat rose in her cheeks, but she caught herself halfway through drawing breath to get angry. Instead, she rolled her eyes at him and pushed to her feet, dragging Chag with her by a fist wrapped in his shirt. Rel could just get used to the idea of her wanting the little man.

She found them a spot to lie down, close together, around the fire from Rel. Without even a cloak or blanket to make a pillow, they had to lie on their backs, and curling up together would be a recipe for all sorts of aches and pains in the morning. With her eyes closed, though, she found Chag's hand and rested hers lightly in it.

He whispered, "Will Rel ever accept me?"

However good Rel thought his ears were, there was no indication that he'd heard, so Pevan turned her head to peer at Chag in the gloom. Her own whisper felt lighter than breathing. "Prove yourself as a Gifted. Show you were in it for mankind and the First Realm, not just me. That might do it."

"I'm not much of a Gifted."

"Go to sleep, you hopeless boy." She squeezed his hand to take some of the sting from the words. Only some of it, mind.

"I love you."

"Good night."

She awoke to daylight and the sound of Rel's slowly-rising voice. He was saying... something about the Court?

That brought her bolt upright, noisily enough that Rel flinched. Chag, too. The little man waking up ahead of her was a rare occurrence. Atla hunched beyond them, stroking a finger through the damp grass. Pevan wiped dew off her face and hunched closer to the fire. In sunlight, it was a sorry sight, but there was a tiny bit of warmth to be had.

When she tried to speak, her mouth was too dry and claggy to shape specific sounds. She coughed a couple of times, then looked up to find Rel offering her a canteen. She took it gratefully, tipped it to her mouth and was delighted to discover the contents stream-fresh. Another long slug of it cleared her head and throat. "What did I miss?" She looked up, trying to measure the time by the sun, but the surrounding trees obscured too much of the horizon. Directly above, the sky seemed only a few shades short of full blue.

"We were talking about the Court." Chag spoke, apparently not noticing Rel's grimace. Why didn't Rel want her to be party to the conversation? Probably he thought she couldn't handle the truth.

Spitting her brother with a glare that only seemed to puzzle him, she said, "Go on, hit me with the worst of it."

Rel looked to Chag, who swallowed and turned to Atla. The Guide, to his credit, only glanced at the other men before meeting her eyes. "I... uh... When I was looking for a Route... well, it looked like the Court was being attacked."

"Attacked?" Pevan felt her body go stiff. If Atla had sensed it all the way from the white cave, it had to have been bad. But that meant probably not her fault. If the Court had been collapsing, maybe, but could anything she'd done have provoked an attack on the Court? Maybe the Separatists had chosen that moment to challenge the Gift-Givers outright, but that didn't fit with anything she knew of their plans.

"Maybe that's not the best word... uh... I could tell the spire was down, the one that Chag saw. But it, well, it looked like a lot of Wildren were either pushing to get in or trying to get out. A lot of Wildren." It was Atla's turn to swallow. His gaze dropped to his hand, still picking at the grass.

"Define 'a lot'." She pushed down a tight feeling just under her heart. "Could you count them? Are we talking dozens? Hundreds?"

Atla looked up, but his eyes jittered away from hers, darted to Chag and then to Rel. Rel frowned. To Atla, he said, "You said it was like a mountain of them."

"Higher than the walls of the Court." The Guide's voice was almost a whisper, dull and lifeless. Then his training seemed to come back to him, his face pulling back to some sort of focus. "It's not easy to describe... I mean, I've never seen so many Wildren so active in one place at once before. The ones around the white cave were... there were more of them, but, uh, they didn't seem... they seemed stunned, maybe?"

What did she make of that? In all likelihood, there was no way of knowing what it meant. Children of the Wild were inscrutable at the best of times. In the midst of a Realm-shaking crisis like this one, their behaviour could mean anything. The only thing they could probably rely on was that help wouldn't be forthcoming from the Gift-Givers. Quilo had made that clear even before they'd fled the Court.

She started to speak, to tell the boys to let the matter drop, but Chag got in first, his tone croaky and uneven. "Where does that leave us?"

"On our own." Rel seemed grimly satisfied, his mouth closing to a flat line, his eyes narrowed.

Pevan leaned forward. "We knew Quilo wasn't going to help us rescue Taslin anyway. Rel, did you See anything useful?"

"I found Taslin." His face tightened. "Well, I found a Warding Hall - I'm pretty sure it's Ilbertin's - with a special hook by the dais and the Stable Rods spinning like whirlpools. If it's not Taslin, it's some other high-powered Wilder human-shaped enough to be cuffed."

"How sure are you that it's Ilbertin?" She tried to keep her voice neutral. It was a step in the right direction that Rel admitted the possibility of having misjudged, but if she knew him at all, he'd be understating the risk.

He frowned. "I managed to track the path from there to Af, it looked like it was in about the right place. Have you been to Ilbertin?"

"Yeah." Once, with Temmer, in training. One of hundreds of small, northern towns. "I can't remember much about the place, though. Not to recognise it, anyway."

"Hmm." Rel's lips twitched, until he caught the lower between his teeth. "Everything we know suggests Ilbertin. The Separatists were going to be coming here anyway to recruit Soan."

That was an assumption, but Soan, as the best Clearseer in the First Realm after Rel, was probably their next target. Pevan nodded, looked quickly around the circle. "At very least, it's probably the best place to start looking. Do we assume the whole town's against us?"

"I didn't see any evidence that the Gifted were keeping Taslin a secret." Rel paused. "And I couldn't find any sign of Soan at all. If the Separatists have recruited him, they've hurried him off somewhere."

"That's a good thing, right?" Chag's voice wavered. "I mean, all the other Gifted at Ilbertin are new after..." He left the disaster unspoken, but a chill went down Pevan's spine all the same. From the way Atla shifted on his haunches, even he felt it. A Ragehound had blindsided the town while Soan was away at the height of the previous summer. The town's entire squad of Gifted had given their lives to keep the Wilder away, and even then four civilians had died.

Rel was the first one to put the memory aside, though his face stayed hard as he spoke. "The squad there now might be new, but they were the best available. Soan's never been an easy one with praise, but he's said some very positive things about Horvin."

"Still sore, huh?" Pevan knew she shouldn't needle, but they needed to get their minds off the various disasters and focussed back on solutions. That meant not letting Rel brood over the fact that he'd been banned from training new Clearseers until the situation with his own training was worked out.

For the first time ever, though, he didn't get angry. "We can worry about that another time. For now, we need to work out what to do. What do we know about the rest of the squad?"

"They don't have a Witness," Chag cut in while Pevan was still trying to dredge up the identity of Ilbertin's Gatemaker. The little man's voice and face fell, though, as he finished, "I guess that doesn't help us much."

"One less body in the way." Rel's tone could have cut mountains. Atla's head snapped up to stare at him, face slack with shock. Pevan caught the boy's eye and shook her head. Rel wasn't suggesting they kill their way to Taslin. He was just clumsily trying to reassure Chag. That, too, was a step in the right direction, in its own way.

Best to move on quickly. Pevan said, "Chaiya came to Federas to study with Temmer for a week or two, I think, early in her training. Very tall, willowy." She glanced at Rel. "I think you were still away..."

"I don't remember her." He almost hid the frown that crossed his face. At least he'd learned some remorse over the end of his training. He went on, "What did Temmer make of her?"

"Not as powerful as Valren had suggested, I think." Pevan held her tone steady, trying not to let Dora's judgement cloud her own. Chaiya had rubbed the Four Knot the wrong way from the start. "Decent range, but a little bit sluggish from Gate to Gate. She's probably better now than she was back then."

Rel nodded, a single sharp jerk of his neck, then turned to Atla. "Their Guide?"

"I, uh..." Atla swallowed, looked up at the group and then down again. "I can't remember. Uh, I'm sorry. I guess I'm not much use again."

"You were plenty useful yesterday, kiddo." Pevan spoke before Rel could get angry. Atla looked up, face half-desolate, half-hopeful. She smiled at him as best she could. "When we get you back to Vessit, I'm going to recommend to Bersh that your practical training is complete."

His eyes lit up. "Really? But I-"

"Just make sure you learn the rest." She kept her voice light, wanting the rebuke to stick with him without stinging. Then she turned her attention back to Rel. "Do we have any idea about the Four Knot or Warder?"

He shook his head. "If it comes to a fight, they aren't likely to be much more of a threat than civvies."

Chag and Atla both started to speak, outraged, at the same time as Pevan, but she overrode them. "Who said anything about fighting them?"

"I said 'if', didn't I?" Rel had the grace to sound a little apologetic, but the hint of a wheedle in his tone was at least as much petulant. "If we can't sneak in, or we get caught trying, then we have to assume they'll try to stop us by force."

"Wait, wait." Chag seemed to be struggling to breathe, his voice thin and harsh. "We're not going to talk to them first?"

"They've captured a Gift-Giver and illegally imprisoned her." There was a fire in Rel's eyes that had every appearance of real anger. Had he really become so attached to Taslin? "I don't think they'll be talked back from that. Not the whole town, certainly. And even if they could be, I don't think they'd listen to us."

Chag's face pinched into a tight frown. "Who better? We're the only humans who know the truth about the Separatists."

"Yes, but you're Chag Van Raighan," Rel snapped. "And I doubt I'm terribly popular after Vessit. The Separatists are sure to have mentioned that. Maybe even blamed Pevan for whatever happened to the Court yesterday. I don't think we've much hope of restoring our reputations until we've rescued Taslin, anyway."

He finished by turning to her for support, while both Atla and Chag stared at him in slack-faced horror. She didn't feel much better herself. She couldn't exactly shirk blame for what had happened to the Court, but what if the Separatists did start telling everyone? It took her a couple of attempts to clear her throat enough to speak. "Let's not be too dramatic. We should at least try to do this in a way that won't get us into more trouble."

"Such as?" Rel glared at her.

She rolled her eyes. "I have to do all the planning now, do I? The townspeople are operating in open breach of the treaty. All we have to do is approach it so that we can say we're upholding the treaty against them."

"Well, yes, but how?" Rel waved his hands to encompass the group. "We're not exactly in a position to have much call on public trust anymore."

"They don't have a Witness." Chag spoke quietly, but Pevan still cringed inside. Would Rel take the suggestion for arrogance? From the way Chag hunched, he certainly wasn't being arrogant.

She said, "What's your thought?"

"Just, y'know... if I can see how they're holding Taslin or something." His eyes went to Rel. "You think we'll be able to sneak in?"

"Wouldn't count on it. Horvin will have seen anything that obvious coming. They've got the Warding Hall well-guarded."

"Gate me in? I wouldn't need long for a look, at least. You could go in to rescue her with that as your justification."

Pevan shook her head. "Not without line of sight. I might have been in there once, but not to remember. Even with line of sight, I'd probably only be able to get you just inside the door."

"They'll be watching for that." Rel's tone was sullen, half-defeated.

"We'll think of something else then." She put an edge on the words, not wanting to let Rel slump. "We're the best Gifted in the Realm. They aren't."

The silence that followed wasn't encouraging. Atla kept his attention focussed on the grass. Chag watched her attentively, while Rel picked at his fingernails, meeting no-one's eyes. They needed a plan, and soon, or their collective morale would collapse. What could they do to prove themselves good guys?

"Do you think the Separatists might have left a Wilder here to watch over things?" Pevan addressed the question to Atla. As a Guide, he would have at least a chance of sensing the distortion of a Wilder's presence. He didn't seem to notice she was talking to him, though.

Slowly, Rel said, "It's possible."

"Wouldn't be near the Warding Hall." Chag's voice was stiff. "They hate Wards more than most Wildren."

"Maybe patrolling around the boundaries of the Ward, then." Rel turned to her, eyes narrow. "What do you have in mind?"

"Find the Separatist. Try to drive it off." Pevan gave a grim smile. "See if they come to its aid."

She could see Rel liked the idea. His eyes stayed narrow, but his lips pulled back from his teeth in a wolfish expression that an inexperienced observer might even have called a smile. He said, "This is going to take some careful choreographing."

"Wait, wait." Chag cut in, eyes darting around the circle. "What if it doesn't attack? It just goes?"

"That really would be one less body to worry about." Rel's face softened for a moment as he shrugged. "We'll just come back here and make a new plan. I don't think it's that likely, though."

"But what if they're waiting for us?" There was a high, almost plaintive, edge to Atla's voice. "Like, they see us coming?"

Pevan's heart started to sink, but Rel spoke first. "That's what we want, isn't it?"

"No, uh, I mean, what if they just arrest us?" Atla looked at Rel, caved under the force of his frown, and turned to Pevan. "If we want to seem legal or whatever, don't we have to go with them?"

"We'll..." What? Either give up hope of stopping the Separatists, or give up any thought of ever going home to celebrate having done so. She said, "We'll just have to hope that doesn't happen."

"Long shot." Chag's tone was weary, deadpan.

Atla's brows pinched together. "Can we at least make some sort of plan? Uh, I mean, for if things go wrong?"

"That's when we fight it out," Rel said. "If you get close to Horvin, go for his eyes. Get in close. Don't try to out-fight him, just try to make him blink. Keep an eye on the Gatemaker... Chaiya?" He waited for Pevan to nod. "It's not a sure guide, but she'll probably be paying attention to where her Gates will go next. For the rest, fight dirty but don't spill blood. We're too few to be nice about this."

By the time Rel finished, Atla's mouth was hanging open. The boy's face was white. Pevan fixed Rel with a Dora-scowl. "You've thought way too much about this."

"Every day since Vessit." The glare he turned on her was equally stony. "Even before that, I spent a lot of time thinking about our weaknesses."

"You really think it's going to work?" She hated the waver in her voice.

Rel shrugged. "Haven't got any better ideas."

"This is the craziest plan I've ever hatched."

"Says the girl who jumped out of a cloud to catch h-" Rel's mirth faltered as he glanced at Chag. "To catch him last month. Not to mention travelling blind without a Guide in the Second Realm yesterday and assaulting the Separatists on their home ground. We're the best there's ever been, Pev. We'll make it work."

She managed a smile for him, though neither Chag nor Atla seemed much enthused. To the group, she said, "So what do we actually do?"

Ilbertin nestled in the cleft of a sharp valley, a narrow town stretched out between waterfalls in an eager stream. Pevan stood atop the falls above the town, where the trees came right to the corner between the stream and the cliff. Rel had searched hard, but found no evidence that the townspeople were patrolling the cliff-tops. From here, she could see pretty clearly over the hillside where the plan was to play out.

Further along, where Atla and Chag would come over the ridge, the cliffs pulled back from the town and gave way to a slope long-since cleared of trees. Ilbertin was pretty well set up for defending against a Wildren incursion; the high valley-sides would foul an attack from the air, and the sharp slopes would trip any Wilder unfamiliar with First-Realm physics.

It remained to be seen how well the town would fare against fellow humans.

Rel and Atla had tracked down the Separatists' watchdog, a silvery creature that looked like a set of not-quite-aligned, spiky wheels, in the forest. For the sake of appearances, though, she'd kept Rel back and sent Chag to go with Atla. That way, no-one could accuse her of planning for a fight. Officially, she and Rel were shadowing the contact party, hoping that they wouldn't be needed.

She forced her jaw to relax, then put her hand up to try to massage some of the ache from it. It wasn't often that she sympathised with Rel's frustration at how limiting the terms of the Treaty could be when in action. Still, it was vital - more so now than ever - to avoid any misunderstandings.

Down in the town, there was no sign of the incipient rebellion. Perhaps on a normal day, it might have been a little livelier. As far as she could tell, the only people in the streets were town guards, little more than half-glimpses of motion through the gaps between buildings. A scattered handful of sheep grazed on the far side of the valley.

Pevan turned her attention back to watching the ridge. She bit her lip. It would be easy to pop a Gate a hundred yards over that way and take a look, check that Chag hadn't gotten himself killed. If the Wilder saw, though, or sensed the distortion, their story would fall apart. Chag and Atla would follow procedure and fall back towards the town and the marginal safety of its Warding if things got hairy. The boundary of the Warding should be not far beyond the ridge.

If he had breath, Chag had promised, he'd shout an alert. If he had breath, after the rage of adrenaline that would have to come from confronting the Wilder, and then the dash up-hill. The wind was in the wrong direction too. Pevan glanced over her shoulder at Rel, leaning idly and apparently half-asleep against a tree. He was just conserving his attention and energy, she knew, but it would have been nice if he gave some outward sign of uncertainty.

Her stomach growled. Technically, she hadn't eaten in days, but it was really only the eighteen hours or so since they'd escaped the Second Realm that she was feeling. They had water thanks to Rel's canteen, but food was a problem that had had to be put aside. She didn't really have any idea how they might pick it up again later, either. Another one to file under 'get Taslin to help'.

Atla appeared over the rim of the valley. A torrent of ice flushed through Pevan's veins, her skin tingling as she came on-guard. The lad's arms were flapping wildly, his wobbly stride suggesting he was close to the end of his strength. Where was Chag? Something blurred skyward from beyond the ridge, and shattered against the invisible bubble of Ilbertin's Warding.

Rel appeared at her shoulder, both hands wrapped around the branch he'd fashioned into a makeshift spear. This close to a Warding, it ought to be enough to keep the Separatist at arm's reach, but it still looked like a hurried affair - not something that could be taken as evidence of too much preparation.

She spun the Gate in her mind, from just behind Rel's feet to the ridge where Chag still hadn't appeared. No need to tell Rel what she was doing; he knew, he was ready. Along the valley, Atla stumbled, almost falling head-long. Somehow the lad kept himself upright. Pevan let the Gate snap into place, and Rel was gone, no more than the briefest shiver through her Gift to mark his transit.

Her next job was to go to the fleeing Gifted, to make sure they got to safety. Procedure said she went for Atla first, and save the one she knew could be saved, but he was almost to safety. Where the hell was Chag? She swallowed and made a second Gate to the ridge, some way along from where Rel had sprinted out of view. It ought to give a good view of the far hillside.

The world spun around her as she dropped backwards through the Gateway, twisting so she came up facing the right direction. She closed the Gate before her feet touched the floor and immediately dived prone. Thick, damp grass cushioned her fall and she rolled sideways, up to a crouch that could become a sprinting start in a single motion.

A flash of sunlight on polished metal drew her eyes to the Separatist first. The creature was grinding sluggishly up the hill, leaving a dark trail through the grass and gorse. Whatever was slowing it down, it was still gaining on Chag, who looked like he was scrambling on all fours, head bowed and knees sagging. Rel, pounding down from the ridge, was still a couple of hundred yards from the action.

She'd have to chance it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and spun a Gate from the patch of grass just to her left through to where Chag climbed. Identifying the precise location just from Chag's being there made the thought slippery, but she fought the Gate into line. Paused a moment to check she had a firm hold on it, and to gather every whisker of alertness she could.

The Gateway snapped into place, and she grabbed Chag around the waist as he appeared next to her. Light though he was, his weight almost pulled her off-balance, into the Gate, but she heaved and was able to get him clear. She slammed the Gate closed before the Wilder could strike at them through it.

They went sprawling across the grass, just about managing not to knock each other out in a blur of elbows and confusion. Chag ended up on top of her, his breath rasping in her ears. Despite breathlessness, though, he levered himself up in short order, pausing to catch her eye. No burst of laughter this time. Between gasps, he managed a hoarse, "Atla?"

"Ahead. Safe. Let's move." She wriggled clear and pushed herself up to sitting. Down the hill, Rel had reached the Separatist. He'd fallen into the trance-like, languid style that marked out a Clearseer fighting a second into the future, weaving through the Wilder's attacks as he drew it slowly back up the hill.

A rescued Gifted had to be brought to the Warding Hall, as swiftly as possible. They couldn't afford to deviate from procedure, no matter how vulnerable it made them. Chag's hand landed on her shoulder, and she leaned forward to kiss him, quickly, at the side of his mouth. No time for more than that. Better they get to the Warding Hall ahead of Atla, in case there was a trap waiting.

Pevan closed her eyes and pictured the village below. There wasn't much space in front of the Hall, and she could at least use the excuse of not wanting to waste all her energy penetrating that deep into the bubble of the Warding. She picked a spot half-way down the street that led to the Hall and spun the Gateway through to it.

To Chag, she said, "Land at a run."

He nodded, stepped closer, so that they could both fall forwards into the Gateway together. She took a deep breath, rehearsing the next second or two. Fall forward, let momentum carry her up to almost standing. Let her knees sag to get the rest of the way into a run. Clumsy, but she didn't want to be static even for a moment on the far side.

They moved as one, or so close to it as made no difference. Their hands brushed, back to back. There was the slight, tingling sensation of crossing the Gate's threshold. The jab of discomfort as her gut adjusted to the switch in gravity. The dizzying glimpse of the somersaulting sky. She let reflex take over, compensating for her forward tumble.

Chag's shout was the first warning. Something slammed into her chest, just below her breasts, and the wind went out of her. She was lifted by the impact, flipped over again, and dropped. The gritty dirt of the path struck her hard enough to make spots burst across her vision. For a moment, she was conscious only of the grunting as Chag struggled with someone.

Whoever had attacked her wasted no time grabbing her by the armpits and hauling her upright. With her chest still tight, she was powerless to resist as her arms were twisted around behind her. Her vision cleared to reveal Chag standing perhaps ten feet away, held in a bear hug from behind by a slender young man with the peeled-back-eyelid look of a Clearseer. Horvin.

Which meant that in all likelihood, it was Ilbertin's Sheriff who had hold of her. If she fought, Chag's Witnessing would have to show her resisting arrest, and there would be no evidence that a Gifted had attacked her in the course of doing her duty. Why hadn't they thought of this possibility? She gritted her teeth. So much for going home as heroes.

From behind her, a thick, throaty voice said, "Chag Van Raighan, I arrest you for Grand Theft and abetting Wildren." The same words that Sheriff Pollack had said to him back in Federas, at his first arrest. Ilbertin's Sheriff, though, had more to say. "Pevan Atcar, I arrest you for abetting Wildren."

A stone settled in her stomach. She could almost feel the adrenaline draining out of her. Hissing through clenched teeth, still struggling for breath, she managed, "I could say the same to you."

"You're the one charging into our town with Van Raighan." Horvin's voice was steady, almost patronising, despite the obvious effort he was putting into holding Chag still. Rel hadn't understated the boy's abilities.

"You're holding a Gift-Giver in direct breach of the Treaty." She found some force to put behind the words. Her breath was starting to come back, despite the fiery feeling at the bottom of her lungs.

"Well, that's the rub, isn't it?" Horvin straightened up, somehow, his head rising fully clear of Chag's shoulder. The Clearseer was smooth-faced, quite handsome for all that his eyes were stretched almost comically wide. Despite the sun being on his face, he didn't even squint, and his irises were so pale blue as to seem almost white. He finished, "Does the Treaty of Peace constitute an act in breach of itself, based as it is on a fundamental deception?"

"Does it matter?" Chag growled. He jerked his head downward, his hands coming up as he tried to shake Horvin off. A futile gesture-

She almost missed the flicker of sign language that he directed at her. Gate me clear. Had she imagined it? Not from the way his eyes found hers again, darkly intense. The way Horvin held him, Chag's head was right next to the Clearseer's face. All Chag needed to do was shake his head and his hair would flick out, forcing Horvin to blink. Holding his gaze and concentrating, the town's Warding weighing on the back of her mind like a twelve-stone pillow, she spun a Gate. It didn't need to go far. Just far enough to delay Horvin's return.

Chag said, "I love you."

"Come back to me." She put all the heat she could muster into the words.

Chag gave another sharp jerk of his neck, and Horvin squawked in alarm. Pevan let the Gate snap into place, and the two men vanished from view. She closed it again as soon as they were gone, kicked backwards as hard as she could, aiming for the Sheriff's knee with the hard heel of her boot. He grunted, but she was already making another Gate, even as movement exploded around her.

Her Gate opened, the ground beneath her feet blinking out of existence. They were falling, but the Sheriff somehow jerked them so that they caught the side of the Gate. It was enough. Pevan caught the lip and heaved against the Sheriff’s grip. He grunted, pinning her tighter, but she was twisting sideways, slipping out under his elbow.

She had to wrench her neck to free her chin, but there was no time to nurse the abused tendons. Directing another wild kick roughly at the Sheriff – her toe hit something hard, but she couldn't tell what – she crawled clear. Only a flash of gut-churning insight stopped her closing the Gate. To do so would cut the Sheriff in half, and there would be no making amends for that.

Would the man realise? She scrambled to her feet and broke into a run, twisting her head to look backwards. The Sheriff was pulling himself out of the Gateway, but sluggishly, and with one hand pressed to his head. Maybe she shouldn’t have kicked him so hard. She could, just at the threshold of sensitivity, feel his presence in the Gate, a tickle on the inside of her skull, just to the right of her crown.

The patch of valley-side she’d Gated to offered uncertain footing, the ground clumpy and uneven, and falling away sharply to the right. She was about to turn and head up-hill, to where Rel should still be fighting the Separatist, when a tall, thin figure rose out of a Gateway straight ahead of her. Chaiya.

The Gatemaker planted her feet square where her Gate had been, waiting for Pevan. Pevan forced herself to jump, just as a Gate opened where she’d been about to tread. Chaiya was showing off; the Gate was probably as big as she could make it. Pevan’s leap barely carried her, and she had to push off sideways when her foot did just barely reach the far rim.

She landed in a shoulder-roll downhill and had to flatten herself out against the grass to keep from tumbling all the way down into Ilbertin. Her neck ached, and so did her ribs. She was still struggling to breathe. The ground opened up and swallowed her.

There was an instant’s view of an oval of sky, and then she landed, hard, on what felt like a reed mattress. Tightness in her chest made her curl up, rolling onto her side and almost off the bed. It brought her face-to-face with a row of iron bars. The room was walled in stone and candle-lit. A jail cell, just like the one under the Warding Hall in Federas. A sharp-faced man stood peering into the cell, the belt around his slender waist fastened by a symbolic Four Knot.

Pevan closed her eyes. Was the Sheriff still stuck in her Gate? She didn’t think so, but she’d lost track of the tingling in all the confusion, and her vision seemed blurry, unfocussed. Panic, she told herself, and hoped that would be enough to collect her wits. It really didn’t feel like her Gate was occupied.

The Four Knot started to say something, but Pevan spun herself a new Gate and threw herself at it, at the precious patch of sky and woodland beyond. This close to the Stable Rods, it was like trying to stab a spoon through hard cheese, but that just made it more satisfying when she got through and was able to let it go.

This time, there was no grass or mattress to cushion her landing. She landed sideways, some protruding root or rock under her elbow. She shouted in pain as the impact jarred all the bones in the joint against each other. For a moment, though, she didn’t even have the wits to roll off the injury.

She was in the woodland just above the valley, a place she’d picked out as her emergency fall-back. Scattered clumps of bluebells dotted the brown forest floor. Right in front of her face, a bug crawled across a fallen leaf, antennae waving. As her breathing steadied, she made out the rustle of wind in the upper branches.

So much for clever plans. Their approach had been a disaster. Rel was probably okay. Fighting Wildren was his preferred state of being anyway. There was no telling if Atla’s arrival in the town had been predicted as easily as hers and Chag’s. Hopefully the lad would have had the sense to avoid an ambush, but it was a forlorn hope.

Chag. If he could keep Horvin from using his Gift, then in a one-on-one fight... the Clearseer would still be fitter, better-fed, better-trained for fighting. More confident, too. But he’d have no reason to kill Chag, and she’d Gated them a good couple of miles away from the town. She had to leave them be for now. If Chag complained later, she could tell him she trusted him to look after himself. He would have to.

Atla would be hard to find, but anyway it was Rel who most needed backup. Rubbing her forehead, Pevan closed her eyes and pulled the hillside where he hopefully was still fighting out of her memory. The Separatist would feel the incoming Gate, but she’d just have to trust that Rel had its full attention.

She spun the Gateway without getting up, laid it out alongside herself. It meant she could roll through without lifting her body above ankle-height. A token gesture to safety, unless there were other Gifted from Ilbertin watching the fight, waiting for her. Just how much had the town been able to prepare for them?

Paranoid thinking. At some point she had to draw the line. She clambered carefully through the Gate, into a wind that, even low to the ground, had long, cold fingers that plucked and picked at her blouse. She let the Gate go before lifting her head out of the grass. Even then, it was a moment before she dared look up.

At the top of the hill, Rel stepped around the Separatist. The motion turned into a lazy pirouette, with his makeshift spear held out directly in front of him. For a moment, Pevan could clearly see the boundary of Ilbertin’s Warding as the Wilder was forced against it. The silver wheel rippled and bent out of shape, then burst into ghostly grey flames.

Rel hit it again, releasing a gout of sparkling smoke. The creature was dead, or at least well and truly dying. Pevan pushed a Gateway up to the brow, far enough from Rel to be safe. Even as the Gate swirled open beside her, she was springing to her feet. She dropped through the Gate in the same motion.

The wind was the first thing that hit her, with Rel’s glare a moment behind it. He spun on the spot as she emerged, eyes wide with Clearsight. The Separatist’s remains had already been claimed and scattered by the wind, glittering where the Warding melted them.

She started to walk towards Rel. "You made short work of that."

He wiped sweat from his forehead, stretching awkwardly to keep his arm away from his field of vision. “Of course. My ninth, one-on-one.”

“You’re not supposed to be keeping score.” As she approached, Pevan tried to judge how the fight had gone. She couldn’t see so much as a scratch on her brother.

He shrugged. “Did you have any luck in town?”

“No. They were waiting for us. Arrested us before we could get anywhere.”

“Atla? Chag?” He didn’t flinch or hesitate at Chag’s name. In action, it seemed, Gifted were Gifted.

“Dunno about Atla.” She took a deep breath and swallowed. “I had to leave Chag at Horvin’s mercy, though I think he’d blinked.”

Rel’s face darkened. “You Gated them away? Far enough?”

“We’ll have to hope so. I didn’t get a lot of time to come up with anything. They’re at our campsite from last night.” She offered him a wry smile. “Looks like it’s just us to rescue Taslin.”


It was her turn to shrug. “Might as well Gate straight to the Warding Hall. If they’re waiting for us again, at least we’ll be closer to where we want to go.”

“How’s your fatigue?” He put the question bluntly, but not condescendingly. She’d long since taught him that lesson.

Still, she closed her eyes and tried to explore the inside of her own skull. Things maybe felt a little heavier than ideal, but nothing serious. “I’m fine. You?”

“I’ve got hours to play with. Let’s get moving.”

She nodded, then turned to study the town. The Warding Hall stood out in virtue of a high-peaked shingle roof, clearly the tallest building in the valley besides one distant barn. From this angle, she could just about make out one corner of the small town square. Were there people moving down there?

All she needed to do was point, and Rel turned his Gifted perception to the question. After a moment with his neck craning and a hand held high above his head to shield his eyes from the sun, he whispered, “Clear.”

Pevan reached out for the visible patch of the square and her mind bounced back, hard enough to hurt. It was as if she’d tried to Gate directly to the dais in the Warding Hall, right next to the Stable Rods. She frowned and tried again, more gently, probing. Something was definitely Warding the square.

To Rel, she hissed, “We’re expected.”

“How- The Warder.”


He squinted. “I don’t see him. Take us to the bottom of the hill?”

“How do you feel about rooftops?”

That drew a toothy grin from him. “House opposite the Hall looks promising.”

“We should have thought of it sooner. Anyone on the rooftops at all?”

“Not that I can see. Hold on.” His voice turned distant as he finished. When she turned to look at him, his eyes were downcast, pointing far past the Realm at their feet. Exploring the future. A sharp gust of wind, dry and dusty, blasted the ridge, and Pevan stepped closer to Rel, trying to offer him a little more shelter. He probably didn’t need it, though his eyes were watering noticeably. After a long moment, he said, “It’s safe, as far as I can tell.”

She tried to reach the rooftop, tentatively again. The Gate met resistance, probably more than it should even that close to a Warding Hall, but she shoved it through with a grunt. Rel jumped so quickly that she almost panicked, thinking he’d been pulled through somehow. Nothing to do but follow him, though.

The roof didn’t quite match the slope of the hillside where she’d made the Gate, so she emerged at a slight angle relative to its pitch, but with Rel’s help – how had he found his balance so quickly? – she got to stable footing, one hand on the peak of the roof. She held the Gate open for a few seconds in case of another ambush, but none came. Rel shot her another grin as she let the Gate go.

His grin slipped a bit as he turned to look down into the street below. “So how do we get down?”

“We’ll jump. Carefully.” It was her turn to grin. The street was empty of people. Where were the rest of Ilbertin’s Gifted? If Chag had been lucky, they didn’t have Horvin to deal with, but that still left four Gifted, plus the Sheriff and his men. And whoever lived in the house they were standing on. Their landing hadn’t exactly been quiet.

His tone grim, Rel said, “Archers.”

He was staring at the Warding Hall door again. Pevan felt her stomach tighten. There was no reason to put archers in place unless they had orders to shoot on sight. Nothing else would give a Clearseer pause. The archers wouldn’t be Gifted, and probably wouldn’t be guards either, just hunters from the town. And if ordinary civvies were prepared to kill them, there would be no negotiating.

Though her skin was tingling and her voice sounded distant in her ears, she clenched her teeth and said, “Which way do the doors open?”

“Inwards.” He didn’t look at her, but his eyes narrowed slightly. “I can get it open for you.”

“Where are the archers?”

“First pillar. Stay up here until I’m in.” He turned to look down into the street again, let himself begin to slide down the roof.

Not willing to let him give all the orders unchallenged, she snipped, “Good luck.”

At that, he did scowl at her, but he didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he dropped into the street. Pevan held her breath, straining her ears for sounds of a struggle, but after a moment Rel appeared again, sprinting towards the Warding Hall.

Pevan crawled right to the peak of the roof’s rough gable and pressed herself flat, her arms held against the wall below. Hopefully that would give her some purchase if Chaiya struck again, and it would probably provide a decent view of the inside of the Hall.

Rel ran straight at the door. He wouldn’t try to barge in, so how was he going to get the door open? She didn’t try to guess. There wasn’t time. She fixed her stare on him, put all thoughts out of her mind. The angle of Rel’s run changed, twisting slightly sideways, and she could see what he was going to do.

He jumped and hit the door feet first, pushing off as it resisted. Momentum carried him past the opening, dropping him against the wall as the doors swung open, catch smashed. Pevan thought she could make out one arrow emerging from the gloom, but only one. She stabbed outwards with her mind, trying to feel where the archers were stood. The doors might not stay open long. She needed to give Rel every advantage she could.

It worked. Her Gate snapped open under the front foot of one, uniting that patch of paved floor with the grit street by Rel. He reached back, barely needing to look, and grabbed the emerging ankle. There was some motion too complex for her eyes to track at this range, and the two men changed places.

She closed the Gate, opened another to move the archer to the next valley, out of harm’s way. How long did she need to leave before it was safe to get to the Hall? How long did she dare leave Rel alone? Where was Atla? Would Chag be okay?

The roof shook with a heavy footstep, just enough warning that Pevan was able to roll out of the way of the kick aimed at her head. No way to control the roll. She caught a glimpse of Chaiya as she turned over. Then she was sliding, tumbling sideways off the roof. She managed to get a Gateway open beneath herself – why hadn’t Chaiya thought to get there first? – and found herself flopping out onto grass.

No, bad move. This was where she’d just put the archer. Back to the town, to the spot by the Warding Hall door where she’d taken the archer from. She needed to get to her feet, but her Gateway was the only place Chaiya couldn’t put a Gate of her own.

Pevan grabbed the edges of her Gateway and started to push herself up against them, but Chaiya charged out of the wall of the Warding Hall. Her knee took Pevan in the ribs, and both of them went back down flat on the grit. Pevan gasped as the ground scraped her chin.

Tears came to her eyes, but she couldn’t take a pause. Chaiya was already scrambling clear, half-way up from hands and knees to standing. Pevan let her Gate go, rolled onto her back, and vaulted upright. Another trick to thank Rel for.

Before she could decide whether to Gate away herself or target Chaiya, the other woman was on her feet. She spun to face Pevan, eyes narrow, lips pulled back in a feral snarl. “Where’s Horvin? What did you do with him?”

Ah. Well, he was a handsome lad. Pevan wasn’t about to let the psychological advantage go to waste. “I left him at Chag’s tender mercies.” No need to mention just how feeble Chag could be.

Chaiya lunged forwards, actually roaring. Pevan sidestepped, released the Gate she’d been spinning under her own feet. It snapped into place just as Chaiya reached that spot. The girl toppled, arms flailing, but Pevan had held the Gate short and there was nothing Chaiya could do. Her face smacked into the rim of the opening.

That stunned her long enough that Pevan could push her through and close the Gate altogether. Hopefully between the head injury and the rage, Chaiya would be out of action for a few minutes at least. Pevan rubbed her aching ribs, managing her first proper breath in too long. There was no time to pause and recover properly, though.

She looked over at the Warding Hall. The doors had drifted back to almost closed, but she didn’t think anyone had snuck out since Rel went in. There could have been dozens of guards in there. The Warder was still hiding somewhere, too. How long had she wasted fighting Chaiya? Nothing to be done but to sprint at the Hall. She barely noticed barging the door open, gave no thought to the possibility of archers inside.

Rel spun between two guards as she entered, sending one of them staggering backwards and driving the butt of his improvised spear into the other's forehead. The latter guard collapsed as if his bones had all fallen out at once. Flipping the spear over, Rel stepped backwards and repeated the strike on the man now reeling back off one of the Hall's pillars.

That seemed to be it. The floor was strewn with bodies, several of them bloodied. A snapped-off half of a hunter's bow lay at her feet, no sign of its string. There was an arrow embedded in the door-frame. A stout lady perhaps two or three years Pevan's senior lay unconscious against the nearest pillar - the Warder, she was sure, since the other bodies were all male.

She met Rel's eyes. He lifted the spear, point-up, so it could catch the light; the wood was pale and pristine. He said, "I didn't stab any of them. Clear them out, I'll free Taslin."

For a moment she could only blink at him. Besides the Warder, there were... ten? Eleven? No, from the angle, the feet protruding from behind that pillar had to belong to at least two different people. Twelve or thirteen men. Rel had taken care of them in probably less than two seconds each. She gave her head a quick shake.

By the time her wits reassembled themselves, Rel was half-way to the dais at the head of the hall. The locals had rigged a special hook above the Stable Rods - maybe the Separatists had set it up for them - and Taslin's cuffed hands were hung from it. She dangled, knees slack, her usually-vibrant violet skirt washed-out and dulled. By her feet, the Stable Rods spun like cartwheels, a blur of gold.

For all that she had to be half-dead from her ordeal, Taslin managed to raise her head as Rel vaulted onto the dais. He caught himself short by grabbing the hook, leaving him just inches from the Gift-Giver. As he began to work her cuffs, Taslin pulled herself up further-

-and kissed him, full on the mouth. For a moment, he melted to her, with a fire Chag had never shown Pevan. For a moment, all Pevan could think was where did he learn to kiss like that?

Then the cuffs came undone, snapping the moment free of suspension. Rel's head jerked back, his face a white rictus. Taslin's arms dropped, reaching for him as he stumbled back, tottered of the dais. She slumped after him, flattening one of the rods as she fell.

Pevan shook off the chill sinking through her veins and caught Rel. "Are you alright?" She whispered, not sure if she was asking about the fall or the kiss.

"I... what..." Rel's face was pale, but his scowl could have been sculpted of obsidian. He pushed himself half-way to standing with a grunt. "Get her out of here. I'll follow."

Pevan glanced back down the hall. At least one of the guards was starting to stir. Taslin wasn't. Pevan hauled the Gift-Giver unceremoniously away from the dais and paused. How were they going to get away? Gift-Givers couldn't pass through a human-made Gate, and Taslin was in no state to-

Skin barely a shade away from grey, Taslin's arm lifted to point down the Hall. Faint mist rose from her finger. A Gateway opened in the floor, still less than thirty feet from the dais. Pevan almost dropped Taslin. The willpower to get a Gate open, here, in this state? Best hope she wasn't angry at Rel's rejection.

Either way, the Gate wouldn't stay open long. The Gift-Giver wasn't heavy, but, hung like a sodden quilt in Pevan's arms, was hard to drag. Like distant war-drums drifting into hearing, fatigue began to press at the inside of Pevan's skull as she reached the Gateway. Rather than try anything clever, she dropped through while still holding Taslin. Getting steady on the far side, back up above the waterfall, was clumsy, but she didn't mind too much if Taslin ended up with a foot in the river.

Rel came through after her, his feet-first jump artless and unsteady. Very deliberately, arms half-raised for balance, he walked a few paces up-stream and knelt at the bank. He cupped his hands, dipped them in the water and then splashed his face, hard. Then he ran wet fingers over his lips and teeth, scrubbing as if he was trying to scrape his treacherous face off. Pevan said nothing.

After a few minutes, with Rel still hunched and staring at the river, Pevan dragged Taslin clear and helped her to lie out flat on the ground. The Gift-Giver would need a trip to the Second Realm to fully restore herself, but her awareness did seem to be pulling back together. Even this close to the falls, there wasn't so much noise that they couldn't have talked, but the silence oppressed thought too heavily.

Some time later, Atla emerged from the woods, mumbling apologies for fleeing the fight until Pevan's look silenced him. Unwilling to explain, she stood and started towards the trees. "I'm going to find Chag." She almost managed not to stumble at the sudden stab of cold under her diaphragm. What if he was dead? To be alone with Rel and Taslin after today...

"It's no good." Taslin spoke, her voice stiffer and flatter than usual. A Wilder's voice. "The Separatists have recruited Soan. We are lost."

Despite herself, Pevan turned. Taslin had managed to sit up, her back rod-straight. The skirt and corset that had revealed so much of her figure were gone, replaced by a high-necked black gown threaded with purple down the sleeves. Rel regarded her as a statue might regard a small child that had strayed into the sanctity of its temple. Between the two, the air might as well have turned to solid ice.

Rel said, "We didn't go through all that just so you could give up as easily as Quilo."

"Had you realised this was a distraction, you might have been able to stop Ashtenzim."

A flicker of weakness ran across Rel's face and he turned back to the river. Taslin's tone had been viciously bitter. Pevan took a deep breath and set off into the wood. She could Gate to somewhere near where she'd dropped Chag and Horvin, but the walk would help with... something. Clearing her head, perhaps, though she felt as clear and as fragile as glass. Giving her time to think, except that her mind was empty. At least it would keep her from having to look Rel in the eyes for a little while longer.

 * * *