Clarissant wakes us up when she fells a wind-chill, though the heat hasn’t lessened. It’s an odd feeling, with air so cold in such baking heat.
She says it means there’s a shift coming. So we march onward as the strata bubbles below us, smoking and hissing and belching up semisolid rock that sprouts grass on contact with air. The air thins out and I don’t realize the ground is rising until I bother to stare at my feet. The slashing wind sweeps the sand away, so that all that’s left in our wake is craggy highlands and islands of rock in a sea of hills and grass.
We’re almost there,” Clarissant huffs as she crests the top of a hill. “One more day, and we’ll be there.”
We travel silently until midday, when we sit down to rest. I can feel echoes of Ath even after my dream. His anger and frustration linger in me. So I decide to unsheathe my sword and work on my forms again. I’m starting to get the hang of The Thrush Knocks, so I switch between that and Break the Clouds.
Breaks the Clouds is an upward cut I can perform if I don’t want to go back to my Thrust Knocks stance, where I started. After I pinwheel my blade, once my hands and sword are parallel with the ground hovering over my midsection, and my right foot is forward, I can step forward with my left slash diagonally up and to the left, and from there take another step so my right foot is forward again and I can ease into a higher guard on my left side with my sword beside my head, hands just behind my ear and blade levelled between me and my opponent.
It’s harder to master, and I can’t count the number of times I swing too fast toward Break the Clouds, or swing wildly instead of the neat, precise, edge-aligned cut it’s supposed to be. Sometimes I take one step forward and try to pull myself into the high guard without taking that extra step, which tangles me up.
A few times I start with the wrong foot forward, and so when I either tangle up when I pull into my stance at the end, or I switch to a higher stance on my right. Which wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t trying to train myself to do one thing at a time. If I mix it up while training in some highlands, alone save for a rotund woman and a scrawny woman with a god inside her, then how can I expect to execute it with any efficiency if Lord Ath catches up to us.
One time I execute The Thrush Knocks, take a second step, and perform The Thrush Knocks again. This leaves me blinking and confused as to how I could possibly be that stupid.
And Clarissant taps me on the shoulder. “Peter?”
I whirl. “What’s up?”
She presses her lips together. “I…need your help? I think?”
I frown. “With what?”
She sighs, eyes fluttering closed. “After Lord Ath did that…whatever he did. With my crossbow. I realized I needed a bit better protection.”
“What do you mean?”
She sighs. “Okay. This is hard enough as it is. Please don’t make me say it.”
“I’m genuinely not understanding,” I tell her. “Do you need me to watch Anthea?”
She drags her palm down her face. “Ruined Earth,” she says. “You’re such a boy!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t worry about it. I just—ugh. I need you to teach me, Peter. To use that.” She points at my blade.
I’m staring dumbly, trying to piece it together. She’d rarely talked to me our entire trip. I’d assumed she was mad at me about what happened at Strathbury. Not that I blame her. “I don’t have another sword,” is all I can think to say.
So she throws the two sticks she’d been hiding at our feet between us. I scoop one up and she takes the other.
And I show her how to execute the Thrush Knocks. And as I pause to fix her posture or kick her heel into the correct positioning, or argue over edge-alignment when the edges are imaginary, I realize a few things about my own forms. I know how to execute these in theory well enough that as I teach her I patch up weaknesses in my own stance that I didn’t even realize were there before. The desire to teach her helps me perform better. Because if I can’t do it myself, how can I expect her to follow my lead?
But I’m still making mistakes. And those mistakes keep piling up. So I do the only thing that there is to do: I keep going. And Anthea watches the two of us, sprawled out on a stretch of rock in the hill’s descent. The hood of her cloak covers her eyes, but her smile is the giveaway. I need to get better. We need to get better, in case Lord Ath catches up to us again.
(When he catches up to us. Because he’s going to catch up. I know because I can feel his emotions in the back of my mind. His anticipation seeps into my own and melds with it. I wonder if it’s still an echo. He’s close, so I tell the others we should start moving.)
We’re still marching by nightfall, plodding forward up and down and up and down the endless sea of hills and rocks and inset-staircases built in clefts into the hills.
And as we go, Clarissant calls my name. And I’m wondering if she wants to stop again and ask me to teach her. She hasn’t dropped her stick, and I have mine lashed to my pack. “What happened at the Battle of the Red River?”
I filter through my mind, through contextless images and dates and names. “When was it.”
“The third year after you arrived in the Mountain. You were fleeing the Stronghold of Torren Gauth?” with the exiled King Toric and a party of stragglers. The Great Evil had sent a small army of minions after you.”
“Stop.” I hold up a hand, which then finds a rock cleft and hauls me up the steep slope of our latest hill. “Did you just say we had a party of stragglers when Toric and I left Torren Gauth?”
“Is that not the case?” Anthea calls from ahead of Clarissant.
“That’s how Gormund told it to us.” Her voice shrinks after she says his name. Regret shriveling her last four words. We each take a moment of silence to let our grief sizzle out. We don’t have time for such things. We have to keep moving.
“Guys,” I tell them when the silence is over, “We had, like, an entire army. How could we have had stragglers? Toric had just convinced a horde of northrons to rally to his cause when we reached the westward capital in Torre—”
“Wasn’t it the Battle of the Red River that convinced them? I thought that happened afterward?” Anthea says.
“No. We had them first. And then the Great Evil’s minions ambushed us.”
“What was that like?” Clarissant asks.
Screams, sheer bloody screams tear through my mind. Bright lights and ambient ambient ambient spilling and swelling—so much and so many were sapping it up that nobody could pull a useful amount into them.
I had been standing atop a cleft of rock like—like—“Like this,” I say, and I brace myself atop the hill, overlooking the descent and the hills that rise again below. I can imagine the soldiers strewing the battlefield. Choking the river and running it red. Some fell in without so much as a scratch and never surfaced.
I point westward. “The river was there. And on it, the Great Evil’s Shade turned the river to ice in its crossing. Nobody else saw it coming.” I unsheathed my sword. “So I had to do something.”
I spill down the treacherous descent, sword drawn, rushing for the imaginary river, calling back. “It had a sword of black ice that seemed to wink out of existence when he turned it sideways. I met him on the banks of the river. I—what did I do?” I pause, clutching at my head. “What was it?”
Anthea and Clarissant shadow me, hinged on my every word. I try to speak, but my throat closes up at the memory of the creature. “It had a language like cracking ice,” I tell them. “And it made the first blow. It was my worst scar to date.” The memory of it aches dully just above my left eye. There’s nothing there, not now. It hurts the same way a visceral image can make the site of the injury hurt on your own body. “It should have ended on the banks of that river.” I fall to one knee. “I couldn’t perform my footwork like Toric taught me to,” I tell them. “The ground was soaked with mud and blood. The river was overflowing form all the bodies. But I sloshed through it.”
“This is my favorite part,” Clarissant squeaks.
“I tried for—for—what was the form. Think, dammit! Wind Pushing the Arrow! That was it!” I mimic the form. I’d forgotten it up until now. I’m not great at it. But I brace the palm of my left hand on the bottom of my pommel and drive the sword spearlike forward. “And I…missed?” I hadn’t remembered this. “He sidestepped me, backhanded me and sent me sailing across the river. I struggled to even stay conscious for the rest of the battle. I could hear the song of slaughter from across the river. If the brute hadn’t misjudged its own strength I would have died. They almost had to amputate that ear. Its very touch nearly gave me frostbite. But it was only the fact that I was so far away from the battle that saved my life. I never saw the person who killed the thing.”
Clarissant and Anthea exchanged confused glanced. “But…” There’s a disappointing edge to Clarissant’s voice. She doesn’t bother to sheath it. She lets it cut me. “You killed it. Are you sure you’re not remembering things wrong?”
“I’m not sure,” I tell her. “I could be. I don’t know. I don’t think so, though. I think it was a northron that killed the thing, if that matters. Funny that. Those people worshipped winter. Their whole religion was structured around these blue crystals and—and—and—well…I suppose it doesn’t matter now.”
“There were other religions?” Clarissant asks. “What—since when?”
“I mean I know there were. Thousands of years ago. But three hundred?”
“Because everyone’s been worshipping you and the Higher Powers for…millenia. Your coming was foretold thousands of years before you came.”
I stop walking. “Okay. I am certain I would have heard something about that by now. Like one of my memories would include someone telling me that the first time around. There’s no way that’s true. Where’d you hear that?”
“It’s…it’s in all the books?” Anthea says, since Clarissant is just gaping. “Peter, your memory isn’t the best right now. I think you might be remembering things wrong?”
I start to challenge that. I want to challenge that. I know I should. There’s something wrong about letting that slide. But then I see the hurt on their faces. The questioning that’s already there. If their favorite battle is a lie and what they know about religion is a lie. Well. How much truth do they really know?
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”
When we bed down for the night, I can hardly sleep in anticipation of Lord Ath. I’ve been feeling what he feels, but shoving it to the back of my mind. But all day his anticipation and excitement has been kindling my own. And I wonder if it isn’t mutual. Does he know where we are? Is that how he’s following us?
What did he do to me? When he pulled the ambient out of my veins, my head was buzzing. Did he do something to me? To us?
I fall asleep to these questions, and I dream.