I explain the situation to Anthea and Clarissant once my mind has eased back into my surroundings. That is, I attempt to explain it. There are still gaps that even Anthea with a god in her veins doesn’t understand. And when I’m done they exchange glances.
“Should we go then?” Clarissant asks. She wrings one hand nervously around her crossbow while her other hand goes knuckles-white around her sword-stick. “Can we pass Strand without getting into the village?”
“I don’t know why you’re asking me,” I tell them. “I don’t know shit about this place.” It should be far, far north. At least I think so. It’s been three hundred years. Why would they expect me to know where to go from here?
“We need supplies,” Anthea says.
“There could be a trap,” Clarissant counters. “Who knows how many in that village are loyal to the Imperium.”
Oh no. I realize why Ath dragged that creature into Strand. Gave it to that old man. “Ath’s given their town enough food for weeks at least—and free of charge,” I say. “It’s undoubtedly a trap.”
“Anthea,” Clarissant brushes a lock of Anthea hair behind her ear. “Is there anything you can do?”
“I…I don’t know. Nothing comes to mind.”
“Can you change our faces?” I suggest. “You have to be able to do something.”
“I don’t know!” Anthea rasps. “I don’t know what to do, okay? I’ve got a ruined god inside of me that’s constantly throwing a temper tantrum so excuse me if I don’t have all the answers!” Her face is bright red, and a cord in her neck is taut, and every word scrapes the back of her throat on its way out.
She’s feeling every emotion at its utmost intensity, I remind myself. This isn’t her fault. She didn’t mean to.
The silence smothers each of us as we tread slowly through the changing land. Clarissant says something quietly about how we’ll be in Strand before the strata sorts itself out. We won’t even know what this change will bring. We’ll be inside the stillzone’s walls at that point.
“Changing your faces could kill you,” Anthea offers, quietly. “It just told me so. If it tries to do that, even the smallest mistake could turn your faces inside out.”
“Well,” I mutter. “At least they don’t know what we look like in there. Right?”
“Only Ath,” Clarissant corrects.
“Only Ath,” I agree.
“It might be better if we wait till nightfall,” Clarissant suggests. “We could maybe…train, until then? Rest?”
“We could do that,” I say. And so we stay in the midst of changing hills, practicing The Thrush Knocks. Swirling wooden imitations until I think Clarissant has the hang of it. But every time I add a step, she tangled something in the buildup. I address the smaller mistakes as the come. And for the larger mistakes? Well.
I start from the foundation. If she keeps making the same mistakes, we go over stance and footwork again. We go over edge alignment, even though our sticks have no edges. We review review review review until I think she can try The Thrush Knocks again.
“Do you want to join us?” I ask Anthea, in the afternoon.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “I just like to watch. It’s fascinating.” I steal glances at her when I can. And come to realize that feeling fascination is the closest she can come to allowing herself to feel nothing at all. It’s the closest thing to a break that she can allow herself.
And then. As the sun sets. We head into Strand.
The timber gates rumble open, and my heart is hammering as we make our way inside. “All we have to do is grab some supplies and be on our way,” Clarissant says. “That’s all we have to do.”
I can feel all eyes on me. Or at least I think I do. I’m scanning every face for the ones I saw in my dream. I can’t tell if the fact that nobody will make eye contact with me means I should be wary. Maybe we don’t look so suspicious after all?
We pass through the poorer people pressed into the entrance of the village, and when we emerge on the other side, we find the finely-dressed merchants selling supplies. “We need some rations and a better pack. That’s all.” Clarissant says. “I’ll handle this.”
She approaches a man selling barrels of salted strips of meat, speaks with him quietly. I’m following thoughtlessly. Watching coins with faces I don’t recognize change hands. There are mercenaries in armor with hints of fashion from three hundred years ago. If I think hard enough I could probably name where a lot of their styles of helms originated. There are others wearing silk. Silk! That was damn near impossible in my—
I’m about to call myself a grandpa when I notice something on a merchants table. Three rings inset with crystal-blue stones. Someone’s chipped away a pattern into them. Not just a pattern, I realize. These are symbols. They mean something.
I realize I can read them. Getrun, Ragnild, and Ermund. They’re names. And I know those names. Do they belong to the same northron spearwives, are they just names in common with people I knew?
What kind of love? I don’t want to think about that. And as I’m drooling over these rings, I remember what they’re for. It was an ancient religious rite to the northrons. They said the stones housed their souls. They each fashioned their own rings to be buried in the earth, far off from human travels. Their closest kin would go into the wild to find a road rarely traveled, and there they would bury them so that the dead could have their rest.
But someone’s exhumed them. Someone is selling them.
I don’t realize I’m reaching for the rings until the merchant is twisting my hand. “Oi!” He’s shouting. “Don’t go stealing my wares, boy!” I can see Clarissant and Anthea whirling. They’ve just finished their trade and are sprinting for me.
“I just wanted to look!” I protest.
“They all want to look,” the merchant says, mustaches fluttering with every word. “That’s what they all say.” He follows my gaze to the rings, splays his fingers out so that his palm is covering them. His grip slackens. “Wait. These?”
“Yeah,” I pull my arm back. “What about them?”
“Well I’m just surprised, is all,” he says. “These things are near worthless. I’ve been trying to sell them for ages. You want them,” he tucks each one into the pad of a finger and slides them forward. “Just one copper each.”
“Guys,” I turn to Clarissant. “Do you see those?”
“What did I say?” Clarissant hisses. She’s twitching in an attempt to contain herself. “We buy only what we need. We have to get out of here.” Her fingers are wound tightly over her purse.
“You don’t understand,” I hiss back. “I need just three coppers and I can—”
“You do not,” Clarissant rasps, “need them. You want them. There’s a difference.”
“If I don’t bury those rings tonight there’s a chance their owners might—”
Anthea pushes past Clarissant face red; her too-big eyes glistening and angry. “Their owners are dead, Peter! They’re dead and they’ve been dead for so long that their rings are worthless. Nothing will happen if you bury them. I need you to understand this. Nothing will happen.”
“They won’t be at peace—” I manage to squeak out.
Behind Anthea, Clarissant rolls her eyes. “Oh, please.”
My cheeks are turning hot, and there’s something brimming behind my eyes that I’m trying to blink away. A sad hole blossoms in my stomach, and then festers into anger. Before I can think about it I’ve snatched Clarissant’s purse out of her hands and jammed three coppers down. “Take them!” I shout. I snatch up the three rings and turn heel to the exit.
They’ll catch up with me, I tell myself, as the gate rumbles open. They peel out just before the timbers slam home, breathless and staring at my back across the distance between us. I can feel their stare.
“I’m sorry!” Anthea calls. “Listen to me, you idiot! I didn’t mean—”
“I don’t care what you meant!” I tell her. “I’m going to bury these. Stay close and don’t leave the path.”
“There isn’t a path,” Clarissant says plainly.
“Then don’t leave the suggestion of one. Jesus!”
Night dawns, and I’m scampering off to find a place to save my friends—all because I couldn’t save them the first time around.