Isley was kind to animals.
That was the first thing Raki noticed about him – really noticed, that is, beyond the first, most obvious things, the courteous demeanor and the intimidating strength. It was nothing striking, no great show of compassion like some people made when they were trying to convince you they were better people than they really are. Just small things, like the way he talked to the horses when they set up camp each night, murmuring low and soothing when he rubbed them down, like they were worth no less than he was. And the way he fed scraggly, winter-thin crows with grain from a pouch at his belt, and let them perch on his wrist, squawking and rustling their wings. That was when Raki was sure that whatever company he had fallen into, he had been right to follow them. It was something his brother had told him, long ago: you want to understand a man, you don't look to how he treats people, you don't listen to what he says to the folk who can understand him. You watch how he handles the beasts that can't talk back.
You had to trust a man who treated horses like that.
And trustworthy or no, kind or otherwise, you had to respect a man who met the world with such equanimity. The house they had left behind in the high passes had been richer than anything Raki had seen outside the cathedral at Rabona, but both luxury and its absence seemed to faze Isley not at all. He practiced his forms for hours in the freezing air, washed in cold water and ate nothing but a bit of dried fruit and bread, and seemed no worse for it, nor troubled by the hardship.
Ascetic, Raki thought, turning the sound of it over in his mind. It was a word he had first found in the books of Rabona, not as long ago as it sometimes seemed, when there was nothing else to do but wait for Clare to heal. Not the sacred scriptures – the priests wouldn't let a demon's companion lay hand on those. Just ordinary stories. He remembered turning pages, caught up in tales of holy men on mountaintops who subsisted on water and air, demonslayers and visionaries. He imagined the light in their eyes, and dreamed of one day becoming something like them.
Clare had been ascetic, in her warrior's way. He had seen her at her strongest, all lean, predatory menace bent to a soldier's discipline, and he had seen the kindness she tried to hide, and it wasn't up to him to say which was closer to her heart. But watching Isley, it seemed to Raki that this man, now, was closer to mystic than soldier, and closer to legend than either.
Priscilla watched too, with keen curiosity, looking young enough to make him feel older than he was. She reminded him of a cat, the kind that brought small dead creatures to your doorstep, hungry for affection. He stroked her hair idly, watching snowflakes drift through the field of his vision and settle on his cloak, and she clung to him with a strength surprising for such a small girl.
She wasn't entirely right in the head, he thought, but that wasn't her fault and she couldn't help it. His brother had told him that, too – no one ever asked to be made the way they were.
As they travelled south, one of Isley's crows travelled with them, hopping from branch to branch, a small shadow flying ahead like a scout before an army and always circling back. It was strangely comforting, that little speck of dark in a landscape of fathomless white, like there was always something to help them keep their bearings and remind them there was more to the world than snow.
It was no easy journey. Isley didn't seem to believe in setting an unhurried pace, or waiting overlong for anyone without the mettle to keep up, and Raki wasn't used to riding. He could walk for miles now without tiring, and with only a little complaint, but days in the saddle left him worn to the bone at day's end, wanting only to curl up on the ground and sleep.
But instead of sleeping, there were chores to be done, and training – on that, Isley was uncompromising. When Raki wasn't doing stretches and pushups or running until his breath deserted him, he was practicing footwork until he wanted to hit something in frustration – and would have, had he not been convinced that his new teacher would not look kindly on the lack of discipline. Isley's forbearance seemed endless, no matter how long it took Raki to master even the simplest technique, but there were times when those calm, clear eyes settled on him in judgment, and he felt a chill between his shoulders that warned him away from losing it.
They took time for swordsmanship practice each day, in the hour after the sun rose and the hour before night fell, running through drills and stances, matching blades in a rough circle drawn in the snow of whatever campsite they had chosen. Their practice swords clacked and clattered in the still air as they fought, a careful dance with steps that Raki was only just beginning to master.
It was on one of those evenings, with the sun bright behind him and the air sharp with frost, that he landed a hit for the first time.
Usually, when it came to sparring, it was only Isley's discretion that kept Raki from losing pitiably within the first five minutes or less. This time Raki saw the feint and sidestepped, ducking past Isley's guard before his thoughts could catch up with his body, and stabbed upward. He felt the his sword hit home, right on target, and he looked up at Isley, just standing there with the point of Raki's blade leveled at his ribcage.
"You're dead," Raki said, breathing hard, buoyant from triumph and disbelief.
"I got you through the heart, didn't I?"
Isley nodded. "So you did." His smile was gentle, patient.
"You can't kill everything," he said, "by stabbing it through the heart." And he brought the practice blade up again with one twist of his arm and lunged forward, moving fast and striking at Raki's shoulders, his ribs and his stomach, with enough force to raise bruises. Raki lost his grip on his own sword as he fell backward, landing hard in the packed snow. For a moment, it was all he could do to sit there stunned. Then Isley bent to help him to his feet, his palm warm and rough against Raki's skin until he let go.
"If this was a real battle, you'd be dead. Don't forget that."
"I won't," Raki said, wincing. He could feel his face heating from the shame, and he fought the urge to apologize for his failure.
If Isley was disappointed he showed no sign of it, only considered Raki with cool calm and said, "Next time, forget the heart. Strike at the head."
And with that, he strode away, leaving Raki to gather up what remained of his dignity and do with the lesson what he would. It was probably a wise one to remember, and Raki did his best not to let it sting.
Priscilla was watching from the sidelines with the crow sitting on her shoulder. It hopped free as she jumped up and ran to throw her arms around him, and he caught her easily and swept her up to sit in the crook of his arms. All his muscles were aching, but she seemed to weigh less than she ought to, and either way, he wasn't going to complain. Not where anyone could hear him.
"If it was a real battle," she muttered into the fabric of his coat, "I'd keep you safe."
"I know you would," he said, hugging her like a kid sister. Priscilla wasn't so different, maybe, from the boy who had followed a stranger's footsteps into a desert because he had nowhere else worth going; she wanted to be useful, or to be strong, or to be safe. She needed someone to look out for her.
That night, Raki stared into the flames of their campfire and thought about luck.
Priscilla was sleeping in his lap, snoring gently. He could hear the cries of wolves in the distance, but if she had noticed their howling before she drifted off, it hadn't seemed to bother her. Another strange thing about her, that. She was shy, quick to startle, but in all the time since he had met her, he had never seen her afraid of the dark or anything in it. Raki wasn't afraid of much either, by this point, but not because he thought he was safe. Mostly, it was just because the worst thing he could think of had already happened, and there wasn't much left to worry about now.
Maybe it was the same with her, he thought. Maybe that was why she was so funny in the head. Losing your family could do that to you.
On the other side of the campfire, Isley rested with his back against a pine tree. There was something proud and close to indulgent in the set of his face, the slight, amused curve of his lips, reminiscent of the first time Raki had ever seen him.
"She likes you," Isley had said then. "You're lucky." And Raki had looked down, strangely proud, strangely nervous, because it was true. He was lucky.
It was a good thing to be. In a world where any day could kill you, parents didn't pray for their children to be strong or smart or wealthy, or even courageous. They prayed for them to be lucky. But when he thought about his parents and his brother, what had happened to them, he had to wonder if he was only lucky because bad fortune followed him like that crow of theirs, always one step behind and to the side.
Now, Isley tilted his head, listening to the wolves with his eyes half-closed, and his smile slipped from guarded to true.
"You like them, don't you," Raki said. "The wolves."
"I like everything about this country," Isley said. "I regret the need to leave it." He did sound sad, Raki thought. Probably a refugee, then, from the war. They'd passed others on their travels, winter-worn folk with their sparse belongings piled in reindeer-drawn sleighs or carried in bundles on their backs, and if none among them ever stopped to talk or even called a greeting, Raki didn't need words to recognize the kinship in their eyes. They were lucky too.
"Yeah," Raki said. "Me too." The north was a harsh place, from what he could see, but there was something clean about it too. "I... I guess a lot of bad things happened here, but the wolves don't care, do they? No matter what happens, they're doing alright."
"Yes," Isley said. He sounded approving, though whether it was Raki's words or the wolves themselves that pleased him, there was no way to tell. "They don't frighten you?"
"Not really," Raki said. He ought to be frightened, probably. When he really thought about it, it was easy to remember how small the three of them were, against the dark of the forest, and he knew from stories that wolves were dangerous, and ran in packs. But they were far away, and he was lucky, and somehow, when he heard that high, distant howling, it wasn't fear that struck him deepest.
"They sound lonely," he said. "Don't you think so?"
"I think they sound hungry. But you can believe what you like."
They rode south.
Weeks passed, and distance fell behind them. High, ice-covered passes gave way to muddy fields and rambling streams fed by snowmelt, solitude gave way to scattered villages and grazing livestock, and Raki spent every day with his will bent toward a single purpose. He was getting better, he was sure of it. The sword grew lighter in his hands, more natural, and he could train for longer without tiring or making some novice mistake. The illusion that he might ever be the one to protect Clare had faded, but at the very least – at the very least, he wouldn't be a burden.
But no matter his improvement, he didn't manage to strike another blow – not truly, without a teacher's indulgence – until a duel to first blood in a muddy meadow, almost five springs after the winter when they left the north. They had put the practice blades away, and this match, more than any other yet, felt a little like a game and a little more like a test. Isley was making him fight for every second undefeated, and even with treacherous ground underfoot and breath burning in his lungs, there was a fierce exhilaration in the knowledge that he hadn't lost yet.
He was struggling, though, growing tired, and if he let his control or his sword arm flag, it would be over. Isley was a blur of silver and steel, advancing with a series of rapid strikes and smiling all the while. Raki deflected each and fell back, testing Isley's defenses until he saw his moment, and then he moved.
There was the sound of steel sliding on steel, and then he was holding the edge of his blade at Isley's throat, close enough to draw a line of blood.
Isley tilted his head back, and this time there was a trace of surprise beneath the veneer of calm courtesy he always wore, and something almost like respect. It was all Raki could do not to falter under the force of that unexpected regard, but he forced himself to stand straight and keep his expression serious, waiting for the further test he was half-certain was coming.
"You did well," Isley said. "If I were a yoma, I'd be dead."
Raki stepped back, sheathing the blade, and said, "But you're not a yoma. Are you?"
"No. I'm not." Isley's tone made it clear than he meant to say no more on the subject, but Raki saw the opening, like he was learning to see the gaps in a fighter's defenses, and there was nothing to be gained from not pressing the advantage.
"When I was in Rabona," he said, "years ago now, I read stories."
Isley considered him silently, giving no indication of what he thought of that pronouncement, and Raki stood there feeling foolish and naïve and incredibly young, but he didn't look away. Not this time.
"There were monks," he said. "Demonslayers. That's what you remind me of, a little."
"Is that what you think I am? A holy man?"
"No," Raki said quietly. "I don't think so."
"That's wise of you," Isley said, and laughed a little, a soft exhalation.
Raki gathered his courage, quelled his better judgment, and said, "it's what I think you were."
"Ah," Isley said. Nothing more than that, quiet, restrained. Raki wondered if he would die here, mud and wildflowers all around him, and Clare would never know his fate. But Isley only sheathed his own blade and brought a hand to the shallow cut on his throat, considering his own blood on his fingers with a peculiar almost-smile.
"There are some who would say I used to be the opposite," he said. "But you were never one of them, I suspect."
Before Raki could push memories away, his mind flashed to the image of a woman in rags standing outside a town-made-graveyard, and then to a snowy ledge where Priscilla stood looking down, tears running down her face as she talked of dying lights. And longer ago than that – so long it seemed a different life, and he a different person – a sword driven into a chapel floor and Clare shaking in his arms from the strain of a body turned against her.
"No," he said. "I never was."
Nothing changed. Isley was courteous, still and always. He spoke with care and patience, and treated birds and horses well. Priscilla curled beneath Raki's covers at night, her thin arms wrapped around him, seeking comfort or warmth; she cried sometimes when she was sleeping, and remembered nothing when she woke, and Raki thought that might be why he didn't mind so much the awareness that her head on his shoulder meant her teeth too near his throat. None of them mentioned the knowledge that hovered in the air around them – that they carried danger wherever travelled, and left corpses, sometimes, in their wake.
Like Zaki had. Like Clare would have, had she failed in Rabona to pull herself back, and the thought of it made Raki's chest ache, but he knew where his loyalties fell.
When Isley called an end to their travel together, Raki met the news with no surprise. He had been watching Isley grow tense for a long time, haunted or hunted, though he had thought at first it was only that human was human, and hunger obeyed its own law. When the day came, he knew better. They had stopped at a crossroads outside a mid-sized town, and Isley glanced back the way they had come, almost casual, though there was nothing there. Raki knew too much and too little of what drove him, but fear – fear he could recognize.
"Go north," Isley told him, "or west. Not east. Don't stay here."
"I know," Raki said, though if his search took him south or east, that's where he would be.
"Don't bother with the heart," he said, and Raki nodded. He knew that too. Priscilla's hand was small in his, and even understanding the truth of what she was, it was hard to see her as anything other than what she seemed.
"You don't mind taking her with you?"
"No," Raki said. "Someone needs to."
Isley nodded like it was the right answer, or at least the one he had been expecting. Raki thought of their final match in the glade with fallen leaves swirling around them, and the conversation they'd had earlier while she was sleeping, and thought he understood. Some things were inevitable. And some things weren't inevitable, but they had to be done anyway, or at least he had to try.
"Hey, Isley?" he said.
"You remember those wolves? When we were leaving the north, way back then?"
"I remember," Isley said.
"I still say they were lonely."
Isley regarded him for a long moment, then smiled unexpectedly. "And I still say you can believe what you like."
With that, he turned to walk away, and something in his gait and the set of his shoulders made it clear that this was the last time Raki would see him. He didn't look back, and Raki didn't call out to him, just watched until he was out of sight. Priscilla watched too, and whether or not she was sad to see Isley go, Raki couldn't guess. But she clutched his hand tightly, the way children did when they were feeling scared, and leaned against him and didn't say anything at all.
"Come on, then," he said, and hefted the little girl onto his shoulder, surprised once again at her lightness. "We've got places to be going, don't you think?"
Priscilla didn't answer, but he wasn't expecting it. She seldom did. Loyalty was a funny thing, and kindness took strange shapes in the company of monsters, but – he would do right by her. He would do what he had to, even if he was human and his heart mattered as much as his head.
Raki started down the road, no destination except away from where he had been, no sound except the soft whicker of the horses trotting at his side. Take care of them for me, Isley had said. Raki felt the weight of the sword on his back and the girl on his shoulder, and told himself that there was nothing to regret.