That night, Aravis's dreams dripped with blood. If it was not her father she found hanging on the end of her sword, it was Corin, or Lune, or Hana, or even Elonn, whose tongue grew until it licked her face and left a bloody smear. She dreamt of running through endless forests as loud keening followed her; when she wasn't falling into deep chasms or slogging through sucking quicksand, she was turning to find the gaping, bloody jaws of a twisted beast open up behind her. Once, she stumbled over something in the forest and found that it was Lord Nim, his low cairn smashed open and his body crushed and broken from the stones she had helped pile on top of him. She must have screamed, for he opened his empty eye sockets and pointed at her, his toothless mouth hanging open. She turned, fell, and landed in congealing blood; laid out at the foot of the cairn, gashed open from throat to groin and his bowels pulled out like lines of shiny sausages, was Cor, staring sightlessly up at the low, grey sky.
Aravis woke when her head slammed against the ground. It hurt, and her vision swam, but her throat ached worse, and she sat up so fast her forehead collided with something else. Someone swore loudly.
"Aravis." Someone shook her hard, making her teeth clatter, and she realized at last that her eyes were still squeezed shut. It took an effort to open them. The grey light of dawn had begun to lighten the forest, and the fire was burned down, but everyone was already awake, clustered around her and looking very pale. Elonn crouched next to her as Senjen stood nearby, reciting a string of creative oaths. "Yeh awake now?" the inked woman asked.
Every time Aravis blinked, she saw Cor's glassy blue eyes, but she nodded. "Was I—was it—where is—C—I—"
"Ssh," Elonn said insistently. "Yeh had a nightmare, is all."
Just a nightmare. "I—why—"
"Yeh were screaming somethin' fierce, lass," Elonn explained. "Gave us all a good start."
"Bloody fucking damn dragons—" Senjen was saying. She looked at him and saw him wiping blood from his nose.
"Did I hit—" she asked, reaching up a shaking hand to the sore spot on her own forehead.
Elonn nodded. "'E tried to wake you. Made t'rest o' us fink we was under attack."
"I near pissed myself," Drip declared.
"Shut up, Drip," said Gendrie.
Aravis kneaded her forehead and closed her eyes again. She could still feel the unspeakable roar of emotion that had erupted in her belly when she saw him lying there, hands limp and open in the trampled grass; it pulsated in her temples, receding only very slowly. A shudder rippled through her. You have to get angry, girl. This isn't the way to live, sad and lost in the ghosts of what happened before.
"I'm sorry to have woken you," she said at last. "I will not do it again."
"Yeh can't control yer dreams, love," Elonn said gently. "Tonight I'll give yeh a drop o' the chamomile Mabe gave me. She said it helped yeh las' time."
Aravis had no choice but to nod silently. The chamomile gave her dreamless sleep, but it felt false somehow, a kind of undeserved respite, and she had woken with a bitter taste in her mouth. But she knew she couldn't do that to the Sons again, not when she had already put their nerves on edge with her talk of dragons and old magic.
"Oh, sop it up already," Manden said to Senjen, who was still spitting blood from the dribble that ran down his upper lip.
"Sorry, Senjen," Aravis murmured, guilt creeping into her belly.
Senjen wiped his face with his sleeve and spat once more. "Might as well pack up," he said after a short pause. "No one's gettin' back to sleep after this."
Aravis felt miserable. The others rolled up their furs and blankets without complaining, but she could see the exhaustion in their puffy eyes. They ate their breakfast cold and in silence and were in the saddle again before the pale light of the rising sun had begun to warm the air.
Even once they had reached a little road that was really no more than a path, they were all jittery, even the horses; Inga reared when they passed a creaking deadwood, nearly throwing Aravis from the saddle. Senjen rode with his sword in hand after that.
Midmorning, Elonn rolled out a worn sheepskin map and put it in Aravis's lap. "Here's Justice," she said, pointing to a small ink blot on the page, "an' 'ere's that 'bandoned village we kipped in las' night. How close do yeh reckon we are ter Sweetwater Mill here?"
Aravis squinted at the page. Whatever scholar had drawn up the map had terrible cramped handwriting, but she could see the blotch that marked the location of Sweetwater Mill, a settlement on the banks of the brook that babbled nearby. "Well, if the map's to scale, likely quite close, really."
"Less than a day's ride, I should think."
Elonn nodded. "Righ'. Well, Senjen, yeh'd best be off, then."
Senjen rubbed his swollen nose and got up from the ground. "Yeh know what to listen for."
Elonn gave a bird-like nod. "Go on, then!"
He murmured something that sounded like yes ma'am and bustled to his horse. The two hurried off, leaving nothing but kicked-up mud and clods of snow in their wake, and the sounds of the shaggy horse's hooves were still audible when Elonn said to them, "Well, what are yeh all standin' around like lambs fer? Mount up!"
"Where's Senjen gone?" Aravis asked her, confused.
"Ter Sweetwater Mill."
"Do some scoutin', a little recruitin', mayhap a little fightin'. All depends on what 'e finds."
"Where are we going, then?"
Her utter bewilderment must have been evident on her face, for Manden and Drip took one look at her and burst out in laughter. Even Elonn cracked a small smile, which made Aravis feel even stupider.
"You can't let anyone go in without suppor'," Drip said, guffawing like a mule. "Even Senjen!"
"'Specially Senjen," said Manden.
Aravis frowned. "Then why—"
"That's how it's done," Gendrie broke in mercifully. "Someone always goes ahead to scout out the settlement. If it's small, he speaks with the villagers. If it's bigger, sometimes he'll talk to the mayor. He wants to find out where the village's loyalties lie. We get recruits from the royalist villages, we bring news to the undecided, and we fight the Finnian outposts. We'll follow behind Senjen so as not to alarm the villagers and to let him talk, but we're always close by. He'll blow his horn when he's ready—one blast for friends, two for foes, and three for help."
Elonn shrugged. "Th' woods is a dang'rous place."
"Wolves," said Drip with a shiver.
"Ogres," Manden chimed in.
Aravis looked at the silent trees that surrounded them. The heavy, wet snow that lay on the branches and in the underbrush was undisturbed, though it had not snowed in many days. I'm not sure that wolves and ogres are our chief concerns.
They followed the path Senjen had taken. Aravis and Elonn rode in the vanguard, but every attempt at conversation fell flat; it was like the woods were eating up their words. Aravis didn't mind, though. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Cor's limp hand in the dewy grass—it was such a vivid image that she wondered briefly if the tales were true, if some women had the power to see the future in their dreams, but she quickly dismissed the idea. Still, she wanted nothing more in that moment than to feel that hand closed tight around hers. I will not sleep soundly until I hear that he has returned to Anvard, she thought sadly.
"Penny fer your thoughts?" Drip asked her loudly.
For a moment, Aravis was tempted to tell him everything, how her last words to her best friend had been full of anger and dripping with spite, but she merely shrugged and said, "I'm tired, is all."
Drip took this pronouncement at face value and moved on, whistling loudly. The sound grated on Aravis's ears. It seemed wrong to be making so much noise in such a quiet place; the hair on the back of her neck prickled, and she found herself glancing at the branches overhead in case a host of dragons crouched there.
The muddy hoofprints left by Senjen's horse grew harder and harder to see as they drew near Sweetwater Mill and the path became more traveled. Aravis, slouched over in the saddle with the beginnings of a headache that was blooming from the bruise left by Senjen's nose, felt Inga grow alert between her thighs, her ears pricking forward and her hide twitching uneasily. Almost absently, Aravis reached forward to scratch her under her mane in a reassuring manner, but the reassurance was more for her than for the horse.
It was not long before they reached the edge of the forest, the hillside bare where settlers had cut down trees and dragged up stone to build the little village that nestled next to a rushing stream that ran through the fold between three hills. Little streams of smoke wafted up from the few houses that lined the single street; despite the cold, where the ground was exposed to the light of the sun, the snow had melted away, leaving the road that led down towards the gates muddy and slick.
"Sweetwater Mill," Elonn said, but her pronouncement was more of a question. Aravis looked down at the village, its stone walls mossy with age, and nodded.
"Won't be long now," Manden murmured. "Senjen never takes long to reconnoiter."
Sure enough, Aravis had just dismounted to stretch her legs when Lognar gave a noise of recognition, and they all looked down to see a shape on a small, wooly horse emerge from the village gate. "That'll be him, then," said Gendrie.
Aravis went to mount up, but Drip seized her by the belt and said, "Not so quickly, now. Wait fer the horn."
Flushing, Aravis brushed his hand away and waited, her left foot in the stirrup. The only sound was the distant creaking of the mill that had given the village its name.
The call was faint and thin; Aravis could tell it was a cheaply made horn, likely lacking the careful oiling and banding that allowed a loud, clear note to be sounded. Then again, it had served its purpose, hadn't it?
"Go on," said Drip, grabbing her belt again, this time in an attempt to hoist her into the saddle as she started to attention. "One horn blast—friends!"
Aravis pushed him away and clambered up into the saddle without assistance. She had not seen a real village in months, she realized uneasily as Inga fell into line behind Manden and Elonn and began the slippery descent into the valley. A brief image of her face plastered on every town gate and inn door flashed across her mind, and she imagined being surrounded by the town watchmen and clapped in irons…
Inga snorted loudly, as if she knew where Aravis's mind was wandering to, and Aravis realized she had been riding lazily, allowing her weight to fall forward on the animal's withers. She straightened and leaned back in the saddle, the heft of her claymore bouncing at her hip.
They met Senjen at the side of a crossroads, one fork leading up the way they had come and the other following the stream to disappear into the forest. "What news?" Elonn asked as she broke out that morning's remaining sausages.
Senjen tore hungrily into his serving the moment his boots hit the mud, chewing noisily for a few minutes before answering. "No foes," he said around a mouthful. Aravis could see a lump of food pressing against the thin skin of his cheek. "But no friends, neither. Least, not yet. T'town walls've kept the bandits off so far, but t'constable is worried 'at come spring, no travelers will dare ter come over t'hills. A mill's not much use wi'out corn to grind."
"What did you say?" Manden asked.
He shrugged and bit off a mouthful of bread. "That t'Finnii would be round afore long, an' they wouldn't ask nice for the use o' that mill."
"What did they say?" Drip asked.
"Frightened a few crones peddling matches," Senjen answered sourly. "No' many people ou' on a day like this."
"Y'need a woman's touch," Elonn retorted. "Go on, then, finish your lunches. We'll spend the night 'ere."
"In the inn?" Drip asked hopefully. Gendrie glared at him.
"Here," Elonn elaborated. Drip's face fell. Ignoring him, Elonn rounded on Lognar. "It's yer turn to watch the horses, aye?"
Lognar nodded silently.
Satisfied, Elonn loosened her short, stubby sword in its sheath and swung her cloak over her shoulders to hide it. Aravis did the same, though her claymore was harder to conceal, and the hilt stuck out conspicuously despite her attempts to cover it with her arm.
"Jus' don't make any sudden moves, sand cat," Senjen said dryly. "Don' want a riot on our hands."
Aravis grimaced and adjusted her belt, but there was nothing to be done about it, so she was left cradling the hilt of her sword in the crook of her elbow as she slogged towards the village gates behind the other five. The new social dynamic she was experiencing left a knot of discomfort in her stomach; her companions led the way forward with as much confidence and poise as unwashed travelers trudging through ice-cold muck can muster, and yet she slipped and squelched along behind, trotting to keep up and wondering what on earth she was supposed to be doing. Lion's mane, she groaned inwardly. I'm Corin.
The village watch gave them a hard look as they passed through the gates. Aravis did not blame them for being suspicious of a group of scraggly travelers with no baggage or mounts; indeed, even she was slightly suspicious of them, though she had been given no cause to be anything but grateful for Senjen and Elonn. You're in too deep now, said the voice in her head, so she pulled the cowl of her cloak up tighter around her neck and turned her attention to what was going on around her. Sweetwater Mill was a small village, too poor to have cobbled streets; there was a bakery, a potshop, a few rundown thatch-roofed houses, and an inn on the main street. In one of the alleys, few scrawny dogs wrestled in the mud over a scrap of grey beef.
"How many people even live here?" she asked dubiously.
"Best guess is a hun'red, maybe less," Senjen answered. "T'place grows in t'spring an' summer."
It had been a cold winter, Aravis conceded, but it was nearly spring and they still only encountered a handful of pedestrians between the gates and the market green.
"Isn't there a mayor you can talk to instead?" Gendrie asked with a similar note of disbelief in her voice as Senjen swept off his cloak and tossed it to her.
"No such luck," he answered. "T'captain o'the watch reports direct to the constable of Glasbury."
"What's Glasbury?" asked Drip.
Senjen threw back his shoulders and marched towards the platform on the green that was usually used for hangings and the reading of royal decrees. "Nearest town," he called back, "few days' ride from 'ere."
"Here he goes," Gendrie muttered.
Aravis took a few steps back towards the relative safety of the side of the bakery; she felt exposed, standing in a small knot in front of Senjen. "Nothing to be 'fraid of," Elonn said gently to her as the thin, burned man clambered up onto the platform. "Why don't yeh take a peek down some o' the side streets? Keep yeh busy."
The prospect of wandering off alone choked Aravis with fear. Unbidden, the memory of Cor shaking the bars of a slaver's cage came to mind, and she managed a hesitant "Me?"
"Well, why not," Elonn answered. "You an' Drip can take that street there…Manden 'nd Gendrie can go in t'opposite direction. I'll stay 'ere an' keep Senjen outta mischief."
Senjen had gotten himself situated on the platform. "Good people o' Sweetwater," he said loudly. Aravis cringed; in his attempt to project his voice, he had managed to make his accent all the thicker. "I 'ave a proposal fer yeh…"
"Go on, then," Drip said in her ear. "Let's leave afore people start ter stare."
They were already starting, Aravis observed as she let Drip steer her away from the near-empty market square. Senjen's voice was carrying, and people were looking crossly at him from upper windows and side streets. It was all a bit embarrassing.
"What are we to do?" she asked as they slogged off towards the stream, the creaking of the mill growing louder. "Anyone who cares about the Finnii will go to Senjen, for better or worse, I suppose."
"Not t'womenfolk," Drip answered. "Don't trust men, even ones like us. 'Tisn't fair, really."
Aravis tried not to roll her eyes but did not succeed. Leaving his comment unacknowledged, she focused instead on the ramshackle buildings that lined the muddy lane. Dirty-faced children peeked curiously out at them as they passed, and Aravis thought that they probably made a queer-looking couple, Drip with his carrot-orange hair and herself a small, dark shadow at his side.
It was an ill-fated venture to begin with, she realized quickly. Only twice did they encounter any pedestrians; the first time, the old man hissed at them and ran into a dilapidated hut, clutching his cloak tightly about his skeletal frame. The second time, Drip got up a good conversation with a handsome, fleshy woman, and Aravis was impressed despite herself until the woman reached out and squeezed her left breast beneath her cloak, saying to him, "An' 'ow much do yer want fer this 'un? I'll offer yeh sixty gilds, no more."
"A harlot?" Aravis hissed as soon as they had hurried away, rubbing at her violated breast. "Do I look like a harlot to you?"
"Well, you's dark," he answered, "an' it's not terribly unusual fer a dark girl to get herself in trouble and come up north…"
"Is that what you thought of me when I came to Justice?" she asked him, a weight settling into her gut.
His silence confirmed her suspicions. A flush of anger colored Aravis's vision red, and she strode off down the next alleyway, keen on putting as much distance as possible between the two of them. She wasn't entirely sure why she was so upset; they both knew she was hardly a harlot. A murderer, maybe, but never a harlot.
Men see a strange woman and assume she is theirs to take. Isn't that the way of things?
A memory, long quashed, rose to the surface, despite all her efforts to beat it away. "It has always been the way of things," her father had said, grasping at her sleeve as she reached for a bowl of stuffed cabbage leaves. "The princes tolerate you for now, but sooner or later, they will take what they want from you, and then you'll learn…"
Aravis recalled bitterly how she had fought with him to leave; she was sure the only reason he didn't strike her across the face when she ripped free of his grasp was because of the crowd of Archenlanders at table with them. How right you were, Father, she thought angrily. Men take what pleases them and cast us aside when they are finished.
If her vision hadn't been blurred with furious tears, she might have seen them coming. As it was, she heard the jingle of chainmail a second too late. A heavy, hot hand clamped down hard on her chin and lifted it high to bare her neck to a blade as a second arm pinned her arms to her sides. "Which brown bitch're yeh?" a gravelly voice said in her ear.
The knife was pressed so tightly against her throat that Aravis didn't even dare swallow. Her heart pounded in her ears so loudly that it nearly drowned out the sound of the man's ragged breathing. Aravis could scarcely breathe, herself.
"Which one are yeh?" he repeated, more urgently this time. The knife scraped against her skin. "I'll kill yeh if yeh don't talk—I'll cut yer pretty brown throat!"
"Yeh can't," whispered another voice. "We gotta capture 'er—the usurper's near."
"We gotta kill th' younger one, though!"
Aravis wasn't sure if it was the fear or the pressure of the blade on her neck stemming blood flow, but she had a flash of insight. They know of Elnaz. The words of an old Calormene nursery rhyme came to mind, and she began reciting the words as quickly as she could past the man's hand. "Bel'atyyah famananaki al atar ha'roum letel alhoria—"
The hand at her throat was still for a moment. "T'older one's supposed to speak the common language," said the higher voice uneasily.
Then the gravely voice said, "She's lyin'," and the blade pressed so hard against her windpipe that she gagged.
Suddenly, there was a commotion, and the arms holding her captive slackened. Aravis, her center of balance dislodged, fell to the muddy ground, striking the side of her head hard on the ground, and the weight of her assailant landed square on her shoulders and knocked the wind clean out of her.
"You all right, Aravis?" came Drip's voice, high and loud with fear, as the weight lifted.
Aravis had never been so glad to see him. As soon as she was free of the stranger's deadweight, fear came rushing belatedly upon her, and she gripped the sleeves of his tunic. He patted her shoulder awkwardly for a moment. "They were Finnii," she managed. "They—they know that the p-prince is still traveling with a C-Calormene woman, but Elnaz and I fled from Castle Zohra, so they don't know if I'm me or if I'm her—"
Drip shushed her. "There, there. Yeh've had a shock. Tell me wha' happened."
Aravis released him and stepped away; only then could she look down at the body lying facedown in the mud. The dark crimson stain on the linen of his shirt matched the color of the kerchief tied around his neck, and she swallowed. "You killed him," she said stupidly.
Drip shifted uncomfortably. "I had to."
Aravis put aside her own fear for a moment—it was clouding her judgment, and it was clouded judgment that had gotten them into this situation in the first place. Drip was shivering, too, she noticed; he was as pale in the face as his sword was red. "Yes," she said at last. "I suppose you did."
"Should have at least shouted," he said dully. "Given 'im a chance, or sum'fing. But I was afraid the other would hear me first. He ran fer it, mind."
It took an effort, but she lifted her chin. "We should leave, then."
"Wipe your sword off on his cloak."
He obeyed wordlessly; halfway through sliding his scarred old sword back into its sheath, though, he hesitated and said, "Shouldn't we do something…?"
"There's no time," she answered.
Drip looked stricken, but he nodded and said, "We'll fetch t'others. Yeh need a bandage fer that cut…"
Only then did Aravis feel the burn at her throat. She lifted a hand to it instinctively and her fingers came away slick with blood; the sight of it brought back memories of Cor's pale, bloody face, and suddenly, her gut filled with such fear that she couldn't breathe. "Please," she said nonsensically, and began, slowly, inexorably, to dissolve into tears.
Drip grabbed her arm and began to pull her along behind him. Aravis had to will her feet to follow him, else she would have gladly laid down in the alley. If I could see him just once more, she thought, her inner voice screaming the words, it would be all I needed! Just to know he's still alive! They could have killed me so quickly…and me just a woman…how much easier would it be for them to kill Cor, the one they hate so bitterly!
Senjen was still lecturing at the top of his voice. Aravis could hear the tenor of his words as they came back onto the market green, but the words meant nothing to her. She tried to shake Drip's arm off her wrist, but he held on firmly, arguing with Senjen while he kept her from breaking free.
"We have to leave," she heard him saying. "Now."
"What's happened to—" Manden asked.
"Finnii," Drip answered. "They know we're 'ere, now."
Soon they were hurrying back along the main road. Aravis had managed to muffle any sobs that threatened to burst out; still, the raw yearning in her gut was even more painful than the cut on her neck, which was already scabbing over. Manden and Senjen kept shooting her alarmed glances as if they were afraid she might suddenly grow fangs and sprout wings, but Elonn looked supremely unsurprised. Based on the older woman's apparent sympathy, Aravis wondered briefly if she could convince her to change course and seek out her friends instead of the Finnii, but she knew immediately that Elonn's sympathy would not extend that far.
Lognar was sitting on a log with his hands tucked under his arms. When he heard them approach, he watched bemusedly for a long moment until Inga, catching the scent of Aravis's blood, began to squeal and tug at her tie. "What's happened?" he asked after lurching to his feet.
"Finnii," Elonn said shortly. "We'll move on fer now."
Aravis, once Drip released her, hurried to Inga's side and untied her with shaking fingers; Inga shoved her wet, warm nose into Aravis's hands blew hot breath into her palms. For some absurd reason, it made her feel better, and she hid her face in Inga's dirty grey mane for a long minute.
"I'll do it," came Drip's voice. Aravis looked up and watched him drag Inga's saddle over and throw it atop the stained blanket that Lognar had draped over her withers.
"You don't have to," she said quietly, wrapping her arms around Inga's neck.
"Yer in no shape fer it," he grunted in response.
She did not reply. While he slipped the bit back into Inga's mouth (miraculously, she did not try to bite him), Gendrie applied a pungent-smelling ointment to the cut on Aravis's throat and wrapped a length of linen bandage around her neck to cover it.
"If you begin to feel lightheaded," Gendrie said, "it means it's too tight. The wound will scar without it, though."
Aravis thought of making a wry joke, but the words turned to ash on her tongue and she kept silent, thinking instead of the scar that lurked in the shadow above Cor's mouth, the sole remnant of his time as a slave. Who has a monopoly on scars now? she thought.
Drip helped her into the saddle. Inga moved fluidly beneath her, and the cool wind that buffeted her face helped clear her mind as they set off to follow the stream that ran to Glasbury. Her fear was beginning to coalesce into a red-hot knot in her gut—easier to tolerate, but harder to ignore. They know I've fled Zohra, she thought nervously. They'll know I've killed him. Then, Of course they do, stupid—it was near a month ago, now.
Somehow they learned that Elnaz left, too.
A touch of smugness overlaid her scorching fear and lessened it for a moment. But they don't know if I've joined back up with Cor or not. She smiled a bit. They think I have. That's what I would have done, otherwise. What I should have done.
The smug feeling did not last, though, and she rubbed her sore face with one hand. When she looked up, she saw that Drip was looking askance at her, gnawing on his lip as though it was his dinner. She remembered all too well what it felt like to have seen her blade slip through a living man's flesh like it was butter, and the same nauseated guilt that still plagued her was now evident in Drip's pale face. She felt a rush of sympathy for him and, looking at him kindly, saw for the first time that he had the tall, ruddy look of a northerner about him—he looked more like Corin than Cor, with his thick plowboy's neck and shoulders, but the regional resemblance was clear in his carrot-red hair and blotchy freckles. His coloring was a far cry from the starker coloring of southerners like Elonn, with their dark eyes staring out from pale porcelain faces. It was comforting to look at him.
Drip cautioned a smile at her, and she blinked. The usurper is near, one of her assailants had said. The Finnii would be looking for a tall, freckled northern-looking man of twenty or so, red-headed by some accounts, accompanied by a small Calormene woman, wouldn't they?
They don't know where Cor is! she thought triumphantly. I could be Elnaz, and Drip could be Cor, for all they know…
The thought of Drip as the future king of Archenland struck Aravis as inordinately funny, and she had trouble keeping a straight face. I've got them running confused.
She knew then that she could not, of course, go back to Cor. Doing so would be to forfeit the advantage she had gained over the Finnii. As long as they were confused as to who the real Cor was, Cor—her Cor—would be safe.
Someday, she vowed, when this threat is eliminated and Cor is safely king, I will go back to Anvard. Then I will let myself see him.
They ran their horses ragged that night, trying to put as much distance between themselves and Sweetwater Mill as possible. No one besides the other Finnii had seen that Drip had killed the man in the alley, and Drip wasn't even sure that he had seen his face, but Aravis, Elonn, and Senjen had already bloodied their hands elsewhere and were thus keen on keeping as far from any constables as possible. Only Inga kept her head high and her ears pricked forward, alert for any danger.
"Solid horse you have there," Manden commented at one point. Aravis thanked her and thought that Inga wore a rather self-satisfied expression.
Only once the crescent moon was high and yellow overhead did they finally halt for the night. They pulled the horses deeper into the woods and made camp among the tall, mossy trees; Elonn wanted to drop their bedrolls and sleep in the dark, but Senjen made them build up a strong, hot fire and eat sausages and drink strong ale before anyone could go to bed. Aravis didn't mind. She was tired, but she did not feel capable of curling up in her bedroll and sleeping, not in the least, and eating postponed the inevitable.
Drip seemed to think the same. The hand that held his mug of ale shook ever so slightly, but he volunteered to take the first watch when Senjen asked if he was going to sleep.
"Are yeh sure that's wise?" Senjen asked carefully.
"Why wouldn't it be?" Drip answered with an attempt at derision that failed miserably.
Senjen caught Aravis's eye, and she nodded. "We'll be fine," she said to him. "I'll stay up, as well—I'm much too worked up to sleep just yet."
Drip gave her a grateful look as Senjen curled up in his bedroll and turned his back. She poured him more ale. It was the best she could do: even if they had been able to talk just yet (only Manden and Gendrie were asleep), she wasn't sure what she would say. Rotten luck, ol' boy?He had killed a man, and it would take many long nights before he would be able to sleep soundly again. The best thing for him now was ale.
"You should clean your sword," she murmured once he was on his fifth cup.
He looked at her almost belligerently, but after a moment his expression softened and he got up and fetched his scarred old sword. Aravis watched silently as he drew it out of its sheath and began to rub it down with sandstone and an oilcloth, keeping his jaw clenched as the stone worked bits of dried blood out of the blade's crevices. It was a strangely homely sight; the glimmer of firelight on the steel and the soft grating sounds of the stone against the shaft were calming, in a strange way, and the fire made his hair glow like red gold.
He paused only after a long few minutes, looking at the result of his handiwork, and he held it out for inspection. Aravis nodded approvingly. "'Ow is it a beautiful rich lady like yerself came to know so much abou' war?" he asked finally, keeping his voice so low Aravis had to lean closer to hear it.
"I'm not beautiful, and I'm not rich," Aravis answered quietly. "And what makes you think this is a war?"
"Yeh are," he replied, though she wasn't sure to what. "A war is when people figh' each other, innit?"
"A war is when forces of equal strength and legitimacy take up arms against each other," she said, raking up the fire. "The Finnii have neither strength nor legitimacy, and the crown has not deigned to engage them. This is a petty rebellion, nothing more."
"It won't be petty if'n they get wha' they're after," he said gloomily.
Aravis stared into the fire. I follow you into the wilderness, putting myself at risk, for you! Who are you to me? A boy—a skinny, pale boy. Nothing more. "No," she said at last. "No, it won't."
Drip put his arm around her shoulders. She could feel that he was still trembling a little, and his breath smelled of ale, but his arm was thick and strong from years at the plough and it made her feel a tad bit safer. "Thank you, Drip," she said softly. "You saved my life."
"M' real name's Iann," he answered.
"Iann?" she blurted, looking up at him. It was a noble name, surprising to find on a man like Drip. "But…why are you called Drip?"
He shrugged somewhat miserably. "I got river fever when I was a lad, an' me nose ran for a month….the nickname stuck."
Aravis patted the hand that was gripping her shoulder. "I contracted river fever when I first came to Archenland," she said. "I was sick for weeks."
"An' yer nose dripped?"
"My throat was so swollen I could hardly swallow. My governess said it was as spotted as a trout's back."
"So yer nose didn't drip?"
He was getting drunk, she saw. He was not grinning inanely like Corin would have, but his eyes were bleary and she could tell by the way he held her that he was feeling a bit woozy. Perhaps it might help him sleep. "It did drip," she conceded. "But only a little."
Drip nodded slowly. "I always ha' th' worst luck."
"Not true, surely."
"I 'ad to kill a man, didn't I?"
"You could have been me."
He grunted. "Shouldn'ta let you go alone…"
"I shouldn't have gone. It was very foolish of me."
He grunted again. More to change the subject that anything, Aravis asked, "Why did your mother name you Iann?"
"Me father were a marcher lord," he answered promptly.
"I meant to say 'a northerner.'"
Drip colored, and the red blush that crept up his cheeks reminded Aravis forcefully of Cor's. "Oh. Aye. A northerner."
Aravis kept her mouth shut. It did not seem fair to press him for any more details, and he did not appear keen to offer them. The sound of the crackling fire, and the occasional sleeping snort of their companions, filled the silence.
Drip broke it at last. "Yer awful sweet, Ar'vis."
This pronouncement surprised her. She'd been called many things before, but sweet had never been one of them. Unsure of what to say, she merely patted his hand again.
"Beau'iful, highborn, an' sweet," he went on, as though amazed that any one person could be all three. Aravis sighed; he was well and truly on his way to being drunk. Why was it that men only said such nice things to her when they were in their cups? Cor wouldn't have kissed you if he hadn't had so much wine, said a malicious little voice in the back of her mind. Aravis squashed it viciously.
"A shame I'm Calormene, then," she said with a weak attempt at levity, "else I'd be perfect."
"I don't mind," Drip answered. "I like that yer different."
Despite herself, she was touched, and she patted his hand with a bit more warmth. "You're getting drunk," she said gently. "You should go to bed. I'll wake Lognar to take the watch—I'm sure he won't mind."
"I'm not drunk," he protested. "I've been drunk afore, and this isn't it."
"Are you sure?"
She looked at him for a moment. His pale blue eyes were bleary, indeed, but he held her gaze steadily. "If you say so," she said finally, and settled back into her seat.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, gazing into the fire. Drip's arm was tight across her shoulders. For a brief moment, Aravis closed her eyes and imagined that she was back with her friends; it was Janey who was snoring gently, and Ram who was rolling over in his sleep. Borran had built the fire, and Romith had put the pot of ale over it to heat until it was steaming and fragrant, and it was Cor who sat beside her with his hand giving her arm comforting squeezes now and again. The fantasy held together for a few breaths, but the third time Aravis exhaled, it was in a sigh, and she rubbed her aching forehead with the tips of her fingers.
Drip did not ask what was the matter. Instead, he leaned down and placed a light kiss between her brows. It surprised Aravis, but she closed her eyes and stayed where she was. He smelled of smoke and horses. A moment later, he was putting his face down to hers and kissing her lips.
Aravis did not shrink back, at first. Drip was a skillful kisser, and her body responded to his caress almost without her realizing it. She lifted her face and waited for him to whisper her name.
When he did not, she stiffened with confusion, and then realized, with a rush of mortification, that it was Drip she was kissing, not Cor. She pushed away.
Drip let her go. She was grateful for that much—the cold night air blew the cobwebs from her brain and cooled her burning cheeks. Her neck throbbed. I should have just gone with him, she thought painfully, screwing in her burning eyes with the heels of her hands. Damn the consequences—we would have worked it out somehow! Oh, Cor, what have I done!
"What's 'is name?" Drip asked after a long silence.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You was thinkin' abou' a lad. I could tell."
Aravis used the hem of her tunic to scrub her face. "I don't need to have a 'lad' to not want to kiss you—"
He scuffed his shoes across the dead leaves that scattered the ground. "I know," he said musingly. "Still. I'm no' a fool—a man knows when a woman is thinkin' of someone else. What's 'is name?"
The light of the fire made Aravis's eyes water. She recalled dimly the little scrap of paper that had Cor's illustration of the dusky maid and her handsome prince—Khurshid had probably taken it too, if it hadn't slipped between flagstones or been caught up when her maids changed her sheets. "Shasta," she said at last, and scoured the tears from her eyes.
"We've all made sa'rifices," Drip answered softly.
More than you know, Aravis thought, and nodded.
He poured her another cup of ale, and together they stared into the fire until it burned down to the embers.
A/N: I live! Sorry about the delay, guys—graduate school applications are more involved than I expected them to be.
Friendly reminder, also, that if you ask a question in an anonymous review, I can't reply. A lot of people have asked good questions, but I can't answer them! Please remember to keep all questions to signed-in reviews (or, if you're a regular, put your penname in for "Guest" and I can find you from there), emails, PMs, or Facebook. ~SH