Warning: This story contains allusions to rape and sexual abuse of minors, both canonical and extrapolated.
The desert teemed with life, if one knew how to look. Azure creepers on the lee side of dunes stretched filaments towards Solstar as it set. Jewel-bright lizards wriggled out of their holes to chase insects across the lengthening shadows. A falconet wheeled overhead, and Roshka heard the soft skitter of digging creatures beneath the sands. It was nothing like his bountiful home of Pirs, but even less was it like the true wasteland it had been five years past. "The Aeriel has worked marvels," said Roshka.
"Yes." His traveling companion curled his lip, stretching tight the four parallel scars on his cheek. "And as long as she labors in Crystalglass, you may reign uncontested in Pirs. Do you fear that she would claim her birthright if she were free?"
Roshka shrugged. Sometimes Irrylath's barbs hit home, and then they stung, but he was no archer like his mother. He scattered his bitter words as a pricklepig scatters its spines, at random.
And surely, if Irrylath gained his desire, Aeriel would return with him to Avaric, and leave Pirs to Roshka as she had always done. Roshka didn't think Irrylath would gain his desire. But he traveled with Irrylath anyway.
It was just over Solstarrise, this daymonth past, that Irrylath arrived in Pirs—appeared might be a better word, for he walked into Roshka's feasting-hall unlooked-for and unheralded, after the greatfruit and before the stuffed gamebirds. He was wearing a plain cloak, dusty from the road, and an expression of proud defiance.
"Cousin!" said Roshka. "What brings you to my hall?"
"Your servants do," Irrylath answered, "though I asked only the leavings of your household to eat, and a place in the stables to rest. I did not give them my name. I am not here as the King of Avaric."
"They did well," said Roshka. "If they had sent my kinsman away after a crust of bread and a nap in the stables, I would have had them whipped. But if not as the King of Avaric, then as what?"
"As a pilgrim," said Irrylath. "I go to Crystalglass. The Avarclon says I may, if I return within six daymonths."
Roshka smiled. He had to, at Irrylath's dreadful earnestness. "And you have been asking, I suppose, once a daymonth these five years."
"Every time I woke," said Irrylath without any humor, "these five years."
"Well," said Roshka. "I thank you, cousin, for giving me the merit of feeding and sheltering a pilgrim. Seat yourself; eat; they are just about to bring out the stuffed gamebirds."
Irrylath sat, though he ate little and spoke less. Roshka wondered if he wouldn't have eaten more, after all, if he had been allowed to have leftovers among the horses. The thought made Roshka sad; he loved to be hospitable.
After the meal, Irrylath retired to a guest chamber, but Roshka was restless, and went to his gardens instead of his bed. There he found a bronze stag with golden antlers browsing among the plums.
Roshka threw his arms around the stag's neck. "This is a daymonth for rare vistors, Pirsalon! How fare the borders?"
"Your borders are peaceful, Suzerain," said the Pirsalon, returning Roshka's embrace with a nuzzle. "I have seen no bandits or highwaymen since we last spoke, and the jackals have been keeping to the wilderness, and not troubling the villages. But Solstar has barely risen—what other visitors can you mean?"
"The King of Avaric," said Roshka. "My cousin Irrylath."
"Indeed?" The Pirsalon's neck stiffened, and his tail flicked up. "Why has he come to Pirs?"
"He is only passing through. He walks the pilgrim's road to Crystalglass. He has not said so—but when the White Witch was overthrown, and rain fell, he vowed by his life to release Aeriel from Ravenna's sorcery, and he means to fulfill his vow now."
"Madness," snorted the Pirsalon. "Every fortnight, these five years, rains have fallen. The trees are heavy with plums and greatfruit. The Torch is kindled, and children collect pearls from the ground. The creatures that were once the Witch's fear to enter the habitations of men. All these things, the Aeriel has done, with the Ravenna's sorcery working in her. Who seeks to take the sorcery from her seeks the death of the world, as the White Witch sought. If Irrylath's quest were not hopeless, it would be dangerous."
"Yes," said Roshka. "May I go too?"
The Pirsalon laughed. "You have never needed my permission for anything you wish to do. Do you think Pirs will be well without you for a time?"
"The harvest has been good," said Roshka. "The lightbearers fly, and the peace with Zambul still holds. My ministers are capable. You guard my borders. Pirs will be well."
"Then go, if it is in your heart to do so. But Suzerain—why?"
Roshka rested his cheek against the stag's velvety fur, closed his eyes and breathed in the mingled scents of musk and plum trees. He had no answer for the Pirsalon.
Irrylath gave no sign that he was glad of Roshka's company on the road, but neither did he turn him back. In fact, at first he slowed his own steps for Roshka, who had not walked more than a few hours from his palace for years. When they stopped to rest, and shared dried fruit and water from their packs, Irrylath sometimes spoke of the rebuilding in Avaric—an aqueduct completed, a school for scribes opened—and Roshka heard the pride and satisfaction in his voice that he would not allow in his words. Or sometimes Roshka sang, love-ballads of Pirs, or half-remembered cradle-songs of his mother from Isternes. Sometimes they were silent, and Irrylath would tilt his head back and catch the early rays of Solstar on his face. Sometimes he seemed almost at peace.
And little by little, Roshka's breath came easier when they climbed hills, and the blisters on his feet burst and hardened. Soon his strides were as long as Irrylath's, and his cloak as dusty. When they stopped at wayside inns, people saw two pilgrims, and not two kings.
"Why do you walk the pilgrim's road?" one landlady asked, as she handed them fragrant bowls of nettle soup.
"The one I love is a slave," said Irrylath. "I mean to ask the Aeriel how I may free her."
"That is hard. Slavery is a bitter thing," said the landlady. Irrylath turned away from her sympathy as if from a poisoned cup. "The Aeriel freed many slaves when she walked among us. Perhaps she will help you."
"If the Ancients will it," said Roshka. Irrylath quirked up one corner of his mouth, hearing irony where Roshka had only meant politeness. And perhaps irony comforted him where sympathy couldn't, for he managed a smile and a word of thanks to the landlady before turning to his soup.
Some said that the pilgrim's call was an echo of the first rainfall, and had been resounding in men's skulls ever since. Some said the call had first gone out when the Aeriel arrived in Crystalglass. In truth, the call had come upon the world so gradually that no one could say for certain how it had started, only that they heard it now. Not a compulsion, but a constant reminder: Help is here. Everything that moved in the world felt the call, and knew where to find Crystalglass at need.
Mid-daymonth, with Solstar bright overhead, Irrylath spotted a track of blood by the side of the road, and shortly afterwards found a running-cat crouched under a thorn bush. The animal growled and snapped at him as he examined its hind legs. A cord snare had bitten deep into flesh, too deep and too tangled to bring a knife to bear without causing further harm. There was no telling how far it had dragged itself on its forelegs, but it had reached the end of its strength, and could only struggle feebly in Irrylath's hands.
"How may I help?" said Roshka.
Irrylath looked over his shoulder at Roshka, and visibly swallowed his first response. "Hold her, please, while I deal with these knots. And beware of her teeth."
Roshka knelt beside Irrylath and took the cat from him. He felt the wild stutter of the heart beneath its fur, its fury, the patience in Irrylath's fingers as he teased forth the strands of the snare. The snare loosened, and Roshka held the cat more firmly, but he couldn't keep it from scrabbling at Irrylath with its hind claws as soon as it found it could move them. Irrylath's hands, already slick with the cat's blood, never faltered. The cord fell free to the dirt, and the cat twisted, sank its teeth into the base of Roshka's thumb, and fled, towards Crystalglass.
Roshka sucked at his hand. "Ungrateful creature." The dirt by Irrylath's feet where he crouched was stained, and the stain was spreading. Not all the blood on his hands was the cat's. "You're bleeding," said Roshka.
"I do that now," said Irrylath. Roshka dampened a corner of his cloak to clean Irrylath's wounds, and Irrylath allowed it with a grimace. "Did you know that I used to pull the wings off bats, for something to do?" he said. "I was often bored in those days. I told the Avarclon that killing him was the greatest wrong I did as a darkangel, but I wonder if that was true."
The daymonth wore on, and so did the Pilgrim's Road, skirting the wetland that had once been the Waste of the White Witch. The inhabitants of the land were few, and wary of strangers. There were no more wayside inns. Roshka and Irrylath ate what they carried with them, or what they could gather, and slept where they found a dry patch of land near the road. These became more frequent as Solstar dipped towards the horizon, and presently they came to the edge of the desert where Crystalglass stood.
They stopped to fill their waterskins at a stream, the last they would encounter on the way to the city. It was marked by a hermitage and a tall, narrow obelisk of stone shot through with some mineral that gleamed in Solstar's setting rays. Here the Aeriel had appeared to the hosts of the West and East on the eve of battle, and revealed to them the last part of Ravenna's Rime, which told how the White Witch might be defeated.
The hermit was not at home. Roshka placed his last dried plum in the offering-bowl at the base of the obelisk, next to a withered garland of flowers left by some earlier pilgrim. He didn't suggest to Irrylath that they stop at the hermitage to rest, though he saw his cousin's shoulders slump with fatigue, and he himself was weary and footsore.
Irrylath's face was closed, like a shutter against the starlight. He and Roshka walked side-by-side, each wrapped in his memories, and neither one spoke.
"Aeriel!" Irrylath's voice rang out, and again, in a hoarse whisper, "Aeriel." With trembling hands, Erin sheathed her sword. Irrylath lifted his eyes to her, his mouth twisted in fury. "You—" Then he looked down at his own hands, which had so nearly struck her down without cause. "I—"
"Whatever it is you would say to me," said Erin, "I do not care to hear it." She turned on her heel and strode out of the pavilion, leaving the commanders of the hosts to stare after her. It was hard to believe what they had just seen—Aeriel restored to them, yet not returned, speaking from the midst of a bright-burning sword, telling them of her intention to meet the Witch alone with nothing but Ravenna's gift.
Lady Syllva was the first to recover. "Much of what Aeriel said is dark to me—to all of us, I believe," she said. "Yet one thing is clear. If we are to meet her at the Witch's Mere, we must delay no longer. We strike camp within the hour."
"Yes!" said Irrylath. His eyes burned in the hollows of his face, and he snatched at the chance of action as a hungry dog snatches at scraps. "If we make no more stops, we may arrive shortly after midnight."
"Softly, brother," said Lady Syllva's lastborn son Hadin. "It will do no good if our troops come to the battle exhausted. Now here is what I propose—"
The commanders spoke on, of marching order, of provisioning, of the disposition of their troops in the coming battle. Roshka, though nominally one of them, found it bewildering. Before meeting Aeriel, he had never commanded so much as a hunting party. The warriors of Pirs followed him now because of his blood, and because he was not his hated uncle. He was certain that when everything was decided, someone would tell him what to do; in the meantime, he slipped out to look for Erin, whom everyone else seemed to have forgotten.
He found her sitting against a dune at the outskirts of camp, as she often had with Aeriel at the beginning of the campaign. Her sword lay sheathed across her knees, and she gazed up at the stars.
"I'm glad you've returned," said Roshka. "Even if you had brought no news of Aeriel, I would be glad. You shouldn't have left without a word."
"If I had told you what I meant to do, you would have held me back," said Erin. "As you once did."
Roshka sat beside her. "Perhaps I would have. You are wiser than I." Erin snorted softly, as if that were so obvious it didn't bear mentioning. "And the way you wielded your sword—I had not known you for a warrior."
"I am none. It was some sorcery . . . . I do not love the Prince of Avaric, but I didn't mean to hurt him." Her chin rose in indignation at the memory. "And yet he would have slain me!"
There was no excuse Roshka could make for Irrylath, nor did he know why he felt he ought to make one. "Forgive me. I was not quick enough—"
"Aeriel was." Erin touched the hilt of her sword, and some of its light shone triumphant in her face. "She did not leave me."
"But you left her," Roshka realized. And then, hurrying on lest he be misunderstood, "When she bid you to, I mean. Though I wasn't there to hold you back. That must have taken a great deal of trust."
Erin didn't answer at once. Her hands gripped the sheath of her sword more tightly, and her eyes glimmered with tears. "It is hard," she said finally, very low. "Oh, it is hard. Mothers love their children, but for aught I know of mine, she might have sold me to the slavers. The Majis gave me the freedom of his house and of the streets for love of my dark beauty—" She pursed her lips, as if to spit, but she would not waste water on the Maijs. "I paid dearly for that love, and still he gave me to the Bird when it came. In my life I have learned much of love. But how should I have learned of trust?"
Her tears fell then, wet tracks shining blue in the light of Oceanus. Her limbs began to shake, as if the weariness of the past daymonths had fallen on them all at once.
"We must strike camp," Roshka remembered suddenly, "but you cannot walk."
Erin made to rise, and fell back on the sand with an impatient huff. "Only help me stand," she said through clenched teeth. "I can walk easier than I can ride one of those beasts of yours."
Roshka pulled her up, and she didn't fall again, but she leaned heavily on him, and he could feel her body trembling with the effort. "True, you have not the strength to cling to a horse. I will have my huntsmen fashion a litter for you, so you may rest while we travel."
"I am not a package," Erin protested. "Nor a princess."
"No, but you have labored long, and you are exhausted. Please, it will let me feel useful. I have no skill in the ordering of armies, but this I can do."
Erin gave a weak laugh, and dried her tears. "Very well; to please you," she said, and she didn't object when Roshka lifted her up and carried her to his campground.
His warriors cheered when he told them the news of Aeriel; they were eager to be on the march and proud to bear Aeriel's champion into battle. It scarcely needed another word from Roshka to have the tents struck and all the provisions packed, then he was left to make a final circuit of the campground while his warriors went to see to the horses, and to Erin and the litter. That was how Irrylath found him some minutes later.
"Cousin!" Irrylath called. "Where did you disappear to? Tell your huntsmen to—" Roshka turned to face him, and was struck once again by how haggard Irrylath was, as a man ravaged by hungerspice. His hair, fine and dark still, blew wild in the wind. The sight of Aeriel, and the promise of action, had returned some life to his face, but that fled as Roshka watched. He stared bewildered at Irrylath as Irrylath stared horror-stricken at him. " . . . Roshka?"
"What is it?" said Roshka.
Irrylath took a step closer, shaking his head as if to rouse himself from a dream. "You are alone . . . ." His mouth hardened, his shoulders squared, as his accustomed arrogance settled on them. "And idle. How shall we ever face the Witch, when I command an army of layabouts?"
Roshka forbore to mention that Sabr, and not Irrylath, commanded him. "My huntsmen are preparing their horses now. As for myself, Nightwalker must bear another for a time, and I am ready to march as you see me. But, cousin," he continued more softly, "what's amiss? You look as though you had seen—I know not what."
"I saw you," Irrylath said. He was still, as a cat coiled to spring is still, and he stood so near that Roshka thought he could feel the tension sing in his spine, in the lean grace of his arms and legs. "I had not known your eyes were green. In earthlight . . . you are like your sister. Very like."
An hour since, Irrylath had clutched after Aeriel's image, and found his hands closing on emptiness. But Roshka was not an image, and where Irrylath clung, he clung back, breathless and dizzy.
The Witch's lovers could love no other woman. Irrylath was not the first of them to want Roshka for his green eyes, for his likeness to the one he longed for and could not have. Roshka had fled from his uncle, finding refuge in the forgotten paths beneath the palace—and his uncle, a lover of the easy way above all else, had taken his consolation elsewhere. The first time Roshka met Erin, he had taken her for a boy such as his uncle kept, and wondered that he would want to save the life of his master. But he had been mistaken in Erin, and mistaken in Aeriel. And mistaken, perhaps, in his belief that the only love that might be between two men was the sort that had passed between his uncle and his small, terrified self. He felt no fear now, no revulsion, only a heat rising to match Irrylath's, and a thirst for touch as if for water.
He never remembered, afterward, exactly whose hands had done what, whose mouth had gone where. He only remembered the feel of Irrylath's hair twisted between his fingers, the taste of Irrylath's skin, the press of their two bodies, hot in the cold of nightshade. And then Irrylath's hands were on his shoulders, pushing him away, and Irrylath would not meet his eyes.
"I . . . I am sorry," Irrylath stammered.
"Are you?" Roshka breathed. "That's a pity."
"If you will not forgive me—"
"If I will not forgive you," said Roshka, "it is because you have not wronged me."
But Irrylath could not understand, or would not. Roshka and his warriors were part of the forces of Westernesse, under Sabr's command; on the march to the Witch's Mere Irrylath found it easy enough to avoid them both. He never spoke again to Roshka until the day, five years later, that he arrived in Pirs on his way to Crystalglass.
Nightshade fell, and with it the rain. It was no torrent, as it was sometimes in Pirs, but it was enough to fill the dry watercourse by the side of the road, enough that Roshka and Irrylath raised the hoods of their cloaks against it, and still it found its way into Roshka's clothing, trickling down his back and squelching in his boots. There was no dry place to rest. When they found a large, flattish outcropping of stone that at least would absorb no water, they spread their cloaks over it, one below themselves and one above, lay side-by-side and tried to sleep. Presently Irrylath's breathing grew slow and deep; no dreams ever troubled him as far as Roshka could tell.
Why was Roshka following the road to Crystalglass? In the daymonth they'd traveled together, Irrylath had never asked. Perhaps he feared to hear the answer. Irrylath dwelt far from his mother in Isternes; his brothers who lived closer at hand he rarely saw. His cousin Sabr was his regent in Avaric while he traveled, but not, as she might wish, his wife. Roshka had seen many innkeepers along the road hand Irrylath a bowl of soup or a cup of water, and always he took care that their hands should not touch. This sharing of heat against the chill rain might be the closest contact he permitted anyone.
The Pirsalon said that Irrylath sought the death of the world. That grieved Roshka, for there was much in the world that he loved. But the world would die. That was the way of things. Even Oceanus, from which all life had sprung, lay lifeless now. Why should Roshka save his five-times-great-grandchildren to doom his twenty-times-great ones? He had never met any of them.
His sister Aeriel, with the wisdom of the Ancients running in her veins, might ponder such questions. Roshka's small store of wisdom told him only this: Irrylath should not be alone.
Note: For those of you, if any, who are confused by the chronology in this story, swap the first scene with the second-to-last one and everything will be in order. I could have done this myself, but reasons.