Hallowed

XIX. Choice

Even by the light of morning, the body of the patchbeard monk could not be found. Avenel searched for him for most of the morning, but all she found were the monk’s severed fingers and deep red stains in the grass. She placed the fingers in a small wooden box, to be buried with the other bodies. She still didn’t know his name.

Desmina came to find her as she stood by the pit, shoveling dirt over the burnt remains of the dead. “We found the room you described,” said Desmina. “The monks knew about it but didn’t know what it was. They plan to wall it in. In the meantime, we’ve placed some guards.”

Avenel nodded. “Good.”

“Syncrest wants to study it of course,” continued Desmina, “but I’m more concerned about our enemies. He said that the portal should be inert, that only someone with magic should be able to use it, but the Asterii are all long dead.”

“Syncrest could be wrong,” said Avenel. “If the attackers knew about the portal when we didn’t, why not another way of using it?”

“It’s possible,” said Desmina. She watched as Avenel continued to shovel the dirt. “You should leave that to the others,” she said. “Save your strength for when you find the Harbinger.”

Avenel hesitated a moment, then set down the shovel. “You’re right,” she said. “I should make preparations.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning. The sooner I leave, the better.”

Desmina nodded. She gave Avenel’s arm a single pat. “Good luck,” she said.

“Desmina, wait.”

“Yes?”

“The angel who visited you at the last summit, what did she say that you were all so convinced it was the truth?”

Desmina seemed to think for a moment before answering. “I’m only telling you this because it’s you,” she said. “I know you’ll reserve judgement, but I doubt the others would believe me. The truth is, she barely had to say anything. The night before she came, all of us at the Meridian had the same dream.”

“What did you dream of?” asked Avenel.

“Home, but as a sunless, barren wasteland. A winter that lasts an eternity, and the famine that followed. We saw our loved ones buried or emaciated and thin as bones, and when we woke… When we woke, she was there, sitting at our bedside, warning us that this was what the Harbinger would someday bring.”

“All of you?”

Desmina nodded.

“But how did you know it was true?”

“We didn’t,” said Desmina. “It was simply a risk we weren’t willing to take.”

It was late in the afternoon when Avenel found the time to speak with Vallus alone.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” said Avenel. “You’ll speak for me in my absence.”

“What about Deena?” asked Vallus.

“I’m taking her with me. She’s safest at my side.”

“Safe?” asked Vallus. He gestured at the window, at the fresh mass graves below. “You’re on a mission to find the Harbinger, or whoever it is that did all this. How can she be safe?”

Avenel shook her head. “They would come find us, Vallus, even if we weren’t looking for them. The goal of this attack wasn’t the rest of us; they came here for her.”

“So you’re using my daughter as bait?”

“I’m trying to protect her. She’s in danger no matter where she goes, but I can only protect her if she’s at my side. And if we’re on the move, perhaps we’ll be harder to track.”

“Then I should go with you.”

“No. You’re needed at the Tower.”

“Avenel—”

“I’ll keep her safe, Vallus. Trust me.”

“You know I do,” said Vallus, “but she’s my daughter, Avenel. She’s all I have left.”

“And no one is going to hurt her,” said Avenel. “I promise.”

Vallus nodded.

She removed the pendant from her neck, the little black sliver of stone that held the weight of her responsibility to Elyria. She handed it to Vallus. “Kamiya would make a fine replacement for me, I think.”

Vallus took it. “She’d still want you to have it if—when—you come back.”

“I know,” said Avenel. “But for now, my responsibility is to Deena.”

In the evening, she went to look for Garthniiel and found him sitting in an alcove near the top of the tower, drinking alone while watching the sun set outside the window.

“Garthniiel,” she said.

He looked up. “Lord Avenel. I got your message.”

“You’ll be ready to leave, then?”

“Flame and Frost are packing our belongings as we speak.”

“And you?”

Garthniiel looked away. He took another swig from his bottle before speaking. “Greoore’s leg wound got infected. They’re saying he might not be able to keep it.”

“Shouldn’t you be with him, then?” asked Avenel.

“No, his darling wife is tending to him. And Mother is there too, for whatever that’s worth.”

“Has he asked for you at all?”

Garthniiel shook his head.

She took a seat beside him. “You don’t have to come tomorrow, you know, if you’d rather stay here with your brother.”

“No,” said Garthniiel. He took a swig of mead. “My being here won’t magically fix his leg.”

Avenel studied him for a moment, then took the bottle from his hand and drank. “Is this from the cellars here?” she asked, examining the bottle. “The monks have fine taste.”

“I think Hiikov brought it, actually, but I doubt he’ll miss a single bottle.”

“Would he miss two? There isn’t enough here for the both of us.”

Garthniiel looked at her curiously. “I thought you wanted to leave early tomorrow morning.”

“That doesn’t stop us from drinking tonight. It wouldn’t be the first time I make a journey with a hangover.”

He laughed.

They sat there in silence, passing the bottle back and forth, watching as the sun dipped below the horizon and out of sight. Gradually, the sky turned from gold to pink to the deep indigo of night. Between them, the bottle grew gradually lighter.

“How’s your arm?” asked Garthniiel at long last. “Sorry, I forgot to ask.”

“It’s fine,” said Avenel. “It just needs to rest for a few days.”

“That’s going to be difficult on the road.”

“I’ve had worse.”

Garthniiel nodded. “Listen, I—I spoke without thinking, yesterday, when I said I’d go with you. If I’d be getting in the way—”

“You won’t be,” said Avenel. “If I didn’t think you could be useful, I wouldn’t have agreed.”

“You think I’d be useful?”

“Why wouldn’t you be? You’re a capable fighter, and more familiar with the Ajjraean landscape than me.”

“Oh,” said Garthniiel. He looked down at his hands. “You know,” he said, “in August, I turn a hundred and eighty-four.”

“Then it’s a bit too early to start celebrating, isn’t it?”

“That’s not what I mean,” he said. “I just mean—” He paused, struggling to find the words. “I mean, a hundred and eighty-four years I’ve been alive, and I have nothing to show for it. All I’ve been, since the day I was born, is an inconvenience. Everyone around me—the king, Itiina, even my own mother—they all act like it would have been better if I had never been born.”

“What about you?” asked Avenel. “Do you wish you had never been born?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Garthniiel. He took the bottle and drank. “Maybe.”

“Why?”

Garthniiel shrugged. “Why not? I haven’t done anything with my life. I could fight, but I won’t, and I’ve never been much good at scholarly pursuits. All I do is drink.”

“You’re hardly the first prince to choose a life of leisure,” said Avenel, taking a sip from the bottle. “And why not? You’ve no responsibilities and no need to earn a livelihood.”

“I suppose, but…” he trailed off.

“But you’re dissatisfied,” finished Avenel.

Garthniiel nodded.

“Then do something about it.” She took another swig, then passed the bottle back to Garthniiel.

He lifted it to his lips, then stopped. “It’s empty.”

Avenel nodded. “Would you like to get some more?”

Garthniiel turned the bottle over in his hands. “Best not,” he said, setting it down. “We have an early morning tomorrow.”

The sun hadn’t even risen yet when they met in the courtyard on the Ajjraean side. The monks had stopped caring who went on which side of the tower, so Vallus came with them to see them off. Morven was still in bed, as he had been all day the day before. “He’ll be fine,” reassured Vallus when Deena mentioned him. “Desmina will make sure of it.”

Deena nodded. She felt that she should say goodbye to him, but she didn’t want to. She hadn’t wanted to see him at all since the attack, and the one time she had knocked on his door to check on him, he hadn’t wanted to see her either. Strangely, she was alright with that.

Frost and Flame were already in the courtyard, saddling the horses. Or rather, Flame was, while Frost was distractedly folding and unfolding a piece of paper in her hands. At the sound of their approach, she looked up and hurriedly shoved the paper into a pocket.

“Where’s Prince Garthniiel?” asked Vallus.

“Greoore asked to see him before we left,” replied Flame.

“How is he?” asked Avenel.

“Not great,” admitted Flame. “He’s been running a high fever from what I hear. We haven’t been allowed to see him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Vallus.

When Garthniiel finally arrived, he was holding an ornate sword in its sheath. He gripped it with both hands, knuckles white, and stared down at it as he walked. “He gave me his sword,” he said. “It’s runed steel from Asterii, meant to be an heirloom. It’s like he thinks he’s going to die.”

“He won’t,” said Flame. “If marrying Itiina didn’t kill him, a cut on his leg certainly won’t.”

Garthniiel managed a smile.

They departed a half hour later. For most of the morning, they travelled north through the woods, out of sight of the main road. The trail was so overgrown that they had to lead their horses rather than ride them. By the time they stopped for lunch, however, the trees had thinned enough that they were able to ride again, and they proceeded single file at a leisurely trot. In the afternoon, it rained, but it was the sort of light drizzle that can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be rain or fog. Against this kind of weather, their cloaks did nothing, but it was a wam enough day that the damp was not altogether unpleasant. Flame hummed a little as they rode.

“Sing the one about the blacksmith’s daughter,” said Garthniiel after a while.

“That one’s a duet,” said Flame.

“I’ll do the other part,” said Garthniiel.

“Garth, you can’t carry a tune to save your life. Besides, it’s a woman’s part.”

“What,” said Garthniiel, putting on a high falsetto, “I’m not woman enough for you?”

Deena giggled. It was good to leave the scorched walls of the Meridian behind. There was birdsong here, the fresh scent of damp earth, and pretty wildflowers that dotted the undergrowth. In the woods, in the dappled light and amidst such pleasant company, it was easy to forget one’s worries.

It was Frost who reminded them why they were passing through these woods at all.

“So how exactly do we plan on killing the Harbinger?” she asked. “Don’t tell me we’re looking for him in Triinton.”

“We aren’t,” said Avenel.

“Then what are we doing there?” asked Frost.

“To meet with someone who could potentially be of use to us.”

“‘Potentially’? You mean this could be a waste of time?”

“Do you have a better course of action?” asked Avenel.

Frost scowled.

Garthniiel cleared his throat. “Let’s make camp for the night,” he said. “I’m sure we’re all tired, and so are the horses.”

“Here?” asked Flame. His horse’s hooves squelched in the mud.

“Well it won’t be any drier anywhere else,” said Garthniiel. “I checked the map. There isn’t anything until we get to Triinton.”

“Have you been there before?” asked Deena.

“Maybe,” said Garthniiel. “We’ve spent a lot of time in small towns like Triinton, but it’s all a bit of a drunken blur.”

They set up camp just out of the sight of the road. Avenel and Deena shared a tent, while the Ajjraeans squeezed into another. Setting up the tents in the rain and mud was tricky, but they managed it just before the last of the sun ray’s disappeared.

“We couldn’t have picked somewhere closer to water?” asked Frost, shaking her empty flask.

Flame gestured at the rain that was still drizzling halfhearted around them. “Closer to water? Really?”

“Drinkable water,” said Frost. “I could get more water from wringing out my shirt than from this rain.”

“There’s water here,” said Avenel. She walked over to the broken trunk of a tree, where rainwater had pooled in the hollow. “You just have to know where to look.”

“Oh great,” said Frost sarcastically. “A scavenger hunt for water.”

There was no hope of lighting a fire, of course, but despite the damp, it wasn’t cold. They managed to make a decent meal of cold cheese and bread and some of the dried apricots they had brought with them from the Meridian. Garthniiel brought over a fallen log that was reasonably free of moss and mud, and they sat on it, eating in silence.

Afterwards, Garthniiel took out Greoore’s sword. He had strapped it to his pack rather than wear it at his hip. The blade was strange, made of some shimmery metal that seemed to ripple like water in the dark. They watched as Garthniiel twisted it through the air, trying it for balance and feel.

“May I see that?” asked Avenel.

Garthniiel handed it over. “I could never get the hang of shortswords,” he admitted.

Avenel turned it over in her hands. “It’s a beautiful blade,” she said. “Asterii made?”

Garthniiel nodded. “It’s runed to never need sharpening.”

Avenel handed back the sword.

“If it’s runed,” said Deena, “does that mean it’s like the cup they use for Hallowing? Would it burn me if I touched it?”

“Yes, though I wouldn’t try it,” said Garthniiel. “Avenel would kill me if you got hurt.”

“I would,” confirmed Avenel. She stood up. “We should keep a watch tonight while we sleep. We can split the night into thirds.”

“Good idea,” said Flame. “I’ll take the first watch.”

“I’ll take the second,” said Garthniiel.

“Then I’ll take the third watch,” said Avenel. “Frost, you’ll take the first watch tomorrow.”

Frost glanced Garthniiel, then grunted her assent.

“What about me?” asked Deena.

“You’re too young,” said Avenel. “You need your sleep.”

“Why did you even bring her?” asked Frost.

“She goes where I go,” said Avenel.

“But she’s a child. What good is she going to be against the Harbinger?”

“She goes where I go,” said Avenel again, more firmly.

Frost looked at her for a moment, then looked away. “Whatever,” she said. “Just don’t expect the rest of us to bend over backwards to keep her alive.”

The village of Triinton was no bigger than Taunsgrove had been, but being situated along a main road, saw its fair share of travelers. The inn was, by far, the largest structure in town, with the other houses having seemingly sprouted up around it. On the door of the inn hung a wooden sign featuring a fool in colorful motley. He sat curled in the enclosure formed by the letter G in “The Drunken Gambit.”

It was mid-afternoon when they arrived, not yet dinnertime, but already there were a handful of patrons in the inn. Some looked to be locals, farmhands taking a break from working under the hot sun. Others looked more like travelers, with travelling cloaks and swords at their hips.

“Is the person you’re looking for here yet?” asked Deena.

“No,” said Avenel, scanning the room.

Garthniiel sat himself down at one of the empty tables. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” he said, “but I could use a drink.” He waved at a middle-aged woman who was sweeping the floor in the corner. “Excuse me, are you the proprietress here?”

“Aye,” said the woman, setting down her broom. “What’ll it be?”

“A round of your finest ale,” said Garthniiel. “Oh, and we’ll need rooms.”

“How many?” asked the woman.

“Deena and I will share a room,” said Avenel.

“In that case, the siblings and I will share one as well.”

The woman glanced at them as she did a quick count. “One room with two beds and one with three; I can do that, aye. Is there anything else I can get you? Food, maybe? Or a hot bath?

“Um, I’d like a bath,” said Deena.

“Sure thing, hon,” said the innkeep. “If you wait a minute, my boy will come and help you carry your things.”

Her “boy” turned out to be a man fully grown, larger than Garthniiel and with a full, bushy beard. He was strong, too, and singlehandedly carried all their bags upstairs. Deena followed him up the stairs. Avenel stayed behind to watch for whoever it was they were supposed to meet.

“Your room is this one,” said the not-a-boy. He set down her bag; it made a loud thump as it met the floorboards. “What do you have in here? Bricks?”

“Um, books, actually,” said Deena.

“You lot booksellers? Scholars? Pretty well armed, for scholars.”

“No, I just—I just like books.”

“Huh,” said the man. “Ma brought up the water already. Holler if you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” said Deena.

She wasn’t sure how long she spent bathing, but it was long enough that her skin had turned pruney and the water had cooled. She dried herself, dressed, and returned downstairs. Avenel and Garthniiel were both still at the table, talking together in low voices. They looked up as Deena descended.

“How was your bath?” asked Avenel.

“It was nice,” said Deena. “Where’s Flame and Frost?”

“They’re checking on the horses,” said Garthniiel. “I’m about to go see what else this town has to offer. Care to join me?”

“Is there much to see here?” asked Deena.

“Not really,” said Garthniiel, “but there could still be a hidden gem or two. A bakery, perhaps. I have a sudden craving for a sweetroll.”

Deena wondered if Triinton’s bakery would have its own Mrs Sandler, who gave out candied walnuts to the children. She wondered if there was an apothecary here with an apprentice, a cheesemonger with a niece. “I—” she began.

She was interrupted by an older woman bursting into the inn. “She’s here!” she exclaimed, bouncing on her feet like a girl. “She’s back! Doctor Grey is back!”

There was an excited murmur among the locals at the inn. The innkeeper herself was the first out the door, but the rest were quick to follow.

Deena, Avenel, and Garthniiel looked at each other, and with a shrug, followed.

Outside, a small crowd had gathered around this Doctor Grey, all clamoring for her attention. The older villagers in particular seemed the most excited, pressed so close that the doctor scarcely had room to dismount. Despite the clear skies, the hood of her cloak was pulled low over her face, and all that they could see of her was a silver braid with a yellow feather pinned to the end.

The innkeeper squeezed her way through the crowd. “Doctor Grey!” she called. “Remember me?”

“I do,” said the doctor. “You ran the inn.”

“I still do,” said the innkeeper. “Thank you again for saving my boy. You should see him now—he’s bigger than a tree!”

“That’s what children do. They grow.”

The innkeeper laughed. “Aye, that they do, but he only had the chance because of you. Oh, but it’s been thirty years now since anyone’s seen hide or hair of you. Where have you been? What brought you back?”

“I came to meet with someone,” said the doctor, and as she turned to scan the crowd, her eyes landed on Deena.

Avenel took a step forward, and the crowd parted to let her through. “Doctor Grey,” she said, extending her hand.

The doctor took it. “Let us talk inside.”

They went upstairs and into the room shared by Garthniiel, Flame, and Frost. Doctor Grey unfastened her cloak, tossing it casually onto one of the beds. Her coloring was strange, with her silver hair and purple eyes and skin as pale as paper, and Deena had to remind herself not to stare. As soon as Flame and Frost arrived, the doctor gestured for the door to be closed, the beads around her wrist rattling as she did so.

“Doctor—” began Avenel.

“Your friends may stay, Lord Avenel,” said the doctor. “I wish to address all of you.”

“I suppose we should introduce ourselves, then,” said Garthniiel. “I’m—”

“I know who you are,” interrupted the doctor. “I know all of you, and I know your mission. You seek to destroy the Harbinger.”

“Oh,” said Garthniiel. “So you’ll help us find him?”

“No,” said the doctor.

“I knew this was a waste of time,” grumbled Frost.

The doctor ignored her. “You do not need me to find the Harbinger,” she said. “What you need from me is a way to save the world.”

“And you have that?” asked Flame.

“Why else would I have asked you here?” asked the doctor. She stood. “What do you know of Asterii?”

“The archipelago?” asked Garthniiel. “The one that sank with that earthquake hundreds of years ago?”

“The very same,” said the doctor.

“What does ancient history have to do with anything?” asked Frost.

The doctor held up her hand. “Just answer the question. Do you know of the Hallowed who lived there? The Drema and the Heliikians?”

Garthniiel nodded. “But they’re all thought to have died.”

“They did,” said the doctor, “all of them but one.” She walked to the window, then turned again to face them. “My name is Izra Grey, and I’m the last daughter of Drema.”