Authors: Ken Scholes
Could that be it?
But of course it could, though Rudolfo knew not how or what kind of dark magick could do such a thing. Somewhere in the distance, he heard another thud. And then, behind him, he heard the crunching of boots in snow.
Rudolfo turned, his suspicions now confirmed.
“Well met, Lord Rudolfo,” the emissary said where he now stood below. “I bid you greetings on behalf of the Empire of Y’Zir and her regent, Eliz Xhum.” The man inclined his head, and his next words were a knife Rudolfo did not expect. “I also bear word from your father.”
Somewhere far off in the forest, Rudolfo heard another thud and released his held breath as the skies of the Named Lands emptied themselves, paving the way for conquest.
Shivering, Charles pulled himself out of his sweat-soaked bedroll and cursed the cold as he wrestled out of his wet clothing. He rummaged through his pack, pulling out a dry pair of woolen trousers, socks and a shirt, the last of the images he’d just seen already vanishing from his mind, though the memory of them remained in his body.
Soon all he would remember was the vague memories of blood and fire and words whispered too quietly for him to understand. And beneath it all, a song that played itself in a loop.
Of course, he knew what was now happening to him. It was perfectly reasonable, given the strain and loss he’d endured. Isaak, after all, had been a son to him. And this was how that Fivefold Path of Grief carried him through it. Terrors in the night. Hollowness in the day. A war he could not win.
Because of all the things he’d made with his hands, that robed and limping mechoservitor had been the only one to ever raise affection from him. An affection that quickly became love. The idea that Isaak was no more desolated him, and yet part of him scoffed at himself as a foolish old man. “You built him. You can build another,” he chided himself. “He’s a machine made from a schematic.”
He was more than that. And Charles knew he was done with building. Isaak could never be replicated, nor should he be.
Those we lose are lost,
he thought. He believed that truth despite his fondest wish otherwise.
And I cannot bear that I believe it.
So he warred against himself, even in his sleep, and lived his days in the fatigue and despair of that conflict.
Charles tugged on his boots and coat, then worked the flap of the tent and slipped out into a night that danced with the shadows of two dozen campfires, all surrounded by tents and shelters of various shapes and sizes. A scout caught his eye and nodded. He returned the gesture and moved to the fire.
Charles didn’t see the girl until she spoke. It wasn’t the first time, he realized. “Hello, Charles.”
Winteria smiled up at him from where she sat on a round of wood, scarred hands extended toward the flames. She nodded to another round, and he tipped it up to sit on it beside her. He tried to smile, but he was certain it showed as a grimace. “You’re not sleeping either?”
She shook her head. “No.”
In the firelight, he could see the circles beneath her eyes. In addition to her own losses, her encounter with Rudolfo—and more, her betrayal of him, despite her good intentions—was added weight to young shoulders. “You could see the medico. Maybe find some kallaberry in the camp.”
She nodded her head toward him. “So could you.”
He chuckled. “I could.”
But something in him resisted it, even though he knew there were a half dozen herbs or berries that could induce a dreamless sleep.
Because I need to walk this path.
And in realizing it for himself, he knew it was true for her as well.
A quiet whistle drifted over the tents—at first, he thought it was second alarm, but it shifted quickly to third. Winters recognized it at once and stood, turning in the direction of the noise. Charles did the same.
It was a soft whistle, with the obvious intent of rousing only the attention of the scouts, and they passed it around the camp in the span of moments. He saw an officer moving quickly through the camp and watched as Winters fell in beside him. “What is happening, Lieutenant?” she asked.
Charles caught up to them just as the young man answered. “There is a problem with the birds,” he said.
They wove their way between fires until they reached the birder’s wagon. The birder, wearing only his uniform trousers and the winter-issue woolen undershirt, waited by the cages, and Charles heard Winters gasp. Charles stepped up beside her and saw the piled bodies of dead birds. She looked from the lieutenant to the birder, then glanced to Charles. “They’re all dead?”
The birder nodded. “And not just these, sir.”
Charles followed the man’s line of sight to one of the scouts who stood near the wagon. Upon his belt, he wore a small cage for the birds they used for sending coded messages in the field. Inside that cage, he saw two limp piles of feathers.
Winters’s voice was incredulous. “Every messenger bird in the camp? What could do that?”
“Poison, perhaps,” the lieutenant said, but the birder shook his head.
“Not here,” he said. “I’m the only one that feeds them.”
“Perhaps,” Winters said, “they were poisoned elsewhere.”
Charles thought of the birding station he’d seen in the Watcher’s cave. Somehow, that mechoservitor had drawn birds from all over the Named Lands, forging notes and monitoring communications in the execution of an elaborate plan that had begun, it seemed, decades before Windwir fell. It was no stretch to believe that a capacity of that magnitude could engineer a poison that killed on delay.
The lieutenant whistled two of his sergeants forward. “I want runners, under magicks, back to the Seventh Forest Manor and to Philemus. We need fresh birds.”
Charles’s fear found words, and he heard them as if he were far away. “There may be none,” he whispered.
Winters looked at him, their eyes meeting. “I hope you’re wrong.”
Charles thought. But it would be the ultimate tactic and one that would easily cripple the Named Lands by shutting down communication. Only it would best be used just before … He forced the thought away.
The two sergeants left quickly, whistling for their squad leaders. When they were gone, Charles looked at the young officer. “You may want to reach further,” he said. “If I’m not wrong, Rudolfo’s going to need a line of couriers connecting his key assets.”
The scout lieutenant nodded. “Noted.”
As he moved off with his men, Charles and Winters found themselves alone with the birder. Once more, the girl surprised him. “Do you need help burying them?” she asked the man.
“No, Lady,” he said. “We’ll burn them to control any contagion.”
She looked to Charles. “Are you ready to sleep yet?”
He started to shake his head, and as he did, a piercing bright light blinded him even as a ringing filled his ears. The force of it fell on him, wrenching his stomach and dropping him to the ground as his knees gave out.
The light was gone now, replaced by an utter darkness, the likes of which he’d only seen in the Beneath Places. Charles writhed in that darkness, feeling the hot blood as it leaked from his nose and into his mouth.
He felt hands upon him, fighting to turn him over, and the hands were so hot that they burned through his clothing. “Charles?”
He opened his eyes, and a little girl’s face filled his view, illuminated by the small lamp she carried. “Are you awake?” she asked.
“I am functional,” Charles heard himself say in a voice that did not belong to him. The sound of it set his stomach to cramping.
And then the light was back, excruciating in its brightness, and Charles heard an incoherent babbling that rose and fell in its pitch. That voice, he recognized instantly.
It was his own.
Forcing his eyes open, he saw the look of rapt surprise on Winters’s face, her mouth hanging open even as she tried to hold him to the ground. She called his name again, and he barely heard it above the sound of the nonsensical words that flowed out of him. He tried to stop, and the effort of it made his body tremble. He was vaguely aware now of others gathering nearby, following the horrific sound that rose from him.
Winters repositioned herself to cradle his head in her lap. She brought her mouth to his ear. “Listen to me, Charles. This will pass. Relax into it.”
He felt his muscles seizing and spasming, and he stopped fighting to close his mouth. He let the words pour out of him until finally, after what seemed like hours, he was spent and empty, sprawled in the mud and cradled gently by the Marsh Queen’s strong and scar-latticed arms.
He panted for enough air to speak. “What happened?”
“It’s hard to explain,” she said, “but I’ve experienced it before. As have all the dreaming kings before me.” Her brow furrowed. “Neb, too.”
A medico broke through the crowd to kneel beside him.
“It’s the dream,” Charles said.
Winters nodded. “It is. What did it tell you? Usually they bear words or images of some kind.”
He swallowed water from the canteen the medico offered. “I don’t know,” he said.
But he did know, and the knowledge made his head ache all the more.
“Are you awake?” the girl had asked him.
“I am functional,” came the metallic reply. And it was a voice he would never forget.
It was the voice of the Watcher.
The jostling of the wagon was both jarring and lulling, and Winters found herself sliding in and out of a light sleep. She sat with her back to the sidewalls and canvas canopy, her body covered in wool blankets up to her chin, as she kept watch. Charles slept soundly, stretched out beneath another pile of blankets, surrounded by supplies that had been rearranged to make room for him in the wagon.
She’d lost count of the hours, but she was certain that they were nearing the end of the day. Soon, it would be time to stop and make camp. One of maybe four or five nights left sleeping in the snow before they reached the waiting beds at Rachyle’s Rest.
Charles muttered something and twisted in his sleep. The kallacaine had kept him down all day, though she knew the burst of glossolalia also did its part. Those times that it had seized her had left Winters exhausted sometimes for days. Eventually, she’d grown used to it and came to expect it as part of her role as a dreaming queen. It was a documented occurrence among the ruling family, many of the written dreams coming from these ecstatic utterances. But before Neb, she’d never seen another person—especially not an outsider—experience it. And when the two of them had experienced it together, in the forests at the edge of Windwir’s desolation, it had confirmed to her that he was the Homeseeker they awaited. It was the beginning of her love for him as well.
But Charles was another matter, and it puzzled her. She shivered, despite the warmth that wrapped her, at the memory of his high and cackling voice and the white of eyes as they rolled back into his head. For an old man, he’d fought her well until he realized she was there to help. And then, when he’d finally relaxed into it, his voice lowered to a quieter singsong pitch and the words poured out from him.
After, she’d seen the terror on his face, and she was torn between believing it was simply the unexpected experience or believing that he had seen or heard something within his waking dream that frightened him so. Regardless, he’d drunk down the kallacaine powders, and she’d sat watch over him from the time sleep found him until now.
Her own dreams had gone quiet of late. It wasn’t the first time. They’d fled her until she returned to her homeland with Jin and Jakob, and then the dreams had guttered back to life. They’d become violent and shapeless memories before quieting.
But now this old Androfrancine dreams. Why?
She heard him stir, and she looked back to him. His eyes fluttered before opening, and she was pleased to see the dark circles beneath them finally washed clean by sleep. He licked his lips, and she reached for the canteen before he could ask.
Leaning forward, she propped up his head with one hand and held the canteen to his mouth with the other.
“Thank you.” His voice was hoarse and gravelly.
She sat back. “How do you feel?”
He closed his eyes. “Like I’ve been run over by a herd of wild horses. Every muscle in my body hurts.”
She nodded. “That’s common. Especially if you resist it when it comes over you.” She paused. “We should be stopping for the night soon. We can fetch you more kallacaine when we do.”
Charles shook his head. “No. No more drugs. They dull my wits.”
She chuckled. “You don’t need your wits nearly as much as you need your rest right now.”
He struggled to sit up, and she nearly prevented him but forced herself to let him discover for himself. When he fell back down into his pile of blankets, she stretched out a reassuring hand to touch his shoulder. “It will pass,” she said.
He managed to roll onto his side, facing her. “You told me you’ve experienced it before. What is it?”
“I do not understand it exactly,” she said, “but I know it is the dream manifesting itself during waking hours.”
“The Homeseeking Dream?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes.”
He sighed. “So many dreams. Your dream. Isaak’s dream.”
“They are the vehicle of heaven,” she said, reaching back to her father’s words to her on the morning after her first night of dreaming.
Charles looked away. “I do not believe in heaven,” he said.
Not even when it seizes you, has its way with you?
The words formed for her, but she did not speak them. Androfrancines eschewed such primitive notions. Metaphysics and mysticism, they called it. Instead, she offered him a weak smile. “Apparently,” she said, “belief is not required for your participation in its workings.”
“Apparently,” he said.
She offered him more water, then helped him drink it. After, she repositioned herself so she could better see him. They were quiet for a space, though she saw from his face that he was deep in thought.
“You’ve experienced this before,” Charles said. “Neb, too.”