I’m snuggled up against Jeddan’s back right now, too overwhelmed by the events of the evening to feel self-conscious about it. He’s a good friend, but he’s also a man, and…I don’t know why that makes me feel awkward, because it’s not as if I expect him to attack me, and he doesn’t behave as if he’s attracted to me.
Not that I’m all that good at picking up on those cues. I had no idea Cederic loved me until he told me, but I know now he’d felt that way for weeks without giving any hint of it. (He said he was waiting to tell me until the convergence was over, when things would be stable, so I’m almost glad he lost his temper at me because it gave us those two weeks of happiness together.) He’s so self-controlled it makes sense that I wouldn’t have observed anything, but there were moments that in retrospect were obvious, like the day he made me tell him about the collenna master’s murder. He used those th’an on me to make me sleep, but when he was done he brushed my cheek with his fingers, so lightly, and I knew it wasn’t a th’an but I was just too ignorant to know a lover’s touch when I felt it.
I’m so glad I remembered that just now. It makes me feel so much less awful about myself. It’s snowing heavily now, which makes everything feel quiet and distant, and I’m sure it’s insulating the tent, so even though the ground is cold, I think I’ll be able to sleep. Just as soon as I write all of this down.
Most of today was uneventful. More walking, more discussion, more me almost but not quite managing the see-inside pouvra. We passed a few more Balaenic villages (this is a Balaenic road, so that makes sense) and saw a Castaviran one in the distance. There’s a marked visual difference between the two that gives us a warning as to what kind of behavior we should exhibit.
One of the Balaenic towns sat astride the road, and the people there acted as if nothing were wrong, with kids waving at us and women chatting with their neighbors with barely a glance our way. It was unsettling, and Jeddan and I talked about whether we should warn them to be on their guard, but we didn’t know who we would tell, or what we’d warn them against, and maybe they knew about the Castavirans and were open and welcoming. But we were both relieved to leave that town behind.
By the time the sun set, we’d entered another forest, not heavily overgrown, and with the trees mostly bare it didn’t feel confining at all. We found a place off the road to camp, a little natural clearing, and lit a fire and had something to eat. Jeddan talked about setting a few snares, so I said I would write while he did that. But after he left, I didn’t quite feel like getting my book out. Some of that was because I can see the pages diminishing, and there’s really no chance of me finding a new blank book out here. Some of it was just tiredness. So I sat next to the fire and let my mind go blank.
I don’t know when I realized the thrumming sound wasn’t the blood rushing through my ears, but something external—hooves, and a lot of them. I jumped up and put the fire between myself and the road, not thinking, then I woke out of my stupor and concealed myself. I knew whoever the approaching riders were, they’d already seen the fire, because the bare trees weren’t very good concealment, so there was no point trying to hide the camp. It was possible the riders wouldn’t want to harm me, but that wasn’t a chance I was willing to take. I hoped Jeddan, wherever he was, was safe.
The noise of the hooves grew louder, then stopped nearby. I heard people dismounting, the sound of harness jingling and the whiffle of a horse at rest. Then three men came into the clearing. They were roughly dressed, unshaven, with heavy coats and broad-brimmed hats, and their boots struck the frozen ground with loud clumping sounds. One of them approached the fire and kicked dirt at it, desultorily, not trying to put it out. Another ducked into our tent and started making noises like he was going through our things.
The third circled the little clearing, peering past it as if he were looking for someone. I had to move silently out of his way, praying he wouldn’t look in my direction, because he had the air of someone who didn’t miss much.
“They can’t have gone far,” the first man said.
The second man emerged from the tent carrying our rucksack of food. “They’ve got bugger-all worth taking,” he said.
“Gather it up,” the third man said. “Elssan and Nattas are searching the woods for them. Might have their goods on them.”
He turned to walk back the way he’d come. I took another step away, silently, I thought, and his eyes came around and met mine, and saw me. I tried to run, nearly fell into the fire, and his hand went around my wrist and jerked me back. “What’s this?” he said, and shook me so hard I lost my concentration. “A woman.” He said it as if there were something inherently wrong with being female.
“Let go,” I said, which was stupid, because why would he let me go just because I told him to? I almost used the walk-through-walls pouvra on him, but realized in time that escaping his grip wouldn’t get me past the other two men, and I could only dodge them for so long before running out of breath. And I didn’t know where Jeddan was, and the only place he would know to look for me was by the fire. So I held still and examined my other options.
But to my complete surprise, he let me go! Before I could react to that, I was stunned again when a long, fat rope of fire rose up from nowhere and wrapped around me, just close enough that it started to singe my clothes, but not enough to actually burn me. I gaped at him, then said, “You’re a mage.”
“Don’t know that word,” he said. “My people always called it witchcraft. Or did before I burned the town to ash.”
That shut my mouth. I’d been about to say something excited, something about us having so much in common, but it was starting to be clear we didn’t. Then he smiled, and it was a nasty, leering smile that made me feel cold and afraid. “Didn’t expect to find a woman traveling the roads,” he said. “Where’s your friend?”
“Who says I have a friend?” I retorted. The fire was starting to hurt. I wish I knew how to dismiss someone else’s fire pouvra, not that that would have made a difference.
“Two bedrolls says you have a friend,” the second man said.
“So where is he? Or are we twice-blessed, and it’s a she?” the mage said.
“Gone where you won’t find him,” I said.
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll leave you to us,” the mage said. “Especially if he guesses what I have in mind for you.”
That made me mad. Even if I hadn’t been nearly raped once, I’d still be furious at any man who thought he had a right to take what wasn’t willingly given. “How sweet,” I said, and lashed out with my own fire, turning him into a greasy pyre. He screamed, and the rope of fire disappeared, and that was when Jeddan burst out of the forest and bore the second man, the one with his hands full of our things, to the ground.
to be continued…