Jan 1-27, 2005 (February 2005)

Disclaimer: Oh, you know. Not mine. I weep. Huge beta thanks to elynross and Merry, and thanks to Cin for certain gory details. Posted to as a New Year's Resolution story for Giddy. Don't archive without permission.

Before the face of the sun

"It's blocked." Damien took half a step back and banged his heel against a fallen chunk of granite. The tunnel had collapsed from the left, stone shifting sideways to press hard against stone; water or smoke might seep through the crack and come out on the other side, but not two grown men.

"It's still possible to Work," Tarrant said in a tight voice. "If one is willing enough. I could—"

"No." Damien turned and held the lantern up high enough that he could see, and glare at, Tarrant's face. "Be reasonable, if you even remember how to. We don't know how far this blockage extends. Even if you were able to reach the state of mind where you'd be willing to die in order to shift a few tons of solid rock, we're not talking about just one Working. You'd have to do it over and over."

"If it were necessary," Tarrant said. He was pale and sweaty and unshaven, and the skin around his eyes looked bruised, but the expression on his face was much as it had always been. Damien didn't think anyone else knew what hesitation looked like on that face. But he did.

"And if you failed, you'd die. And even if you succeeded, you might die. Isn't the knowledge of the Iezu in your head worth preserving, too? No one else on the planet knows what you know, Gerald, with or without books."

They stared at each other in the wavering light. Damien had the lantern and what remained of the rations; Tarrant carried the water. After a long moment, Damien turned around and started to walk back the way they'd come. The stone floor was even under his feet, unaffected by the shift that had collapsed the tunnel only a stone's throw away. Damien's legs felt almost numb, his feet coming down with a heavy thump and lifting only reluctantly for a next step, and a next. It seemed to take a very long time until he heard the quiet sounds of other footsteps following him.

Without the driving urgency to get to the Hunter's keep before it was blown up by Church forces, they walked slower and slower, until Damien stumbled one time too many and bruised his shoulder against the wall. He stopped, leaning against the rock, into the pain, until Tarrant caught up with him; then he sat down and put the lantern to one side, and propped his arms on his knees, rounding his shoulders and trying to stretch out his spine. Tarrant lowered himself down across from him, a little to one side, stretching long legs out across the tunnel floor. He shrugged the strap off his shoulder and handed the last water canteen across to Damien who drank one swallow, two, then stopped himself and gave the canteen back.

Tarrant drank as well, the same two brief swallows, stoppered the canteen carefully, and looked across at Damien. "You didn't mention that if I failed, you would die as well."

Damien shrugged. "I thought you were probably able to figure that out for yourself." He put one hand to the pack hanging across his shoulder. "You want something to eat? There's dried meat and dried fruit and dry bread."

Even in this poor light, the look in Tarrant's eyes was unmistakable, but he said nothing, merely waved away the offer of food. After too short a time, he got to his feet again, staggered, and straightened up. He stood looking down at Damien until Damien swore under his breath and got up, too.

They walked on. When they came to a place Damien recognized from a run of lighter stone on one side of the tunnel, they shared the last of the water.

* * *

When they came back out into the foothills below Shaitan's valley, it was barely dawn. Damien tried for a while to figure out if it was tomorrow or the day after, but he'd been walking too long in the dark, and too long on the mountain before that, and all he wanted to do was fall flat on the ground and sleep. He lurched to a halt, peering up towards the Black Ridge, towards the pass leading to Shaitan, and Tarrant walked into him. "We need to go this way," Tarrant said.

"We need to stop." Damien suspected if he unlocked his knees, they would both fall over.

"Yes. This way." Tarrant stepped away from Damien with a barely noticeable shiver and began to walk downhill, away from the mountains. "Another hour, perhaps, at our current pace. Or two."

"You're insane," Damien said, and made himself move again.

This way was farther down into a broadening valley, in among the sparsely-growing trees. Having earth instead of rock underfoot was an enormous relief to Damien's feet. He chewed on a piece of dried fruit as he walked, mind empty of everything except putting one foot down after the other and keeping his eyes fixed on Tarrant's back so as not to get lost, or walk into a tree.

There was no path, but the ground sloped enough to provide direction, and there was very little underbrush. Probably a cultivated forest, Damien thought, or it had been in the past few decades, even though it was so close to both the volcano and the Forest. After they'd walked for a while, he began to hear birds.

It took them more than two hours, or at least what seemed to Damien to be much more than two hours, before they came out of the trees onto open ground. The hills were even more distant here, and grassland with shrubs and flowers spread out around a stream that came down from the mountains to the north.

"Over here," Tarrant said, stumbling down the incline and starting to wade across the shallow stream.

Damien went down slowly into the water, and found it icy cold but blessedly free of any smell of sulphur. He bent down and scooped up water in his hands and splashed it across his face, shivering as a few drops ran down his neck and in under the collar of his shirt. "Wait," he said. "We should drink."

Tarrant was already on the other side, walking on as though he couldn't stop himself. "There's a well," he said.

Damien poured more water over his head, ran both hands through his wet hair, and waded out of the creek. His toes were damp, as the seams of his boots were far from waterproof. With the left sleeve of his shirt, which seemed less dirty, he wiped at the earth and ash and sweat on his face. Past Tarrant, who was limping now, he could see a small building and a fence. "What is this place?"

He caught up with Tarrant at the door to the building, which was barely more than a shed, though solidly constructed and clearly well maintained. Tarrant fumbled with the door. "Summer pasturage," he said.

Looking out across the fence, Damien saw unhorses standing together under one of the few solitary trees, head to tail. At least, he thought they were unhorses; grass and shrubs grew high enough that he could not see their hooves. When he turned back, Tarrant had opened the door and gone into the shed. Damien stepped across the threshold, then stopped. "Water."

It was dim inside the shed, and his eyes were slow to adjust, but he thought he saw an outflung hand. "The well's round that way." Then Tarrant collapsed, slowly, falling to his knees at first, then tumbling forward.

Damien stared that way for a while, exhausted enough to be fascinated by the sight of Gerald Tarrant exhibiting quite literally human weakness. Eventually he turned around and walked outside, going around the side of the small building and down a path that led along the fence almost to the treeline. Well. Bucket. The water level was high, even at this season, and when he tried the water it was cold and sweet. Damien filled the bucket and carried it back to the shed, concentrating on every step so as not to stumble, fall, spill. He came inside and pulled the door closed.

Only a faint light filtered in, enough for him to make out Tarrant, who was lying on straw and a horse blanket in exactly the same position Damien had left him. Damien put the bucket down and knelt, knees screaming a protest. "Gerald." No response. "Gerald, you need to drink."

Tarrant opened his eyes, but didn't move. Damien braced himself, put one arm under Tarrant's shoulders and raised him up. Tarrant flinched slightly, lifted a hand, then let it fall. The back of his neck rested warmly, heavily, in the crook of Damien's arm. Damien cupped his free hand and filled it with water, held it to Tarrant's mouth, forced him to open up and drink. Then another handful, and another again, and another, until the water trickled down Tarrant's chin and Damien realized that the man was asleep.

He lay Tarrant down again, trying not to drop him too hard, bent forward, and drank. The water seemed to wash away the taste of ash and pain and exhaustion in his mouth, and he drank until he was too tired to swallow any more, until all he could do was lean back, and when he leaned back far enough the floor came up to meet him, and he slept.

* * *

Something tickled his nose. Damien sneezed, and the sudden movement jerked his leg from uncomfortable into cramping. He rolled to his feet and started to hobble around the shed, cursing under his breath as the movement made him entirely too aware of his bladder. As soon as the cramp in his calf began to ease up, he limped to the door and pushed it open.

Afternoon sunlight met him, warm and welcoming. Damien breathed deep, smelling nothing but sun-warmed grass, fresh air, and the nuroses growing by the wall of the shed. After relieving himself behind a cluster of juniper bushes, he went down to the stream, sat down on a flat rock, and tugged his boots off. As he'd suspected, in the places where his socks had bunched and wrinkled, they were stuck to his feet with blood from broken blisters.

Damien lowered his feet into the water. It was very cold, mountain cold, but the sun was warm on his face, and the rock was warm beneath him; after a while he lay back on it and closed his eyes again.

This time he woke up because his feet were numb, and judged he hadn't slept for very long. He sat up and looked around. This grassy plain and the woods that bordered it looked utterly peaceful, though he knew they must run thick with the same wild power that trickled down from Shaitan and Shaitan's valley into the Forest. Past the trees and the low hills, he could see the jagged peaks of the mountains.

Even looking that way made him feel tired. They were here. They had survived, and perhaps humanity would, too. Damien pulled his wet socks off and padded barefoot back towards the shed, boots in hand. He pushed the door open and let the light fall inside.

Tarrant was still lying where he'd fallen that morning. His face was pressed into the horse blanket, and there was straw in his hair. Damien grinned. Then he ran his hands through his own hair, feeling both straw, grass, and ash. He went to the bucket and drank more water; lukewarm now, but still sweet-tasting. When he'd finished drinking, he looked around the shed. The tack seemed old but well cared for, and there was a low bench and a chest that might hold tools and leather oil. A couple more blankets on the bench, folded, that he could have used for a pillow if he'd been in a state to notice.

When Damien went to investigate the tool chest, Tarrant stirred. He sat up slowly, brushing straws and boss from his sleeve, and looked at Damien with bloodshot silver eyes. "Is it too much to hope for," he said, stretching his legs out and carefully flexing his feet, "that you haven't eaten all the dry bread?"

Damien turned to go through his pack, dropped just inside the door. Now that Tarrant had mentioned food, he could feel that he was hungry, too. He took out a cloth-wrapped package and threw it to Tarrant, who caught it one-handed. "Dry bread and dried napple slices." He took out some for himself as well, turned back to the chest, and found, wedged into a corner, what he'd been looking for. "Can you stand up?"

Tarrant's mouth tightened fractionally. "Of course I can stand up," he said, and did. Then he sat down again rather abruptly.

Damien went over and held out his hand. Tarrant hesitated for a moment that stretched out a little too long, then took it, and Damien hauled him to his feet. The weight of him seemed somehow oddly different, Damien reflected; he couldn't have said whether Tarrant was lighter or heavier now, hungry and dirty and human, but something had changed. The touch of a hand as warm as his own was still startling. Tarrant pulled free of Damien's grip and took half a step back, away from Damien.

The blankets on the bench were not precisely clean, but they would have to do. Damien picked up the topmost one and tucked it under his arm. "I'm going down to the stream," he said, holding up the piece of hard yellow soap he'd found. "I assume you'll want this when I'm finished with it."

* * *

Downstream from where they'd crossed over, the water deepened into a small pool that was thigh-deep, Damien found when he waded into it. He steadied himself against the current and washed himself as best he could, gritting his teeth against the cold, then tried to wash out his clothes, careful not to lose the chunk of soap in the water. The soap had a harsh, unpleasant smell, and he rinsed off as thoroughly as he could stand to, before the chill of the water drove him out to stand shivering on the same sunwarmed rock he'd sat on before.

Drying himself on the dubiously clean horse blanket was not a pleasant prospect, but neither was standing there in nothing but his skin until the faint breeze and the blend of sunlight and Corelight could do it. Damien rubbed himself down and wrapped the blanket around his waist. He wrung his wet clothes out thoroughly and spread them over some low bushes for the time being.

The bread really was dry, dark-brown and tough, but not quite hard. Damien forced down some of it, then munched on slices of dried fruit instead as he walked back to the shed. Yellowing late-summer grass prickled at the soles of his feet. Tarrant sat in the open door with a piece of bread in his hand, watching — Damien estimated the direction of his gaze — Shaitan in the distance. Then he turned his head and looked at Damien instead. "Trying to set a new fashion?"

Damien nodded. "Thought it might impress the horses." He held out the soap. "You'll need this."

Tarrant's pale eyes flickered from Damien's bare chest to the soap with something Damien interpreted as disgust, but he took the soap from Damien's hand and stood up with close to his old ease of movement. He walked off towards the stream, and Damien turned to his packs again, finding a shirt that was more clean than not, wrinkled pants, even socks. About to close the pack up again, a sudden realization struck him, and he almost laughed out loud.

When Tarrant came back, Damien was the one sitting in the open door, chewing on a piece of dried meat and rubbing oil into his boots. He looked up, took in the sight of Gerald Tarrant with dripping wet hair and a greyish blanket wrapped around him, ragged hem just past his knees, and worked hard at keeping his face neutral. He could just imagine how the rough blanket would scratch against Tarrant's fine, pale skin.

"Want to borrow some clothes?" Not that being completely exposed to the sun could be anything but good for Tarrant, but this didn't seem like the moment to suggest it.

Nothing of Damien's fit Tarrant particularly well, but it was an improvement over the horse blanket. Tarrant belted the pants with a piece of lead rope and rolled the sleeves up to his elbows, and gave Damien a look that dared him to so much as smile. "If you can light that stove in the corner, we can use it to dry our clothes."

Damien eyed the small metal stove. "And if I can't?"

"Then I'll try," Tarrant said, "although since I haven't lit a fire in about 920 years, I can't guarantee my success."

"It'll get very hot in here," Damien warned, but he went to crouch by the stove to see what he could do. There was a small pile of firewood — sticks and branches, really, gathered from the woods and roughly cut or broken to the right size — and a Worked firelighter with a delicate sigil carved into it. "Gerald? Get me some dry grass."

Using the grass as tinder, Damien soon had a fire going. He closed the metal door and stood up. The small shed would probably heat up like a sauna, especially once they strung up the wet clothes, but perhaps they could sleep with the door open. Damien looked outside and saw that Tarrant was walking down towards the stream. He began to rig up ropes between hooks and nails on the walls, and had managed two decently stable drying lines when Tarrant came back with an armful of wet clothes.

"We should be able to get out of here early tomorrow morning," Tarrant said, holding a hand out towards the stove as if testing its heat. "We can follow the roads of the Raksha valley down towards Sheva. It's a couple of days' ride, if the weather holds."

Damien nodded. Then he looked at Tarrant. "Wait, ride? We're not trying to save humanity any more, so do you have to start your new life with horse theft?"

Tarrant gave him a weary look. "I own those horses, Vryce. And this building, and the land it stands on. Presumably I own the revolting soap as well — not one of my better investments."

"Oh." Damien looked around. "I don't suppose you own a nearby restaurant?"

"An oversight," Tarrant said dryly.

They both went to sit outside, spreading the third, still-dry blanket on the grass and leaning back against the wall of the shed, warmed by the early evening sun- and Corelight. Damien brought his pack along, and fished out bandages and blood-stilling powder from a side pocket. "See to your feet," he said. "If they get infected, I can't Heal you."

Then he paused, staring at the roll of bandages in his hand, realizing the full extent of what he had just said. He could not Heal. He might never be able to Heal again, unless he were willing to give up his own life to do it. That willingness was difficult to summon up, and certainly not about to be sparked by a couple of blood blisters.

Tarrant began to tend and bandage his feet. Damien watched him for a minute, then took the bandages out of his hands and did it himself, working swiftly and efficiently in the face of Tarrant's obvious discomfort at being touched. He dusted his own feet with powder next, and wrapped a piece of bandage around the worst places. Disorienting, to think that he could no longer stop an infection or draw a fever. Healing lay at the very heart of his sorcerous abilities, the one thing he had valued above all else.

"I own a building in Sheva," Tarrant said, breaking into Damien's reverie. "There are certain things I need there."

"Such as?" Damien wondered if Tarrant had actually stored any of his research outside of his keep.

"Money," Tarrant said unexpectedly. "Papers. I have several accounts with merchant banks in Sheva, Faraday, and Jaggonath, among other places. Most of the Forest business and investments must be given up, but there are other resources I can draw on. However, I think it would be... unwise... to try to access anything as a servant of the Forest, given current events."

"That's one way of putting it." Damien put the bandages and powder back into his pack. "So you have a whole new persona waiting, fully financed. A contingency plan. You're telling me that at some point you anticipated the possibility that there would be a second, successful crusade against the Forest."

Tarrant nodded. "What men have done badly once, they can do again, better."

"Only you," Damien said, shaking his head. "But what about a complete collapse of the banking system? You don't have a cache of gold and jewels buried under the floorboards here?"

"No." Tarrant leaned back against the wall and finished his dried fruit. Then his lips curved faintly and he said, "Not here."

* * *

The shed did get too hot with the stove burning, and after an hour of drowsy discomfort, only partly alleviated by stripping out of his shirt, Damien went outside and lay down to sleep in the grass, head pillowed on his arm, blanket over his legs. He woke up just before dawn, damp with dew and stiff with cold, went back inside again, and lay down on the straw next to Tarrant.

"Are you going to try the roof next?" Tarrant muttered, with a heavy-lidded glare. Damien smiled and went back to sleep.

In the morning, they bathed in the stream again, and breakfasted off the last dried fruit. Damien went down to the pasture and picked out two unhorses, luring them with sweet talk and dry bread. The morning air was clear and fresh, and even though Damien could see smoke rising from Shaitan in the distance, he still felt light-hearted. The future was opening up ahead, reassuringly clean and empty, like the sky.

"We don't have enough supplies for the ride to Sheva, though," he pointed out to Tarrant, who had picked out tack for the unhorses, and was now once again dressed in his own clothes, cleaner than they had been, but very wrinkled. Damien tactfully forbore to comment either on this or on the three-day stubble. He was hardly in any better case, himself, but then, he didn't particularly care.

"There are farms along the way," Tarrant said, saddling his horse. "No daes that I know of, but we will at least be able to buy food." He looked up at Damien, who was already mounted. "Anything will be an improvement on that bread."

The path away from the shed was narrow but well-trodden, worn deep between grassy banks from decades of use. Perhaps even centuries, Damien reflected, depending on how long Tarrant had owned the land and how long it had been used for this purpose. They rode across the grassland as the sun rose higher, and came into the dappled shadow of the woods just as the glare was beginning to grow uncomfortable. The unhorses were placid, sweet-tempered beasts — so placid, in fact, that Damien began to wonder if they had been bred for that very trait.

They startled a pair of nudeer grazing at the edge of the woods, and then they came up on the road. It was as empty as the path through the woods had been. Tarrant drew to a halt, so Damien did, too. "This way, right? Southeast, towards Sheva?"

"Yes." Tarrant looked at Damien with clear, cold eyes. "You might want to go some other way, though. You have a life waiting for you, and it's not in Sheva."

Damien shrugged. "It's not really waiting anywhere. I left the Church," and that still hurt, a sharp thorn deep in his soul, "and it's not as though anyone is expecting me."

"Still. It would be understandable if you chose to—"

"Gerald." Damien looked at him. "I've gone with you into the rakhlands, across Novatlantis, into hell, and up the slopes of a live volcano while harassed by a demon. What makes you think I'll balk at a peaceful two-day ride on an actual road? It's not even raining." He scratched his chin through the stubble-going-on-beard. "Besides, where else would I go from here? Back to Shaitan?"

"Very well," Tarrant said, and something flashed in his eyes that Damien couldn't quite read. "Then we go towards Sheva."

The road was not heavily traveled at any season, and they rode south without meeting anyone. The landscape looked very peaceful: rolling hills, sparsely wooded areas, open dry grassland with grazing cattle. Even knowing that malevolent fae currents raced across the land, converging on the Forest, Damien could not help relaxing. It wasn't a beautiful area, precisely, and he could dimly make out the growing darkness of the Forest in the distance, but at this season, there were even flowers growing by the roadside.

It was a clear day. Overhead, the sun rose in the sky, burning white like molten silver. Damien turned his face up towards it and was just contemplating getting some dried meat to chew on when Tarrant swayed in the saddle and nearly fell off his mount.

"Gerald!" Damien kneed his horse and moved up alongside Tarrant, reaching out to steady him. "What is it? What happened?" Not his heart again, Damien prayed. Not that. Surely the Healing he'd done had been thorough enough.

Tarrant leaned against the pommel and Damien's grip on his arm, head down, and took a deep breath. There was cold sweat on his brow, and the fine hair at his temples had begun to darken and curl. "They've blown up the keep," he said at last. "Every ward, every Working. All of it."

"Good riddance," Damien said. He unhooked the canteen that hung from his saddle and handed it to Tarrant. "Here, drink." He waited until Tarrant had swallowed a long draught of water and restoppered the canteen before asking, "So you can still touch the fae, then."

"No. Yes." Tarrant straightened in the saddle with an obvious effort, a distant look in his eyes. "I can't touch it the way I used to, but I can See it. I can't Work unless I'm willing to sacrifice my life for it, and frankly, it was enough to do that once." He blinked slowly, then focused on Damien. "Nothing active. Nothing deliberate."

"But there's stuff that comes to you whether you want it or not?" Damien hazarded.

"Something like that."

Damien looked sharply at him. He closed his hand more tightly about Tarrant's arm, meaning to ask another question, and was struck by the disorienting sensation of a grip about his own arm, and heat on his face, the same uncanny echo he'd experienced on the slopes of Shaitan after he'd tasted Tarrant's blood. "I thought that was gone," he said.

"You would have noticed," Tarrant said, and carefully worked his arm free of Damien's clasp, tugging at his wrinkled sleeve as if to erase the prints of Damien's fingers.

"Yes, but—" Damien decided to give himself a little more time to think about that. Instead, he said, "Do you still have the veil you wore on Shaitan? You might want to put it on, otherwise your nose will be peeling by nightfall."

One of the veils had been lost — in Shaitan's valley, in the tunnel, Damien didn't know — but Tarrant wrapped the other one around his head. He sat straight-backed on his mount once more, as though he had never come close to falling, and the fine cloth covering his face made him neither less nor more difficult to read.

As for himself, Damien relished the sunshine. He'd spent too much time lately traveling in the dark, one way or another. And now, knowing that the malignant fae currents of the Forest were no longer centered on the black keep of the Neocount of Merentha, Damien relaxed even more. The Forest had been shaped by and bound to the Hunter and his keep, and it was good to know that the keep was ruined, and that the Hunter was... was this man riding next to him. Damien's brows drew together slightly.

"There is a farmstead," Tarrant said, nodding towards the cultivated land to the left. He produced a purse from somewhere inside his tunic. "One of us should attempt to buy some food."

"One of us," Damien said with a snort. "You mean the one of us who doesn't look like he's trying to hide from the sun."

"I am trying to hide from the sun," Tarrant pointed out. He looked down at his hands, which were also beginning to redden across the knuckles. "I had almost forgotten."

"The sun?"

"The heat of it. The clarity of daylight. The way it melts dark fae like ice in the spring."

Damien nodded. "Why don't you stay here and melt some more," he suggested, and rode off towards the farm.

It was a large, heavily fortified house, built back-to-back with the barn and stables, and every door and window was warded. As Damien came closer, a dog began to bark. Three men and two women came out in the yard. One of the men, who carried a pitchfork, stepped forward towards Damien and said, "What do you want?"

"I was hoping to buy some food," Damien said. "We're traveling towards Sheva, and our supplies are short." Because now they were two people eating supplies meant for one, but he decided it was wiser not to mention that.

The man with the pitchfork shook his head. One of the women, who had a thin, worn face and a scar on her upper lip, looked past Damien out towards the road, where Tarrant sat like a statue in his ragged silk tunic, black veil barely hiding his pale face. She flinched a little, and then she nodded, fast. "Wait here," she said. "Wait here."

She backed away and went into the house. The others remained, staring at Damien with hostile eyes. He met the gaze of each of them in turn, waiting for them to challenge him, or to challenge the presence of Tarrant behind him, but no one said a word. Damien wondered how they could bear to live in such fear, in such anger, in such close proximity to the Forest. He wondered how they would feel when they found out that the Hunter's keep had been destroyed. Would they feel safer, or would they fear even more what the dark fae would do with no one to master it?

In a very short time, the woman with the scar came back. She edged up to Damien's horse and handed him a bundle wrapped in a not entirely clean cloth. "Here," she said. "Take it. Go."

"And don't come back," the man with the pitchfork added, though in a quiet enough growl that Damien could ignore it.

"Thank you," Damien said, holding the woman's eyes. He lifted the purse Tarrant had given him. "What is a fair price for this?"

"That you go away," she said, her eyes flickering towards the road again, "and take him with you."

Damien turned his head to look. To him, Tarrant was a deeply familiar silhouette, even with his face veiled and hidden, even without the sword that had always hung by his side. That arrogant bearing, that straight back, that graceful stillness—

Perhaps he wasn't the only one to find it familiar, or at least eerily reminiscent of someone who should not be here, in the bright safety of sunlight. The dog barked again, louder and coming closer, the horse shifted uneasily, and when Damien turned back he saw the man with the pitchfork draw threateningly nearer. He tightened his hands on the reins and encouraged the horse to back up, slowly, step by step, until there was room to turn and ride back to the road. Damien kept the pace deliberately steady. When he came back to Tarrant, he said, "I can't decide if your presence nearly earned me a pitchfork in the back, or saved me from it."

"Probably both," Tarrant said. "I suggest we ride on a bit further before we stop for lunch."

* * *

Damien rode into the shade of a couple of trees, dismounted, and began to investigate the cloth bundle. The woman had packed them half a loaf of bread, a chunk of white crumbly cheese, some chespers and napples with a few brown spots, and a cold pie filled with something Damien couldn't identify. The cheese wasn't bad, though, judging by the smell. "You should come in here," he said to Tarrant, who was still in the sunlight. "Sunburn can be pretty painful."

"So I seem to recall," Tarrant said, and Damien knew he wasn't talking about any memories of his mortal days. Damien remembered, too, the times he'd seen Gerald Tarrant burned past what any living creature could survive. Tarrant got off his horse, though, leaving it to graze, and came in under the canopy of the trees.

"Yeah, well, we can't fix it, anyway. Even if I could touch the fae this close to the Forest, I can't touch the fae."

"Unless you want it badly enough."

"Unless I want it badly enough," Damien agreed. "Which I don't, at the moment. For some reason, trying to Heal your nose is not quite as strong a motivating force as trying to Heal your heart and save your life." And your soul, he thought but didn't say.

Tarrant was quiet, unwinding the scarf from around his head. His face showed nothing; his eyes were a flat dull grey, like metal on a cloudy day. He settled with his back against the tree trunk and ate a napple in quick bites. Then he touched the back of his hand to the scar that cut across his face. "I suppose it was too much to ask that you would Heal this, too."

"You're damn lucky I didn't," Damien said. "The Church finally managed to conquer the Forest because Andrys Tarrant looks enough like you to fool the fae. Thousands of believers must know his face by now. Maybe you should think about growing a beard."

Tarrant stared at him for a brief moment of unguarded horror, then narrowed his eyes and threw his napple core at Damien's head. Damien ducked it easily enough, tried a little of the mystery pie, and declined to give any to Tarrant. Someone who hadn't eaten anything for 900 years couldn't possibly have the stomach bacteria necessary to deal with it.

After eating a piece of bread and a piece of cheese with no indication that he found it either revolting or appealing, Tarrant brushed the crumbs from his fingertips. "We should move on."

Damien began to wrap the food up again. Then he reconsidered and took the pie back out; it was going to go bad very shortly, anyway, so he might as well finish it. "Yes. And we should think about finding a place to stop overnight."

Tarrant didn't look at him. "The road gets better from here. If I keep riding, I'll make Sheva by midday tomorrow."

"Are we in a hurry?" There was no answer. "What do you mean, 'if I keep riding'? Gerald!"

Damien leaned forward and gripped Tarrant's arm. Tarrant stiffened and pulled away, a little too fast, a little too unsteadily. He stared down at the ground for a long moment, his face abstracted; then he looked up and pinned Damien in place with eyes that burned silver-white. "You need to go west," he said.

"West," Damien said. Tarrant nodded. "Into the Forest. Are you insane?" He stood up and went over to the horses. "You know it's too late for either of us to go into the Forest if the keep's already been destroyed. There won't be anything left that we can save."

"Not we. You." Tarrant stood up, too. Even ragged and unshaven, he had presence, projected through the same coldly arrogant body language that had annoyed Damien from the moment they met. "And not into the Forest. If you go west from here, you'll come to the Lethe. Follow it southwest to—"

"Why?" Damien put the bundle of food into one of the saddle bags and turned around.

"There is a ford," Tarrant went on as though Damien hadn't spoken, "just before the Lethe flows into the Forest. Your Patriarch will be there tomorrow when the sun is at its brightest, and you need to be there, too."

Damien frowned and crossed his arms, standing his ground. "Gerald. What the hell are you talking about?"

"I've Seen this," Tarrant said, his eyes glittering with something cold and focused. "Listen to me, Vryce."

"I thought you said you couldn't—"

"—Work, no. But I can still See, and you know as well as I do that sometimes the fae currents show possibility and probability. It doesn't necessarily take an attempt at Divining to know what might come to pass."

"Might," Damien said.

Tarrant hesitated fractionally. "Might. But if it does come to pass, it's essential that you be there."

"Yeah?" Damien shifted his stance in response to something in Tarrant's voice. The horse nosed at his shoulder, as if trying to steady him. "Essential to whom?"

"The Patriarch. The Church. The entire planet." The pause was so brief that Damien might have imagined it; he could hear no difference in Tarrant's smooth voice. "You."

Damien nodded slowly. "And what about you?" he asked.

"I rather doubt your Patriarch would be pleased to see me," Tarrant said, "particularly not given the circumstances of our only meeting so far. It seems wisest for me to go on towards Sheva."

"That's not what I asked, Gerald."

"Possibility and probability," Tarrant said, not meeting Damien's eyes. "This is what I can tell you. I feel very strongly that you should go."

Damien sighed. "And you're sure it would be worse if you went with me."

"My presence would definitely interfere, yes." Tarrant picked up the napple core Damien had dodged from where it had fallen on the ground and fed it to his mount, his face half turned away and hidden by a fall of soft golden-brown hair. "I'm sure if you exert your intelligence, you can see why."

Damien uncrossed his arms and turned back towards his horse, opening the saddle bag and taking the food out again. He knelt down on the grass and ripped the cloth in two, then divided the fruit and cheese evenly, and left all the meat and most of the bread to Tarrant. He stood up again and packed his new, smaller bundle. "For some strange reason," he said in a conversational tone of voice, "it makes me vulking nervous when I know there's something you're not telling me."

Tarrant turned his head. He looked strained; something about the eyes, the mouth, something that could have been due simply to the stress of the past few days and the shock of becoming human again, but Damien doubted it. "Believe me when I say that it doesn't make any difference."

"I don't. But if what you've Seen is that important to the Church and to Erna, I'll go." Damien reached out very deliberately and put his hand over Tarrant's, closing it tight when Tarrant would have pulled back. "Believe me when I say that I'll be seeing you in Sheva," he said, putting the conviction of what he felt into his voice, into his touch.

The hard surface glitter in Tarrant's eyes faded into deep, almost vulnerable startlement. He watched in silence as Damien mounted, turned his horse around, and rode off. When Damien turned to look back over his shoulder, Tarrant was still standing there, looking after him.

* * *

Damien reached the Lethe at sunset. The river was wide and shallow, running over sand and gravel banks and slices of flat, well-worn rock. Here, the vegetation was green and plentiful, and when he halted by the riverbank, his horse immediately began to graze. The sun was setting over the Forest, and Damien shaded his eyes against the slanting light, watching its white brilliance fade into the black, black woods. The warmer Corelight still bathed the land, but shadows lengthened, creeping across the ground.

It occurred to him that he was riding towards the Forest, alone, at nightfall. It occurred to him that this was not, on balance, the most foolhardy or suicidal thing he had done over the past few days.

Looking along the riverbank, Damien judged this as good a place as any to stop for a moment. He dismounted, unhooked his canteen, and drank. The horse flicked its ears idly at him, and he nudged it towards the river; he wasn't the only one who needed water. Damien ate a chesper, getting pieces of peel stuck under his nails. He sniffed the remains of the pie, and decided against it; instead, he cut some cheese and tore off a chunk of bread. The horse nudged him, hoping for a treat, but he shook his head. No telling now how long the food would have to last him.

Corelight was fading and the stars brightening overhead as Damien got back in the saddle. He rode along the riverbank, letting the horse pick its way through the trees. Bushes and creeper vines made for slow going. He didn't have a springbolt any more, he realized, only his sword. Damien lifted a hand and touched the hilt, shifting his shoulders to make sure the harness sat right.

Casca rose, but the moon was only a sliver, and gave little light. Damien wished he could Work his sight to guide the horse and himself. Instead, he found a defensible place as close to the river as he could and settled in there for the night, with his back against a tree trunk and his sword across his knees. He wasn't sure whether anything out of the Forest would come this far northeast across the river to hunt, but he was certain that this was the wrong place to be careless.

The stars were very clear this night. Damien named all the constellations he could see through the branches. He closed his eyes and listened to the soft calling of a nightbird and the rustle of wind through leaves. Close to falling asleep, he thought he heard someone speak his name.

Damien frowned, staring up in the darkness at stars and shifting leaves. Domina was up now, pale with reflected light. After a while he said, quietly, "Gerald?" but there was no answer.

As soon as it was light enough to see the way, Damien saddled his horse again and went on along the river. Coming closer and closer to the Forest, he thought he could almost sense fae currents all around, rushing into the darkness under the trees, following the river. By the time the sun was warm and bright on his face and hands, he'd come close enough to make out the trees of the Forest, and soon enough he came to a place that had to be the one Tarrant had told him about, a shallow ford, an open space among the bushes and undergrowth.

Damien dismounted, found a place to leave his horse, and settled down to wait. He ate the rest of the chespers and drank a little water, which cleared his head.

He heard them before he saw them, coming out of the Forest and towards the Lethe. Not an army, not a crusade — so impossibly few, to have succeeded where greater forces had failed in breaching the Forest and destroying the Hunter's keep. The Patriarch stepped out onto the riverbank, and Damien's breath caught. Exhausted, limping — wounded, Damien thought — the man still had such presence, the very trees seemed to bend towards him in reverence.

Damien watched in silence as the Patriarch waded into the river, swayed, kept going. The men and women who followed him came out onto the riverbank, spreading out to watch and wait. Though Damien had known to expect it, seeing Andrys Tarrant was a bone-deep shock: that face, so familiar, so different, bruised from battle but at the same time softer and more open than Gerald Tarrant's face had been in centuries. Andrys Tarrant walked as though a too-heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders, and a beautiful woman walked by his side, her arm linked through his, her eyes shining with love and pride.

The way to the Hunter's keep had not been won easily, Damien saw. Wounded men and women were carried by their fellows to lie or sit on the riverbank, to watch the Patriarch through pain-hazed eyes and wait for him to speak.

It seemed to Damien that the Patriarch was waiting for something, too, poised on his rock and looking out over the river and the Forest. And understanding that, Damien stepped forward, making his way through the underbrush to stand where the Patriarch could see him and meet his eyes. The weight of that gaze was considerable, but it seemed to Damien that something clicked into place there and then, by the edge of the rushing water.

The Patriarch raised a hand, asking for silence and attention, though all eyes were already on him. He recited the Prayer for the Dead, slowly and solemnly, and Damien whispered it along with him, every word, not merely the responses echoed by everyone on the riverbank. Damien remembered speaking these words for Hesseth. He remembered teaching the prayer to Jenseny, to speak it for her father. He remembered speaking the words for Jenseny herself, and tears rose in his eyes. She had truly been God's chosen warrior, far more so than he had ever been, could ever hope to be.

Blinking his eyes clear, Damien watched the men and women who had come out of the Forest. They had done battle with a fearsome, legendary enemy. The keep had fallen, Amoril must have fallen, and if they had not killed the Hunter, they would surely kill the Forest itself, now that they knew it could be done. Despite the losses they'd suffered, the lives lost that they'd prayed for, remembered, and honored, they glowed with pride in their victory.

Damien felt a moment of unease, and then the Patriarch began to speak again. The very air about him seemed to shimmer, and Damien could barely make out a word he used, distracted by the power that flowed along with them. It could not be doubted that the Patriarch knew who and what he was now, that he had accepted Tarrant's gift of knowledge, as bitter and terrible as it must have been for him.

The Patriarch spoke of justice and moral choices, of necessity and law-breaking and responsibility, and Damien listened on some level other than words. He felt poised on a wave about to break, knowing that something crucial was about to take shape, straining with his very soul to hear and understand it. These people had committed violence, yes, and now took pride and pleasure in what they had done, though that violence went against the precepts of the Church in the name of which they had done it—

"Let the sin be mine alone, not theirs," the Patriarch said in a voice that could make truth out of anything it said, and the unseen wave began to roll forward.

The fae was moving in response to the Patriarch's speech, and when he slashed his palm and held it high for the people to see, blood running down to mix with the Lethe's swift, cold water, Damien thought he could feel the earth move beneath his feet. This was a true Working. Light and forgiveness and peace ran in the current of the water now, in the current of the fae.

And Damien knew exactly what it took to work the fae after Tarrant's sacrifice on Shaitan.

He wasn't aware of his own movement until he'd waded into the river, icy water to his knees, higher. Damien dipped his hand in the water, feeling blood and power, though his fingers quickly went numb. He touched his hand to his forehead and felt it wash over him: a new baptism, cleansing, forgiving. He would have knelt to the Patriarch then, but that was the wrong gesture for the moment; instead, he bowed deeply, honoring the man and the sacrifice.

And the others saw him, and followed. One by one, two by two, they stepped into the waters and were baptised anew. Hope flowed in the river, hope and faith, stronger and stronger.

Much stronger.

Damien looked up to see the Patriarch step down from his rock into the rushing water, sway, and nearly fall. He waded that way as quickly as he could, fighting the current that ran red with hope and blood — too much blood to have come merely from that first shallow cut. When he reached the man's side, he put an arm around him, steadying him. The Patriarch looked at him, a look at once forbidding and pleading for help, and Damien bent his head in acquiescence. It seemed to him that he had been here before, or that he was somewhere else now: the hot jagged edge of a volcano crater and the icy quick current of a river met and mingled in his mind. He would not lessen this sacrifice, either, by attempting to stop it.

"You walked with such evil," the Patriarch said. Damien nodded, because it was true, and watched the Patriarch's eyes grown unfocused, seeing something beyond the here and now. Blood soaked into his jacket, blood and purpose. He tried to free the knife from the Patriarch's grip, and cut his own palm when his hand slipped in the blood and water. The knife fell into the river, and Damien braced himself to hold steady.

Standing there with his legs numb from the cold water and his hands slick with blood, feeling the fae currents change in time with the Patriarch's failing heartbeat, Damien Vryce prayed. He prayed for healing, healing for Erna and for her people, human and rakh, for all life on the planet. Healing of spirit and healing of body, healing of everything the fae had done to them, and everything they had done to the fae. He prayed for the coming change to strengthen and uplift them, prayed to be allowed part in it, to give what he could.

With one final quiet sigh, the Patriarch slumped against Damien's chest, a still and heavy weight, at peace. It was over. The world had changed.

* * *

A woman called Zefila took charge. Damien had carried the Patriarch out of the river, laying him down on smooth rock bordered by grass and flowers. He stepped back, watching and listening, and found that there was grief, but no confusion. These people had seen and understood the Patriarch's sacrifice, had felt it shake them down to their very bones. Seeing them talk and grieve and make plans, Damien felt reassured, and wiped his tears away as best he could.

He watched Andrys Tarrant step forward to take part, and marvelled at the miracle of genetics that had reproduced Gerald Tarrant's face and figure near-perfectly after so many intervening centuries. There was no doubt in Damien's mind that Tarrant would need to keep a relatively low profile, now that his descendant had shown the world what that family likeness really meant.

Damien frowned, staring hard at Andrys Tarrant, at the woman by his side whose long black hair rippled in the breeze, at Andrys Tarrant again. How did he know that? He had never seen Andrys Tarrant before. No one had told him how these people had accomplished their triumph in the Forest. The Patriarch had certainly not confided any such plans to him before he'd left Jaggonath. And yet Damien had mentioned it to Tarrant yesterday, as a throwaway, casual, incontrovertible fact.

He could not know, but he did know. Hard on the heels of that realization came another: he must get to Sheva.

With so many wounded, the soldiers of the Church would travel slowly. But they had leaders, and they had willing followers, and they would spread the word wherever they went; Damien didn't feel that he was needed here. He was free to follow the promptings of his heart and soul, and so he slipped away quietly, going down to the water's edge again.

When he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw that the young woman with the long black hair was watching him. Her brows drew together slightly, as if she were wondering who he was, how he'd come to be there at this crucial moment, and why. Damien had no answers for her, or at least none that he could put into words quite yet. He raised one hand in a priest's gesture of blessing, though he had forfeited the right to give that any more. The Patriarch, who had known what it meant to give up what you valued most dearly, frowned sternly in his memory. Damien lowered his hand again and waded back across the river.

The waters of the Lethe were still cold, but now they refreshed rather than numbed, easing and lightening Damien's spirit until he could think of the Patriarch's sacrifice without the wrong kind of grief. Such a man should be remembered with respect. Such a man should be remembered.

Damien Vryce rode south.

* * *

He set as quick a pace as he and his mount could endure, following animal trails through the woods, then skirting fields until he came back to the road. The same flowers grew along the roadside; the same cattle grazed in the distance. Everything looked the same, and Damien longed to be able to Work, longed for the vision of an adept, to be able to see that everything was different. But the Patriarch had died for his dream of a world where such changes would be invisible and intangible, and Damien rode on. He couldn't Work, he shouldn't Work, and there was someplace he needed to be.

It was probably his imagination that the sunlight was brighter this day than any other day he'd ever seen.

Damien cut the bad spots from a napple and ate it down to the core, which he fed to his horse. He eyed his supplies now and then during the afternoon, but felt surprisingly replete, as though what had refreshed his spirit had also strengthened his body. The brief stops he made were mostly to let his horse drink, and to change his wet socks for dry ones. The boots were ruined, he thought, but he had no others. He rode on through sunlight, Corelight, moonlight, until he finally acknowledged that his mount needed to rest.

This was an area with more open ground, fields and pasturage and beyond that, scraggly heath, and beyond that, the Forest. Damien found a tree on a slight rise in the ground and settled under it, leaving his horse to graze. It did feel good to stretch his legs out. Even this far north, the nights were mild at this season. Damien ate the rest of the cheese, washing it down with water. The weight of the water in his canteen made him think of the waters of the Lethe flowing into the Forest, carrying the power of the Patriarch's sacrifice into the heart of the dark fae. Change would be slow, but inevitable.

Damien closed his eyes in silent prayer. After a while, he drifted off, only to wake abruptly with his hand already on the hilt of his sword. He had the distinct impression that he was fighting — had been fighting—

Rising to his feet, he looked around, and saw nothing. The night was quiet all around, with merely the quietest of breezes whispering in the leaves of the tree behind him. Domina gleamed above the Forest. His horse moved, a bulky shadow — then reared back and snorted in fear.

A white, snarling shape leaped out of the darkness, and Damien drew his sword and stepped forward to meet it, swinging low and scoring a long cut in the creature's side as it twisted away. It was one of the white wolf-creatures of the Forest, Amoril's pets — bigger than a wolf, smarter than a wolf, and hellishly fast. It seemed to be injured, though, favoring one hind leg. The dirty white fur was matted with blood. Perhaps the Patriarch's troops had fought and hurt the beast, and if so, good for them, Damien thought grimly.

Behind Damien, the horse shied and struggled, and he knew it wouldn't be long before it freed itself. He settled his hands into a surer grip and bared his teeth at the wolf. "Your master is dead," he said. "Your home will be burned to ash, but you won't see it." Damien shifted his weight. "Because I'm going to kill you."

The wolf leaped. Damien swung, and once again the beast twisted in mid-leap, its claws raking Damien's forearm even as his sword bit into its shoulder. The heavy jaws closed on empty air rather than Damien's elbow, and he drew back, praying that the ground was even enough that he wouldn't stumble. The wolf began to circle him, snarling, but Damien refused to be drawn away from the tree and the horse. He turned in place, watching those almost hand-like paws and unnaturally long legs. When the powerful shoulders bunched as the wolf prepared to spring, Damien made as if to lunge forward. The wolf tried to bat the blade aside, and Damien swung down with his full strength, shearing through fur and flesh and bone.

Black blood spurted over Damien's sword and hands, and the wolf howled with pain, losing its balance and staggering to the side on its three remaining legs. It was Damien's turn to move in close now, keeping careful watch as the wolf's hindquarters bunched for a desperate leap. When it came, he lunged to meet it, and drove the point of his sword through the wolf's throat.

Its dying convulsions wrenched the blade out of his hands. He stepped back, slipped in blood, and had to steady himself against the tree. It was very lucky for him, he knew, that this wolf had come alone, presumably made desperate enough by the deaths of its packmates to leave the Forest.

As soon as he could, Damien reclaimed his sword, wiping it on a clean patch of grass. He turned around and saw that his horse was still there, still tethered, a little wild-eyed but not plunging frantically to get free. Damien talked softly to it while he found a rag to wipe his sword and his hands. He spared a little water from his canteen to wash out the clawmarks on his arm, and bound them with a cleaner rag that had once been the fine silk sleeve of one of Tarrant's tunics. Damien tried to wipe at the blood on his boots, too, but it had already started to soak into the leather.

Once he didn't stink so badly of wolf blood, he went to his horse. It twitched nervously, but let him pat its neck, and feed it some bread, and lead it away to a cluster of bushes where it could stand and nibble at the savory leaves. Then he went back.

Damien looked down at the dead wolf lying at the foot of the tree and thought about the price such a pelt reputedly fetched if brought to the right buyer, and then he thought about the gleam in the wolf's red eyes. With a small shrug, he pulled his sword free again, and cut off the head and the remaining three paws. He cleaned the sword yet again and slid it back into the harness; then he got his knife out, turned the wolf carcass on its back, and began to skin it. The fur was a little damaged from the fight, and from earlier fights, but Damien thought it would still be quite valuable — if he chose to sell it.

When he was done, he wiped a few stray bloodstains from the neck of the pelt and rolled it up. He left the wolf carcass where it lay and went back to his horse, strapping the pelt to one of his saddlebags. The horse whuffled at him, placid and friendly once again.

Damien rode through the night, letting his mount set the pace, watching the stars and the moons as though he were on a peaceful excursion to study astronomy. The scratches on his arm throbbed unpleasantly. His boots were stiffening as the blood dried, and he flexed his toes as best he could, trying to keep the leather from getting too hard.

Dawn came slowly. The stars faded one by one, and the sky whitened in the east, bleached by the rising sun. Damien watched the landscape take shape around him, heard birds begin to sing. When he rode by pastures with milch cows, saw outlying farms, and heard the occasional dog bark when he passed, he knew he wasn't far from Sheva. Damien got himself some cheese and bread and ate it in the saddle.

* * *

Sheva was a town in chaos. Damien rode past barricaded cross alleys and broken shop windows; his horse stepped daintily around the broken furniture and refuse lying in the middle of the street. People were gathering on street corners, many of them armed, speaking in hushed but angry voices. Windows were closed and shuttered, and doors barred more heavily than even this town, so close to the Forest, normally did. Damien rode past one house where the doors had been broken down, and the wards above the lintel smashed. He saw dark stains on the wall, and thought they might be blood.

It occurred to Damien that he didn't actually know where he was going now that he was here. Also, he could smell smoke. He took a firmer grip on the reins and rode in the direction of the fire.

In the main square, the remains of a huge bonfire smoldered on the cobblestones. On one side stood a group of town militia, drinking something out of plain pottery mugs while they waited to be issued with cudgels from a supply cart. On the other side stood Gerald Tarrant, staring thoughtfully at the embers.

Damien dismounted and walked up to him. At some point since they had separated, Tarrant had cleaned up and shaved, and found clothes that fit him, and a clip to fasten his hair, and a plain but clearly serviceable sword. At some point after that, he had acquired a spectacular bruise across his jaw and a cut on his forehead, and his left arm was tucked between the buttons of his coat, as if in a sling. He had also been out in the sun without a veil, and his nose was, in fact, peeling. He looked at Damien with something that wasn't quite a smile. "Welcome to Sheva," he said.

"Nice place." Damien looked around. One of the larger buildings facing the square had all its windows smashed. The largest one had guards posted outside the doors. Looking at the signs, Damien realized that it was a hospital. "Care to tell me what's happening?"

"I came in towards the end of it, really," Tarrant said. There was a pottery mug standing on the cobbles next to him, too, and one of his sleeves was stained with something ominously dark. "When the changes happened in the fae, and the healers in Sheva hospital could no longer Work in their warded rooms, there was something of a riot."

"Oh, hell." Damien could imagine it all too well, the frustration and impotence at no longer being able to help people and heal their hurts, the fear as those people realized what was gone from the world. "Oh, hell."

"Not quite. The militia was called out to quell the riot, more and more people were taken to the healers, who still couldn't Work, and the general idea was that the Forest, being the root of all evil, must somehow be to blame for it all. The rioters attempted to set fire to at least one warehouse, and also ruined several shops. None of which, I might add, had any connection to the Forest."

Damien sighed heavily. The morning no longer seemed quite as bright. "This... isn't quite the result I'd envisioned."

"Things have quieted down considerably by now," Tarrant assured him. "The only real problem left is looting by various street gangs, and I believe the militia is going to deal sternly with that." He looked across the bonfire at the militia guards, who had finished drinking whatever was in those mugs and were forming up into groups, all armed with cudgels now.

"You don't think the lack of Healing is a real problem?" Damien narrowed his eyes. "And what have you done with your arm?"

"It was a real problem," Tarrant said, "until yesterday around noon. I told you the riot had died down. And I dislike having my property set on fire. I think my wrist is broken." He tried to flex his arm, and a thin line appeared between his eyebrows. "I'd appreciate it if you could do something about that."

"If I could—" Damien tried to work his way through Tarrant's statements. "Yesterday at noon." Tarrant nodded. "It became possible to Work the fae again? Then we failed, and the Patriarch's sacrifice was in vain." And that was such a deeply bitter thought, Damien had to close his eyes, and when he did, he could see it so clearly, blood and water and fae, and he hurt, to think that all that passionate faith had been poured out for nothing.

Tarrant shook his head. "No. Your Patriarch succeeded in what he meant to do. And so did you."

"I didn't do anything," Damien said, and then it came to him. His prayer, his small accidental sacrifice. He blinked, and stared at Tarrant in amazement. "It's still possible to Heal? If we can get in past the hospital's wards, I can—"

"That won't be necessary." Tarrant lifted his uninjured arm, looking at the stains on his cuff with faint distaste before touching his fingers to the side of Damien's face — just as he had done in the rakhlands, Damien realized, linking them by touch to open the channel between them wider. "Do it now."

Damien took a deep breath and reached for the fae. He had a moment to sense the black whirlpool that was the Forest, the way nearly all currents ran towards it but a few seemed to run, strangely, out of it, and then Tarrant's fingernails bit into his jaw. Inwards, not outwards, idiot. And that made no sense, but when Damien reached again, there the fae was, strong and powerful, like a dark golden thread being spun between them, humming with potential.

He grasped it eagerly, happily, and immersed himself in the delicate Work of healing. The bones in Tarrant's wrist were fractured, but not too badly misaligned; Damien shifted them into place with his fingers and the fae. Tarrant hissed sharply, but remained perfectly still while his body labored to build new bone and Damien carefully fused the fractures together one by one. More calcium here, accelerated growth of bone marrow there — good as new, Damien thought, momentarily amused at learning the new frailty of Tarrant's body so intimately. He cleaned out the hematoma on Tarrant's jaw, making certain there was no damage to the nerves or the underlying bone, eased the sunburn, and encouraged faster healing of the cut on Tarrant's forehead.

Then Damien stepped back, and as Tarrant's fingers fell away from his face, he realized that he was grinning. He could still Heal. The early morning sunlight seemed to gild everything and make it beautiful: the slate tiles on the roof of the house across the square, the metal glint of a coin dropped on the cobbles, Tarrant's shining golden-brown hair. A soft nudge to his shoulder was his horse, and Damien patted it affectionately. "I'll find you some water in a minute," he assured it.

Tarrant pulled his hand free of the improvised sling of his coat and flexed the wrist experimentally, then nodded. He ran his fingers over his cheek. "You really are determined not to Heal this, aren't you."

Damien realized that Tarrant meant the scar. He nodded. "Definitely not. I've seen Andrys Tarrant now, and—" He broke off, looking at Tarrant with narrowed eyes. "But I knew about him before I ever saw him. How did that happen, Gerald?"

Tarrant fastened the button on his coat that he'd undone to support his arm, and smoothed the fabric down as best he could. "Once a channel is established, it never goes away," he said.

"I'd noticed," Damien said wryly.

"I don't mean between us." Tarrant looked mildly amused. "Although that is certainly part of it. I meant between myself and the Forest. When—"

He broke off as a man from the militia group walked around the bonfire towards them. Damien had no real grasp of what the markings on the man's coat meant, but he could hazard that this man was the leader of all the others, who stood waiting with their cudgels in hand. "We're going back to the warehouse district," he said. "There's the last of that ugly crowd from over on Northroad. Tarrant, can you take half the men round by way of Baker Street?"

Tarrant nodded. "If the blockade's down. Otherwise I suggest simply coming in from opposite ends of Belchan. I'll be with you in a minute." He turned back to Damien. "Looters," he said dismissively. "Not such an ugly crowd as all that, but I have certain interests to protect."

"Tarrant," Damien said, trying to wrap his mind around it. "He called you Tarrant. You're going by your own name."

"Of course I am." Tarrant raised one elegant eyebrow. "There have been Tarrants at Merentha for a thousand years. I'm a distant cousin."

"Of course you are," Damien agreed. He squinted across the square, morning sun in his eyes. "I should go to the hospital — I'm sure they can use me."

"Frankly," Tarrant said, "if you walk into the hospital as you are now, they're going to assume you're another patient. Didn't it occur to you to Heal your own arm?"

Damien looked down. His arm was still throbbing, and blood and pus had leaked through to stain the cloth. No surprise, that, given the wolf's filthy claws. Now that he saw it, he could feel the pain. "Oh. Yeah. Might not be a bad idea."

"And stable your horse," Tarrant went on in the same calm, commanding voice. "I think you'd better come with me." He grasped Damien by the arm and turned him around, leading him, and the horse with him, towards the militia. Tarrant's fingertips slipped under the edge of Damien's rolled-up shirt sleeve, pressing against bare skin. Damien turned his head to look at Tarrant. "I'm going to have to let go in a few minutes," Tarrant told him with exaggerated patience, "so I suggest you Heal yourself as quickly as you can."

As annoying as Tarrant was when he sounded like that, he was also right. This time, Damien knew just how to reach for and grasp the fae. He wasn't used to trying to Heal and walk at the same time, but he trusted Tarrant not to steer him wrong or let him stumble while he turned his Vision inwards. Damien made short work of the growing infection, cleaning the gouges and forcing all the tainted matter out of his flesh. The bandage soaked through as he Worked, but when he was finished, the skin underneath was no longer ripped open and oozing.

Blinking back into normal sight, Damien saw that they were walking down a narrow back street with half the militia group following them. He wondered if the riots had disturbed the trash-collecting schedule in this part of Sheva, or if the litter he saw was normal for a street like this. "Done," he said quietly to Tarrant, who let his hand fall away from Damien's arm. "Are we getting close to Northroad?"

"No, not yet." Tarrant took something out of his pocket and pressed it into Damien's hand. Damien looked at it: a heavy iron key, its grip an elaborate scrollwork knot. They came out on a broader street, and Tarrant gestured to the left. "That house with black shutters. The gate leads into the courtyard, and there's a pump. The other horse needs fresh water, too."

Damien frowned. "Yes, but I thought I'd come with you—"

Tarrant shook his head. "If you feel that you must make yourself useful, you were right in thinking that the hospital is the best place for you, once you've fed yourself and your mount." He smiled faintly. "I wouldn't want to try to command you. You're far too insubordinate."

"Yeah, well, that depends on who's giving the orders," Damien said, leading his horse out of the way so the militia group could pass out of the side-street. "Try not to get yourself beat up again."

"I'm hard to kill," Tarrant said with a glint of humor in his eyes, and marched off with his men.

This was a residential boulevard in one of the better parts of Sheva; trees lined the street on one side, and the houses were well-kept, with expensive-looking wards over gates, doors, and windows. The effect was slightly marred by one house with a smashed-in gate and another with broken windows. Damien led his horse down the street, beginning to wonder if he even needed to hold the reins; it followed him like a dog. Someone had bred these horses with a purpose. He had a pretty good idea who it was, too.

The house with black shutters looked no different from any other house in the street, with the same type of wards over the windows, or at least what looked like the same type of wards to the unWorked eye. Damien unlocked the gate and led his horse inside. It took a few eager steps, whickered softly, and was answered. They crossed the small courtyard to a smaller building set at right angles to the house, and Damien opened both halves of the split door to find that this was part stable, part storage. Tarrant's horse was in a loose-box, looking pleased to get company.

Damien unstrapped the saddle bags and unsaddled his horse, and saw it settled with grain and water. He checked on Tarrant's horse, too, and spent a moment considering who would likely get to clean out those loose-boxes. The wolf pelt went on a couple of hooks on the wall. Then he picked up his bags and his canteen, left the top half of the stable door open so the horses would get some light and air, and went across the courtyard again and to the back door into the house. It was locked, but opened with the same key that had opened the gate.

The house smelled a little musty, but not unpleasant, and was quite clean. It gave no impression that anyone had ever lived there for longer than a few days at most, but there were traces of Tarrant's recent presence. Damien wandered around, finding things more or less at random: half a loaf of bread and some smoked sausages in the kitchen, clean water to wash up with, soap. There were no clothes in the house that would fit him, though, or at least none that he could find; he tried on the loosest shirt he came across, and split a seam between sleeve and yoke before he could even try to fasten the buttons.

Shaving and washing made him feel more settled, though he would have liked clean clothes. He got a fire going in the kitchen stove, which didn't look as if anyone had ever used it, and set some water to boil, after hunting high and low for pots and pans and knives and, hell, any kind of normal kitchen utensils. Then he sat at the table in the kitchen and cut thick slices of sausage, toasted a few slices of bread, and brewed a pot of strong tee. Two mugs of that removed all temptation to go upstairs and stretch out to sleep on the bed with the blue and green quilt.

Damien considered his options. He could find Sheva's warehouse district and Northroad, presumably by following the sound of shouting. The idea of the Hunter trying to quell a riot was at once ludicrous and chilling. But Damien thought about the man he'd met by the bonfire, the man with sunburn and an air of no-nonsense authority about him, the man whose name was Gerald Tarrant.

After all, it wasn't as though you could save people's souls for them. They had to do the work on their own.

Damien put the food away and banked the fire; he could vividly imagine Tarrant's reaction if he found that Damien had burned his house down. He hesitated for a moment over his sword harness, but put it back on, settling it into place with a shrug. It might not be appropriate where he was going, but Sheva was far from peaceful yet. He went out the back door into the courtyard, looked in on the horses, who were drowsing peacefully, and went out through the gate, locking it and pocketing the key.

The sun was high in the sky now, and there was a breeze from the north, taking the edge off the heat. Damien followed half-seen and half-remembered backstreets, and saw that people were coming out of their houses to clean things up and start to set them to rights again. He heard the sound of hammering a couple of times, and when he came back to the cobblestoned square, a couple of men were putting out the last smoking remains of the bonfire and shoveling the ashes into wheelbarrows.

Guards still stood at the entrances to the hospital building, but they were more relaxed now, although not so relaxed that they'd let Damien through, sword and unfamiliar face and all, without a couple of questions. Above the door lintel, the wards gleamed in the sunlight.

Inside, the hospital smelled of herbs and blood and disinfectant, and was very crowded. A harried-looking young woman with a clipboard came up to Damien, her brows already drawn together in a frown. "Unless it's an emergency—"

"I know Healing," Damien said. "I understand that you could use some help."

Her face changed. "Oh, yes. Wait here and I'll find someone who..." She caught sight of someone or something across the room and vanished mid-sentence, braids and skirts trailing behind her.

Damien followed her with his eyes for a moment, and then he turned to his right, where a middle-aged woman was lying on a stretcher on the floor, both hands pressed to her stomach over her bloodied shirt, teeth set into her lower lip. He knelt down and put a soothing hand on her shoulder. "Let me help you," he said.

The fae currents that made it in past the hospital's wards were thin and insubstantial, nothing like the powerful rush of Tarrant's touch, but they were there and he could Work with them, and that was all that mattered. Damien immersed himself in Healing, and lost track of time. He was vaguely aware at some point of speaking with one of the senior doctors, and a little later with one of the hospital's Healers, but neither conversation was very clear in his mind; his focus was on rebuilding cells, fusing torn ligaments, mending cracked bones.

Damien did realize that it was just as well he hadn't been able to find anything clean to wear. Soon enough, he was up to his elbows in bloodstains. When one young man who'd taken a blow to the head threw up all over him, the young woman with the clipboard showed him to a staff washroom. He took his sword harness and his shirt off, rinsed the shirt out, wrung it, and was about to put it on wet when someone else handed him a hospital-issue smock that was, for a wonder, only marginally too small for him. Damien said thank you, hung his shirt over the back of a chair, and went back to Work.

* * *

Hours later, he sat back on his heels and wiped the sweat off his face, and someone put a hand on his shoulder. Startled, Damien looked up to see Tarrant, apparently uninjured, but quite a lot scruffier than when Damien had last seen him. "I need you to come outside with me," Tarrant said.

Damien got to his feet. His knees ached. "Why?"

"I've got a wounded man who refuses to come in here. He needs Healing."

Damien frowned. "Why doesn't he want to come in?"

"Backcountry superstition," Tarrant said, getting a good grip on Damien's arm just above the elbow and starting to tow him towards the door. "It's also entirely possible he's wanted by the authorities. The more intermittently law-abiding elements of Sheva have been switching sides."

Damien stopped resisting and stretched his legs to match Tarrant's pace. "And joining the militia? That's pretty fast work."

"Joining forces with, at least." Tarrant brushed at his sleeve, smeared with dirt and some yellow crystallized substance, as they came out into the square. Damien was surprised to see that it was past sunset. "Once it became evident that it was in their best interests."

"Ah," Damien said, throwing a sideways glance at Tarrant. "Like you."

Tarrant looked back. "Yes, exactly." He steered Damien towards a cluster of men in the corner of the square farthest from the hospital entrance and its guards. "I've brought the healer for Thormond. Let us through."

The men shifted away, and Damien saw that the wounded man sat propped against the wall of the house. The crude bandage around his shoulder was soaked with blood. "Got shot," he rasped out at Damien, who knelt down next to him and put his hand on the wound, pressing down. "Clean through, I think."

"Just hold still," Damien said. He was about to look back at Tarrant, when Tarrant stepped closer and put a hand with casual possessiveness on the back of Damien's neck.

"Go ahead," he said.

Damien drew a deep breath, decided with some effort to save it for later, and reached for the fae. The rush of it almost shocked him after the long hours of struggling with weaker currents inside the hospital, but he grasped it and molded it to his will, and immersed himself in Healing once again.

It was familiar Work to him, especially after the day he'd had: reattaching severed blood vessels, reknitting torn flesh. No bones shattered, no vital organs punctured. He set the delicate adjustments in order that would accelerate blood production to make up for the blood loss, which had been considerable, and prevent infection from gaining hold.

When Damien was finished, Thurmond gave him a weak but genuine smile. "Thanks."

Damien nodded in acknowledgement. Then he grabbed Tarrant's wrist, removed Tarrant's hand from the back of his neck, stood up, and glared. "In a minute," Tarrant said. That thin line between his eyebrows was back again. He turned to the militia men, dismissing them, assigning two of them to assist Thurmond in getting home. Then he turned back to Damien. "Whatever it is you're burning to say, go ahead."

"I'm not your vulking pet healer, Gerald," Damien said darkly. "You don't own me, and you can't just trot me out and make me appear to be subservient to whatever whim or command you—"

"I cannot offhand think of anyone less subservient. Or reasonable, at the moment. The man needed Healing, and you were the only one who could come outside the hospital's wards to help him. Would you have preferred that I leave him to bleed to death?"

"No. That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it." Damien kept glaring into Tarrant's cool grey eyes until Tarrant, wonder of wonders, blinked. The line between his eyebrows deepened, and Damien put two and two together. "I can fix that headache, you know."

"Some food should do it," Tarrant said. "I wouldn't want you to think that I was abusing your abilities for an undoubtedly selfish purpose."

Damien rolled his eyes. "Come on," he said, taking hold of Tarrant's arm the same way Tarrant had taken hold of his before, and turning them both back towards the hospital. With his fingers touching Tarrant's skin through a rent in the sleeve, Damien slipped in with a light touch to relax muscles and ease constricted blood vessels. "Better?"

After a moment, Tarrant nodded. "Yes."

"Good. Let me just go get my sword and my shirt, and we can leave." Remains of coals and ashes crunched under their feet as they walked back to the hospital. The guards outside met Damien with a friendly nod and Tarrant with an informal salute.

Inside, things had calmed down considerably. Damien looked at the number of people waiting and what he could see of their injuries, and thought it was probably all right for him to leave. The steady stream of people injured in the riots and their aftermath had slowed to a trickle. Damien went towards the staff room where he'd left his things, Tarrant following at his heels, and the woman with the clipboard came up to intercept him. "Will you be leaving now?"

Damien nodded. He could feel the fatigue of the past few days start to catch up with him — two sleepless nights, riding, fighting, Healing. "Unless you have more need of me."

"I think Healer Witthes wants to talk to you," she said, looking down the hallway. "Here he is."

Healer Witthes was a short, stocky man with thick grey hair and a friendly smile. He fell in by Damien's side and thanked him effusively for his help, staying by him while Damien went to find his shirt, still hanging over the back of the chair, and felt it to see if it was dry yet. It was, and he began to tug off the smock.

"...and we would take it as a favor if you would consider it, Mer Vryce," Witthes said. "At least as a short-term contract, with the possibility of an extension if it turns out to be mutually beneficial."

Damien paused with the hospital smock balled up in his hands. "What?"

"I believe Healer Witthes is offering you a job," Tarrant translated, his voice as cool and level as his eyes. "Sheva is a rough town, and you have a certain expertise, no doubt acquired through long personal familiarity, with the type of injuries this hospital most frequently sees."

"Oh." Damien looked at Witthes and realized that he couldn't very well explain that he'd expected to die a few days ago, and had not yet begun to search for direction in the unanticipated time known as afterwards that now stretched out ahead of him. He was no longer a priest, a champion and knight of his order; he was just a man who had lived through the final days of his life and come out on the other side. "Thanks for the offer. I—"

"Think about it," Witthes interrupted him, "that's all I ask." He patted Damien's bare shoulder. "You did some fine work here today. Thank you."

The healer left, and Damien turned away to wash up once again, drying himself with the cleanest bits of the smock before putting his shirt back on. He found himself thinking longing thoughts about the towels back at Tarrant's house, and the idea of taking a bath. With hot water. He was hungry, too, as well as tired.

Damien put on his sword harness and shifted his shoulders until it sat right; then he turned back to Tarrant, who was standing by the door. Tarrant's face was so perfectly closed off and Hunter-unreadable that Damien thought the temperature in the room must have dropped by several degrees. Immune to that particular look after years of exposure, Damien merely nodded at him and walked out, hearing him follow. Just another little difference between the Hunter and Gerald Tarrant: the sound of footsteps.

Halfway across the square, Tarrant came up next to him and led Damien on a different route than the morning's tangle of back streets and alleys. Corelight was fading, and even if the shops in the streets had been open during the day, most of them were closed now, and barricaded against the darkness. Sheva was a ghost town at night, Damien recalled from his previous visit. No one would voluntarily go out in the dark so near to the Forest. They did find a newspaper vendor who was just packing up, though, and farther down along the same street, an open cookshop. Out of habit, Damien ordered what he liked, searching his pockets to make sure he had money to pay for it. Then he remembered, and turned to Tarrant. "What do you want?"

Tarrant's eyes widened a little, as if he, too, had forgotten that he needed to eat. Or perhaps just forgotten over the centuries what his taste was in food that didn't run red with blood or black with terror. "I don't know," he said and turned away. He didn't speak another word on the way back to the house.

* * *

"All right," Damien said and set the bags down on the kitchen table a little too hard. "What the hell's eating you?"

"Nothing." Not a muscle quivered in Tarrant's face as he lit the kitchen lamp. A warm glow sprang up, catching the gold in Tarrant's hair and making it a halo. The ugly scar on his face stood out in stark relief.

"Do you even think for a minute that I'm going to buy that?" Damien unpacked the food, more than he remembered buying, and found crumpled napkins at the bottom of one of the bags.

Tarrant drew himself up, cold and distant. "I find that I'm rather tired." He took a couple of steps towards the door. "No doubt you can—"

"Wait. Gerald." Damien put both hands on the tabletop and leaned forward, fatigue dragging at him. "I don't know what's gotten into you, and I'm too damn tired to argue about it, but at least take some food with you if you're going to go off and sulk." He opened the container at his left hand and found bean soup with salted meat in. Curls of steam rose into the air. "Here, have this. It looks pretty good."

Tarrant hadn't moved since Damien told him to wait. Now he turned back towards the table, and there was a faint thread of amusement in his voice as he said, "I never thought I'd see the day when you were too tired to argue."

"Yeah, well, I must be getting old," Damien said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. His knees agreed with him. "Do you know where the spoons are?"

The soup was good, and so was the beer — out of Jehanna, Damien saw, and quite possibly the only decent thing Jehanna had to offer. There was only one spoon and two forks, but even that was a luxury compared to the past month. To sit in relative comfort and eat, to be tired after an honest day's work, to not be in imminent danger of a painful death — it made for a pleasant change.

Tarrant mopped up the last of the spicy yellow sauce with some bread and sat staring down at his hands. Damien drank his beer and sat watching Tarrant.

"About Andrys Tarrant," Tarrant said finally. He seemed about to stop there; Damien made a go-on gesture with his beer bottle. "A long time ago, I made the Forest my home and made it bow to my will, and doing so created a channel, a link between myself and its dark fae. I made it recognize me and surrender its power to me. And this is how your Patriarch could enter the Forest with his soldiers, by stealth, with Andrys Tarrant wearing the outer trappings of my identity."

"He does look a lot like you," Damien agreed. Disconcertingly so, now that Tarrant was human again and everything about him glowed with life and health. "But that doesn't explain that I'd seen him before I ever saw him."

"A channel cannot be destroyed except by death," Tarrant said. "And sometimes, as you have noticed, not even by that. When I bound Calesta to me," a barely perceptible shudder ran through him, "some of his knowledge became mine. The Forest still knows me, and its dark fae still flows towards me, while I am near enough."

Damien set his beer bottle down with a thump, appalled. "But — oh, hell, Gerald. But you can't touch it, can you? You can't Work it."

"No." Tarrant was still watching his knuckles. "Not... really. But I can still See it, and so it can still touch me. Show me visions, possible futures. And it would appear that the channel between us allows for a certain amount of transmission, including fragments of those visions. Especially the ones that concern you in some way."

"When we touch," Damien said. He felt stupid with beer and food and lack of sleep, but he was starting to add things together and not much liking the result. He remembered Tarrant pulling away from him over and over. "When we — you — wait. No."

"Yes." Now Tarrant looked up, his eyes crystal clear. "I cannot Work, but you can. You cannot touch the fae here, but I can."

"That's the dark fae? Gerald, are you vulking crazy?" Damien slammed his hands down on the tabletop, overturning the beer bottle, and leaned forward. "How could you think—"

Tarrant glared right back. "Does it feel dark? Does it feel tainted when you Work with it?" In one smooth gesture, he pulled out his knife, sliced down across his hand, and grabbed Damien's arm with his bloody palm, fingers biting into the muscle. "Try it. Tell me."

"That's not what I meant," Damien said. "Do you really think I'd Heal if I thought the fae I was using for it was tainted?" He tapped into the fae as he spoke, into the steady current that pulsed between them. "I'm not sure it would even be possible. That wouldn't be Healing, it would be harming." He began slowly, painstakingly, to close the gash in Tarrant's palm. "But if the dark fae is cleansed before it passes from you to me, that's got to mean the darkness stays in you, and that seems like a really bad idea to me!"

Tarrant's mouth twisted. "As though my soul could get any blacker. Any darkness that accumulates is likely mine to account for in the first place, in view of its origin. Consider it a fitting punishment. I might spend my life as a conduit, a filter for purifying the fae of the Forest. I would have thought you'd appreciate the poetic justice of it."

"Well." Damien let go of Tarrant's hand, where the skin was once again smooth under the crimson smears. He considered his shirtsleeves, now soaked through with beer and blood. "You thought wrong. Damn it, Gerald, you have a human life again, a chance at redemption, and you want to waste it on letting the darkness in as much as you can?" He started to undo the buttons. "Besides, that would only work if I stayed here, too. And did a hell of a lot of Healing."

"Yes," Tarrant said in a voice utterly devoid of emotion.

"Just when I thought Sheva couldn't get more attractive." Damien stripped out of his shirt, looked at it in resignation, and used it to mop up the beer on the table and floor. "Now I get a chance to ruin your soul for good. I admit the beer's not bad here, but you can't possibly think—"

There was a knock at the front door. Tarrant rose. "If you'll excuse me," he said, chillingly formal, and went out of the kitchen. Damien looked after him for a moment, reflecting that Tarrant could still wield coldfire with his words if nowhere else. He put the wet shirt and empty beer bottle aside, picked his sword harness up in one hand and walked towards the sound of voices.

Instead of opening the front door, Tarrant had gone around to the gate, taking a lantern with him. When Damien came out into the yard, the gate stood open, and Tarrant was talking to a uniformed man on horseback — the militia commander from that morning, Damien saw when he came closer. "—and more experienced than most of my newer recruits," the commander said. "I think it might work, just as you said, but we need to persuade the mayor that it's worth trying."

"It will make the streets of Sheva more peaceful," Tarrant said, "in several ways. The increased costs should be more than balanced by the eventual results of having not just more men, but those particular men."

The commander nodded. "Meeting's at noon tomorrow, if you can see your way clear to attending." He caught sight of Damien, standing on the edge of the circle of light cast by the lantern, with his arms crossed. "Might result in the doctors and healers being less pressed, too, though I hear that situation's about to improve."

"Perhaps," Tarrant said, not turning his head. Damien didn't imagine that it was because Tarrant didn't know he was there. "Don't let me keep you any longer, though. It's been a long day."

The commander straightened in the saddle. "Hell of a day. We couldn't have done it without you, Tarrant. Noon tomorrow, and we can go past the barracks later and have a private talk. Till then." He gave Tarrant the same informal salute as the guards at the hospital had, nodded to Damien, and rode out through the gate.

Damien walked up to the gate and shut it, and held his hand out to Tarrant until Tarrant gave him the key. The lantern cast a wavery pool of light around Damien's feet as he locked up. He pocketed the key and turned around, glaring at Tarrant. "Noon tomorrow?"

"There is a plan for integrating the street gangs with the militia — costly in the short term, but it would do a great deal to cut down on street crime, and since the trade in illegal Worked or workable objects out of the Forest is about to die down, it might eliminate some troublesome situations as the criminal element in Sheva attempted to find a new source of income."

Damien stared at Tarrant for a moment. He didn't ask whose plan this was; he didn't have to. He took the lantern out of Tarrant's hand and walked across the yard to the stable. The horses whickered as the light fell in through the open top half of the stable door. He gave them fresh water and checked to see how much grain they'd eaten, patted his horse when it nosed at him in a friendly fashion, and stood for a while thumping his fist against the wolf pelt that hung on the wall. When he went back into the yard, Tarrant still stood by the gate, very still.

"So you've got this all planned out," Damien said, walking up to him. "Amazingly civic-minded of you. I hope you realize I'm not going to go along with it."

"You're free to leave," Tarrant said. "There is nothing keeping you here, and away from the influence of the Forest, you won't need my assistance in order to be able to Heal."

Damien blinked. "What the hell does that have to do with anything? We're leaving Sheva, Gerald. We're leaving before you manage to get yourself elected mayor or something, and we're definitely leaving before Andrys Tarrant and the whole second crusade comes here for hospital care for the wounded, which is going to happen pretty soon."

Tarrant pressed his lips together. The thin line of pain between his eyebrows was back. "And where were you planning on going?"

"Far enough that the Forest can't reach you," Damien said promptly. "Will Jaggonath work, or is that still too close? Somewhere you can stand in the sunshine and feel all that dark fae melt away for good." He put the lantern back in Tarrant's unresisting hand and turned for the back door. "I don't suppose you had any time to see if the merchant bank here was open today. I guess considering the general unrest, it might not have been." Damien looked back over his shoulder when the light didn't follow him. "Gerald?"

"No," Tarrant said, slowly coming to life and walking towards Damien. He held the lantern low, and his face was in shadow. "No, not yet, but I should think they'll be open tomorrow morning."

"Might as well pack," Damien muttered, going back inside and propping his sword up in the corner by the back door. "Not that I've unpacked much. And you didn't have much. You know there's no ice in the icebox, right? That food's going to go bad."

"If it does, then it does." Tarrant sounded a little dazed as he came in behind Damien and closed the door. He put the lantern out. "We'll buy more supplies tomorrow."

The musty smell had almost started to air out of the house, and there was a distinct aroma of bean soup and beer coming from the kitchen. Damien went back there and started to pack up the food on the kitchen table, trying to estimate what would spoil and what might keep. His shirt lay to one side on the kitchen table, smelling of beer and blood, and he decided it fell into the spoiled category.

Looking up, he saw that Tarrant was standing in the door, with an expression on his face curiously like the one when he'd watched Damien ride off towards the Forest. Damien looked back at him for a while, trying to decide what it meant, before wrapping the leftover bread in a cloth. He found a fairly large pot, filled it with water, and put it on the stove to heat. Tarrant was still staring at him. "I'm tired of washing in cold water," Damien said.

Tarrant vanished.

Damien shrugged and ate some fruit while he waited for the water to reach a reasonable temperature. They wouldn't have to carry a lot of supplies; it wasn't that far to Mordreth and the ferry to Morgot. Buying new clothes would have to wait until they were back on the south continent, unless they had time to kill in Morgot, waiting for the tide and a captain willing to take them to Kale.

He found a couple of kitchen towels in one cupboard, and decided one of them would do for a washcloth and the other, small as it was, to dry himself with. Hunting unsuccessfully for the soap he thought he remembered leaving next to the sink, he straightened up to see Tarrant in the doorway again, carrying a small bundle.

"Here," Tarrant said, putting it down on the kitchen table. Soap. And a towel. He looked at Damien, then said abruptly, "Use the first room to the left at the top of the stairs."

"Have you got stuff in this house that you want to take with you?" Damien asked, but Tarrant had already walked out of the room.

Damien washed slowly and thoroughly, dripping a great deal of water on the floor. He dried himself with the towel Tarrant had brought, which seemed completely new, or at least never used, rather like the forks and the spoon. He poured the used water out, banked the fire in the stove, picked up his sword and his pack, and went up the stairs. The room to the left was the one he'd looked into before, the one with the blue and green quilt on the bed. Damien lay down and barely had time to notice that the sheets were clean and the mattress soft before he fell asleep.

* * *

A noise woke him, and sunlight slanting across the room right into his eyes stopped him from ignoring it and going back to sleep. Damien lay still long enough to identify the sounds he heard: the clatter of pots on a stove, water being poured, kitchen-in-the-morning sounds. He tried to imagine those sounds in relation to the only other person in the house, and grinned, feeling himself wake up more and more. After getting out of bed and stretching, Damien pulled on pants and shirt and padded barefoot down the stairs.

The hallway on the ground floor was lit with more sunshine, falling in through the open back door. Damien slowed, then stopped. Through the half-open kitchen door he caught a glimpse of movement: arms and shoulders, pale skin and then a splash of water. Not breakfast, then. Damien stood there long enough to see Tarrant press a soaked washcloth to the nape of his neck, drops trickling slowly down the smooth indentation of his spine; then he went to the back door and stepped out into the yard, taking deep breaths, the flagstones cool and damp with dew against the soles of his feet.

Here in the shade the air was early-morning fresh, but it would get hot later, Damien thought, looking up at the cloudless sky. He went to check on the horses, and spent some time going over their tack and equipment to see if there was anything here that was better quality than what they'd brought with them. There wasn't much to choose from, though, and not much to pack up, either, and eventually he went back to the house.

A couple of floorboards creaked under his weight, and when Damien came back to the kitchen door, Tarrant was working on the buttons of a clean silk shirt. He didn't look up when Damien came into the room, but said, "The tee may still be hot." Strands of wet hair fell over his collar and coiled loosely against his neck.

Damien breakfasted on tee and the remains of the bread, staying in the kitchen while Tarrant went from room to room, setting things in order. All his things were packed; he merely needed to get his boots from the bedroom upstairs. He washed his hands and splashed some water haphazardly on his face, feeling drops run down his neck and in under the collar of his shirt.

He moved towards the door and met Tarrant coming in. Tarrant carried Damien's boots in one hand, and held them out wordlessly. When Damien reached out to take them, their hands brushed together. Damien paused and looked at that, his own tanned skin and scarred knuckles next to Tarrant's pale, smooth fingers, the way Tarrant flinched so minutely it was barely noticeable, but didn't draw back. "Wait," Damien said slowly, putting his other hand very deliberately on Tarrant's. "You keep doing that. It's that vision thing, isn't it? Does that happen all the time?"

Tarrant shook his head. "Not all the time. And not with everybody. I suspect it may be a question of receptivity on my part, as well as of how crucial any possible event can be interpreted to be."

Damien tried to work that one out. He had no trouble with the idea of what might constitute a crucial event. "So you mean every time I touched you, before, the fae showed you visions of the Patriarch in the river, of me being there? Of the way things would change, even?"

"Not exactly," Tarrant said, pulling his hand away.

"What, then?" Damien took the boots in a firmer grip. "Exactly."

"The dark fae shows the darker possibilities and futures," Tarrant said, his tone growing slightly formal and lecturing, "unless one can Work it to one's will. It's not considered a good tool for Divining, because any visions seen through it are centered on the negative possible outcomes."

"Meaning?" Damien said patiently. "In this particular case, not in general."

Tarrant stared at a point past Damien's shoulder, eyes unfocused and clear as glass. "I could See that it was important that you go mainly because I kept seeing all the ways in which you'd die if you didn't. And I..." Tarrant glanced quickly at Damien, then away again. "And I didn't want you to die."

Tarrant turned away, leaving the kitchen, and Damien sat down, a bit more abruptly than he'd intended. He stared at the open kitchen door for a while, as though he still saw Tarrant standing in the doorway; then he put on his socks and his boots, checking for cracks in the leather, growing water damage. They'd last a while longer, he thought, touching them absently, not even half his attention on what he was doing.

When he got up and went into the hallway, he found packs and bedrolls stacked neatly by the back door. Damien picked everything up and went out into the yard, basking in the sunshine for a moment before continuing into the stable. He saddled the horses and strapped everything to the saddles, including the wolf pelt; he didn't know what the hell he was going to do with it, really, but looking at it made him think about how the Forest had been conquered and that its dark power would finally be broken, and he liked having a tangible reminder of that. He could hang it on his wall, if he ever settled down long enough to have a wall.

The horses followed him out into the yard and stood sedately, heads together, while he checked the girths and double-checked every strap. Damien touched the pelt again, wondering if dark fae curled invisibly around it, or if it had already been cleansed by the sun. Then he turned around to see Tarrant standing in the open door. "Is this everything?"

Tarrant nodded slowly. "Yes." He looked out into the yard without quite meeting Damien's eyes, and drew a deep breath. "I think — I think this is everything I need."

"Well. Good." Damien ran the flat of his hand over the wolf pelt, and then realized he was doing everything the wrong way around. He walked over to Tarrant, who stood just where the bright, white sunshine met the dark shadows of the hallway, and put a hand high on his chest, fingertips resting against the soft skin of his throat just above the collar of his shirt. "Tell me, Gerald. What about when we touch now? Can you see all the ways I might die here in Sheva?"

Finally, Tarrant looked at him. "Unfortunately, yes." His lips pressed together briefly. "Your futures here are not nearly as dark as the ones in which you didn't go to meet the Patriarch by the Lethe, even filtered through the dark fae of the Forest, but I can see some of them. Some ways that things could go... wrong."

Damien stepped in closer, watching Tarrant's eyes, the clear clean light in them that might be hope, or something even more fragile and beautiful than that. "Ignore them. They'll go away. We'll go away. We're not going to stay in Sheva." He brushed his callused fingertips against that pale skin, so soft and smooth, as though lovingly polished by the passing of centuries. "Do you want to see all the ways I'm going to live now, Gerald?"

"Some of them," Gerald Tarrant said, and there was a slight catch in his voice, and he was almost smiling.

Damien put his other hand on Gerald's hip, closing the distance between them completely. Silk crumpled under his fingers. "Will you let me tell you about them?"

"Some of them," Gerald said against his mouth, breathing the words across his lips, closer and closer. "Some of them."

The kiss was almost painfully sweet, linking them together more surely than the shared blood ever had. Sunshine burned against the back of Damien's neck, and Gerald's hands gripped his arms with fierce, purely human strength. Damien drew back slowly, reluctantly, looking at Gerald's cool eyes and warm mouth and the pulse beating in his throat. "We're leaving Sheva," he said. "Together. Now."

"Now," Gerald agreed, and kissed him again.

* * *

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