Aldis snapped his fingers, and grass kindling under scraps of wood sparked, lit, and caught fire. His companions drew near the heat, murmuring gratefully.
Jared let the others have the small space around the fire. He’d only reluctantly agreed to one in the first place. Here by the shore, many small encampments sat around sputtering fires—travelers waiting for the tide to change, for a hired boat to return, for a place on a crew sailing out. For the rain to stop. His party—the magician, the knight, the thief, and the princess—would not draw attention with its small camp. He hoped.
The fifth member of the group, the young woman Kat, stood by, clutching flint and steel, her hood thrown back such that her head was drenched, her brown hair dripping with rain. Aldis had stepped in with magic when her own efforts at starting the fire with wet wood proved futile.
She pouted and grumbled, “It’s all well until magic leaves the world. Then where’ll you be, hm?”
This was just the sort of thing she said often, declarative and nonsensical. She flopped to the ground and started cutting turnips into her cooking pot, humming an unrecognizable tune punctuated with a few scattered words, also nonsensical.
Jared didn’t know what Kat was: waif, vagrant, servant. Enigma. Mariana watched her with hawk-like focus. She had been hidden away as an acolyte in a distant temple, safe and anonymous. She’d been happy, before Jared arrived to call her to her destiny. Lines of worry were starting to crease her young face. They would only deepen when she became queen.
She thought Kat was some kind of medium, clairvoyant. Maybe a seeress. A prophet of the future, or past, if they could only understand her. It would explain why she was here, at least. Suggest that Kat had a purpose for joining them. That some kind of Fate was at work.
The rest of the party agreed that she was mad.
Whoever Kat was, they had eaten well since she joined them. Edging to the fire with her pot and turnips, she set up a little tripod to hang it from, added water and bit of ale, herbs from a pouch, dried meat from a rabbit she’d trapped a couple days before. The stew wouldn’t be much, but it would be warm, and it wouldn’t stick in the throat the way travel fare usually did at this stage of a journey, when home was just a short sail across a calm stretch of water.
After all that had come before, these last few days seemed a mockery. A simple journey by boat, and all would be well. Jared hated waiting, stalled here, postponing his triumphant return for something as insignificant as the tide.
And yet, they could still be caught. Even now Wrath’s hunters could find them, and their quest would fail. Jared stayed in shadow, where his vision was not so blinded by the firelight, and kept watch.
Kat spooned stew into shallow bowls. She came to give Jared his portion. He gripped the bowl with both hands to warm them and smiled up at her. “Thank you.”
She looked bedraggled, some poor creature saved from drowning, a shawl pulled haphazardly over her shoulders. She shrugged. “It’s all of a kind to me.”
She had a country accent, with the rough brown features of the poor farmers of this land. Looking at her, he’d have guessed she’d lost her way at a village market.
Mariana graced him with a smile, her young face gilded by the firelight. “Jared, why are you brooding? We’re almost home and yet you still look as if wolves are stalking us.”
“Forgive me,” he answered. “It’s habit.”
They dispensed with titles and honorifics to protect Mariana’s identity, but once they returned home, he would call her “Highness.” Another habit to relearn, after weeks on the road. Returning his country’s rightful heir from exile, in anticipation of the usurper tyrant’s defeat, would be his greatest feat, the fulfillment of a hundred boyhood dreams of adventure and noble deeds.
The Gods only knew how he’d made it this far. Their party should have been killed a dozen times over, but luck and Fate had brought this group together, and they’d saved each other a dozen times. Still, he could not bring himself to rest.
“Sing us a song, Kat.” Baerd the thief would tell a man jokes while he slit his throat, and his victim would laugh along as he died. Take all his knives and weapons off him, Baerd would always have a few more hidden away. But Jared trusted him, as unbelievable as that would have seemed a year ago.
“You’ll laugh at me.” Kat knelt to scrub out her pot with sand, working as she always did. She insisted on earning her keep.
“Only if it’s funny.”
She had an unmelodic, unadorned voice.
It’s the color of a sea in an ice cold rain
It’s a nightmare steed and her coal-dark mane
It’s the sound of a babe crying out in pain
It’s the shape of my heart which you broke in twain.
Her voice cracked. The silence after was heavy. Rain drizzled, pattering on the sand.
“I’d hoped for something cheerful,” Baerd said.
She shook her head. “They’re all gone.”
Jared took the pot from her. Her hands were shaking. “Rest,” he said. “I’ll finish this.”
“Can’t. Must work, must keep moving, it’s the only way.” But she let him keep the pot and pulled a damp blanket over her shoulders.
“Kat?” Mariana said gently. “What does it mean? That song?”
Jared couldn’t say. The woman would tell them their futures, if they only understood her. Or it might mean nothing at all.
“It’s what my heart says. I don’t know anything else. Nothing at all.”
They’d found her being attacked in an alley behind a tavern, in a town they’d stayed in a month ago. Jared, Aldis, and Baerd had just joined Mariana, and the urgency of their escape was great. But they couldn’t turn away. Without speaking a word about what must be done, they acted.
Three men—bulky, strong-arm types, local laborers or such—had Kat against a wall, two pinning her arms, the third hitching up her skirt and laughing. She struggled fiercely, but she was small and no match for them. Head tipped back, she howled, a cry of defiance full of bared teeth and spit. This was the sort of town that did not notice the screams of women in alleys; men were allowed to take what they willed.
Aldis raised his hand and summoned light. A star burned white and hot above him, illuminating the alley. The three men cried out, shielding their eyes, leaving the girl a chance to twist out of their grasps. Jared and Baerd drew blades—the knight his sword, the thief a thin dagger. In short order they drove the three men off and sent them running. Baerd nearly put his knife through one of their throats; Jared had to hold him back, warning, “We don’t need bodies drawing attention to us.”
Mariana helped the girl up from where she huddled against a wall. She didn’t cry. In fact, when they gathered around her, she regarded them with a straightforward, calm expression, as if this sort of thing happened to her often.
“You needn’t have bothered,” she said softly. “I’m already dead. Been that way for weeks. Or months. I forget which.”
It was clear from the first she was mad. Mariana insisted on bringing her along. “Jared, we can’t leave her,” she’d said insistently. “She’ll surely die.”
“We don’t have time. We can leave her at the temple—”
The girl looked back and forth between them and said, “The lady needs a maid, yes? You’re too fine to be traveling without one, I can see that. I can cook, clean, mend shirts—I can earn my keep. The fine lady needs a maid.”
She saw right through Mariana’s disguise of peasant clothing. Jared reasoned, then, that they couldn’t very well leave her behind to spread stories. Looking back on it, stewing here in the rain and his frustrations, he still didn’t know what to think of Kat. She didn’t make any sense. The whole episode could easily have been arranged to set the girl among them as a spy. If she were, what trap awaited them when they stepped off the boat at the end of the voyage?
Was she simply waiting for a chance to murder them all in their sleep?
The rain continued, interminable. Baerd hunched inside his cloak and scowled. “Aldis, can’t you do something about this rain, if you’re such a great mage?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Aldis said. “I put up with a little rain so that I might light a fire in it. One or the other, not both. I won’t waste the magic when we can all very well stand the rain.”
“Every rule can be worked around,” Baerd said, grinning.
“Rain is death,” Kat said flatly.
Jared looked at her. “What?”
“She said, ‘Rain is death,'” Baerd helpfully told him.
Mariana said, “Kat, why would you say such a thing? Rain brings life. It waters the crops.”
“And floods and drowns.”
“She has a point,” Baerd said.
“Everything that brings life can also bring death,” Aldis said.
Jared frowned. “It’s an ill omen, to say such a thing.”
The rain was still falling when they settled in to sleep. Jared doubted he would sleep at all. To be so close to the goal and yet still have such a great hurdle to cross. Yet they must wait until morning, when the tide turned.
Aldis had the first watch. He drew his cloak around him and sat on a berm of stone a little ways off, where he could watch the camp and the space around it. Jared joined him after the others had stilled.
“Not tired, my friend?” Aldis said.
“I’m exhausted. But I can’t sleep.”
The two women slept close together, sharing a blanket, taking shelter in each other’s companionship. At times Jared was grateful Kat had joined them. She had made the journey easier for Mariana.
“You still don’t trust the girl,” Aldis said, watching Jared watch the sleeping women.
Jared stopped a sigh from hissing through his lips. “These last few days have been too easy, don’t you think? This shore should be covered with agents of the tyrant looking for us. I expected to have to fight our way onto a boat, to stow away like rats in a hold, fending off death at every turn. Yet here we are, in a pleasant little camp, with food in our bellies, sleeping.”
Aldis turned his face into the rain. “I wouldn’t call this pleasant. You think we’re missing something?”
“A spy among us could send messages, telling our whereabouts, our progress. The tyrant would only have to bide his time. She is the unknown quantity.”
Where did Kat fit into the story of such a quest? The waif, the madwoman—such as she were meant to be left on the side of the road as omens to ponder. Not taken along to cook meals.
“Jared, this is why we’ve set a watch. I’ll watch her. Don’t worry.”
Jared needed sleep, whether he wanted it or not. He stretched out on his soggy bedroll, still some distance from the fire, from the others, as if he could not be a part of them. He could not—he was their protector.
“Jared,” Baerd spoke softly. The thief propped himself on his elbow. His eyes gleamed orange, looking out from the hood of his cloak. “The girl is no more than what she appears, I think. There’s a sadness about her that’s honest.”
“Then what is she doing here? What brought her to us?” Whenever Jared put the question to her, she answered with riddles, with nonsense.
Baerd said, “Not your question to answer, it seems.” He lay back on his bedroll, seemingly without a care.
If Jared kept up this thinking, by morning he’d trust no one.
Aldis was meant to wake him around midnight, to change the watch. Jared, used to long campaigning, to the habit of their watch, woke on his own, expecting Aldis’s voice, to find him waiting. He expected to be able to open his eyes. But he couldn’t.
He couldn’t move at all. His blanket pressed on him, his limbs felt pinned to the ground as if nailed there, his body frozen as if his blood had been replaced with iron and he had become a blacksmith’s scrap, tossed away. He could almost feel the dirt under him spreading out, making the outline of his shape in the ground. This was some dream, some night terror.
But he never remembered dreams. This was something else, and it stank of magic.
He grunted, that was all the sound he could make, a bit of air escaping his throat. He panicked, because he couldn’t move enough to draw more air in. If he opened his eyes, he knew he’d find a boulder pressing on his chest. If he could open his eyes.
A rustling sounded near his ear. Someone moving close, kneeling. Jared could feel a gaze on him, and again he tried to lurch up, to fight—they’d been found, Wrath’s wizards attacking with an onslaught of magic, there had to be a way to fight back—
“Can’t move, can you?” a voice whispered to him. Jared couldn’t even grunt in response. That voice, he knew that voice—
“Good,” Aldis said, with satisfaction. “Though you shouldn’t be awake at all. You’re strong, aren’t you? Hm.” He made a noise as if he was surprised. “I ought to kill you. But the bounty on you all is only good if you’re alive. I can’t imagine why. Wrath only needs the princess.”
Jared knew why. Capturing them all was a show of power. And the tyrant could use the rest of them to force compliance from Mariana.
How had the tyrant gotten his claws into Aldis? Or had the magician been a pawn all along? Jared would throttle him. If he could just break free of the spell, just open his eyes...
“My poor friend,” Aldis said, without an ounce of sympathy. “You know you’ve lost.”
A great crash and thud sounded, followed by the splash of a body falling in a puddle. And Jared could suddenly sit. His muscles clenched at once and he gasped sharply, trying to see through the mist, fists ready to punch.
Kat stood there, her cook pot clutched in both hands. Aldis sprawled on the ground at her feet, a stain of blood growing on the side of his head.
“The princess—” Jared hissed.
“She and Baerd are both fine. Trapped like you, but I expect the magic to fade with him down. That’s how it works, yeah?”
Jared was still trying to find himself, trying to work out what had happened. “How—how is it you’re standing?”
“I think... I suspect... that he felt he didn’t need to waste any magic on me.”
Jared let out a thready laugh, past the fear still lodged in his throat. “Thank you.”
Kat sat abruptly, her legs folding under her, and hugged the pot in her lap. “I’m mad and harmless. So I watched him leave his signs and send his messages. Didn’t say a word, and he never suspected.”
“You are not mad,” he said.
The fire had died, her face was in shadow, and her gaze seemed unsteady. “But I am. A little. After Ben died, his brothers came to the farm. They didn’t believe me when I told them he’d fallen off the roof. He was mending the thatch, but it had rained, and he slipped and fell. The rain hasn’t stopped since, feels like. They dug him up to see for themselves. I’d buried him myself, you see. They thought, after, that the farm was theirs, and I couldn’t argue. I couldn’t work the land alone. Then they thought that I was theirs, too.
“So I ran. They found me. I went mad because it kept them away. The wise woman said there was no cure for it because I needed a baby to calm me, that a widow without a child to calm her could only go mad. I left them all and they were not sorry to see me go. But she was right. I wanted a baby.” Her shrug was expansive. “Then you lot came along, and I could see the lady needed a friend. I’ve seen such sights with you, felt such amazement! I’m so grateful to you all.”
“You’ve earned your way. More than earned it.”
“I didn’t want charity.” Loneliness and grief were a kind of madness. Her stare was distant.
Jared studied her, her sopping hair and gaunt face. She was nothing to him, or shouldn’t have been. The story she told—he might have ridden past the field where she worked a hundred times and never noticed her, not even her face, because it was bent to the earth. But now, at this moment, the two of them sat outside the reach of the embers’ faint light, shrouded in a silent world, and they might have been alone on an island at the end of time. All his titles and stories, his dreams of glory and heroism, meant nothing, because a farmer’s widow had saved his life. And she had not done it for glory, but for decency.
She said that all she wanted was a child, and to mourn her husband.
“Then you have my pity.”
“That’s even worse.” She sighed.
Jared considered what to do with the traitorous mage. He would love best to truss him up, sling him over his saddle like so much meat, and return with him to face justice. That was the noble knight’s wish, the hero of tales planning how best the tale should end.
Kat caught him staring at the prone figure. “You can’t leave him alive. He’s too strong.”
Jared stared bleakly at Aldis’s prone form. “I know. But... I thought... he was my friend.”
“If you like, I’ll do it.”
What strange Fate brought him to this, that without the madwoman, the farmer’s widow, his quest would have been doomed?
“No,” he said. “It’s my duty, not yours.”
She helped carry Aldis to the water, where Jared slit his throat. The mage never woke. Kat might have killed him already; he didn’t bother checking. They searched the body and found a packet of letters in coded runes. He took these. After, they shoved him into the waves. He’d likely wash ashore again in a day or so, but Jared and his company would be far away by then.
Jared watched the pulsing water and felt furtive, demon-like. He was meant to ride into battle with the sun on his face. But the rain still fell.
Kat smiled at him, her face ghostly, her eyes bright. What had Baerd said, that she had an air of sadness to her? She was thin and drawn. But the smile was pleasant. Genuine.
“You’re a good man, Jared,” she said. “But my Ben, he was the best.”
Jared didn’t doubt it.
When they got back to camp, the others were waking.
Mariana sat up, rubbing her face. “I’ve had an awful dream.”
“It’s no dream, lady. We must leave.” Jared shook Baerd’s shoulder. “Get up. We’ve been betrayed.”
“What? What’s wrong?” Baerd reached for his dagger.
Jared gathered up his blanket. “We’re leaving now.”
“I said we’ve been betrayed.”
“By the Gods,” Mariana said. “Not Aldis.”
Kat had efficiently gathered the few of their supplies into a pack. She touched Mariana’s arm, urging her to stand.
“Rain is death, my lady.” Her gaze was fierce. Mad, even. The mask had returned.
“We’ll go up the coast a mile,” Baerd said. “The fisher folk will sell us passage before dawn.”
Jared nodded. “Good. We should hurry.”
Kat said, “I know a cheerful song about fisher folk. You still want to hear a cheerful song?”
Baerd said patiently, “Perhaps it’s best if you stay quiet just now, Kat.”
Jared caught her gaze then, or she caught his. Hers was bold, laughing.
A little mad, to survive in such a world.