He was a little surprised at the roaring in his ears, even more so when he heard Avvin’s voice calling him through it. She was far away, behind the wind—and he chilled at the distant sound. He opened his eyes, one hand up against the storm, and found himself still in her bed—an awkward place at best—and still sick as a dog.
“We’re going now,” she was saying, not that he could actually believe she meant it. She loomed overhead, tugging on him. “Come on,” she encouraged him. “Up, up, up.”
His brain throbbed with noise and heat. “If I move,” he heard his voice saying, “I’m going to throw up.”
“That’s all right,” she said, evidently not believing him. “Just come on.”
So he tried.
“Oh, dear,” she said, when it became apparent he’d meant what he had said.
“For heaven’s sake!” That was Giddy, and after that, there was a flurry of loud bustling and buffeting around, while he sat forlornly on the bed with his head between his hands, wishing—for the thousandth time in his life—he were dead.
“Drink this,” Giddy said, shoving something into his hand. He couldn’t keep hold of it. She cursed him. He looked up, thinking it was very unfair of her—and saw instead of Giddy, one of the boys with Giddy’s face on. He groaned, his stomach all at sea.
“Thomas,” someone said softly—a hand on his head. And Avvin, sitting on her heels beside him so she could look him in the face. “You’ve got to try, dear,” she said.
“I am,” he said, close to tears, and so dizzy he could hardly keep her face straight.
“Let’s try it again,” Giddy said, with that bitter edge of impatience.
“Try what?” he asked, all apprehension.
“Drink this,” she said.
“Ah, no,” he said, his stomach heaving at the thought.
But she had the cup against his lip, and she hauled back on his hair, and the nasty stuff was already half-way down his throat before he’d had a chance to choke on it.
“Well, some of it went down,” Giddy said a moment later. “And the counterpane was a lost cause anyway. Here. “She wiped his face roughly with a rude cloth and hauled his clown’s hood down over his head.
“Not so harshly,” he heard Avvin say from across the room. And, “Elfrede’s back.”
Giddy did up the fastenings on the hood, shoving his chin out of her way. When he put his hands to hers, just to keep her from pinching, she slapped them away and said, “Do it yourself, then.”
He moaned, and made to lie down again, but someone caught him a rough cuff on the shoulder—Giddy, it would have been. “Not in that mess, please,” she said. “And we’re going, anyway. So get up.” Which she then very unkindly made him do.
“Stuff the bells back into his hood,” someone said, and it was done—as if he weren’t uncomfortable enough already. “And come on. Shhhh—”
They pulled him along with them, and he did his level best to stay on his feet. “He’ll do better as we go,” he heard Giddy whisper. “Once his blood starts moving a bit.” But he didn’t like the sound of that—feeling too much blood moving as it was.
They passed from the light, warm room out into the dark, windy hallway.
He stumbled along, not at all sure of his legs and afraid of stairs, but the others kept him upright and moved altogether too fast down the long hall to the north end where nobody quartered. They came to the stairs, shadows leaping back from a candle someone held, hand-shielded from the draft.
“Why are we doing this?” he started to ask, but they shushed him, and he began to remember what they’d been saying in his dream before.
He missed the first step down, but they had guessed he would. They let him lean against the wall as they went spiraling down, sliding along with his shoulder against the stones where the treads were widest. Even so, he got light headed, thinking about down and up, and more than once, he heard Giddy coupling his name with a curse.
“I can’t help it,” he wanted to tell her, because he was deeply offended, but they wouldn’t let him say anything, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what she’d say to that, anyway. She’d never been a very forgiving sort, and she didn’t take disclaimers. Nothing comfortable about that girl. Not unless you were in good health and in the mood for a dangerous tease.
It was a nightmare trip in the darkness, hall after hall, and stairs that drifted down and down into the center of the universe. Once they stopped, all piled up together and hushed. He’d rested his hot face against the cool stones of the wall and nearly gone to sleep, so that when they moved again, he scraped his cheek—and when he made noise about it, somebody grabbed his mouth and hurt the hurts, and cursed at him, besides.
And then, finally, there was a little light ahead of them in the dark. The draft blew their candle out, and they came to another bundled stop.
“I’ll take care of this,” Avvin whispered. They stood him against the wall, and then all of them watched as Avvin moved into the light and leaned in at a doorway. She was very beautiful, her hair all braided down her back and netted on top with gold. The netting glinted in the soft light, and the cloak she wore draped around her in graceful folds.
She was a tallish girl, grown up lithe and soft and very lovely. He’d kissed her once, a very, very long time ago in a small green cave between the lilacs at the foot of the Old Hall wall, a fresh spring morning almost out of memory. He thought about that now, watching her float and shift, shadowlike in the half light of the postern gateroom fire.
“. . . small covert operation,” she was saying, taking a coy attitude. “. . . a little night-reconnaissance . . .”
“But the weather, Lady, and the hour,” a voice answered. A deep voice which rumbled on to add something about a risk— “. . .unusual . . .no orders . . .”
“Of course I’m certain,” she said, clearly, taking on an air of authority. “And we have to go now, rain or no rain.”
Giddy was hissing beside him, and Elfrede shifted his weight. “Rain,” Giddy said through her teeth. “Rain.”
“. . .weapons,” Avvin was saying now, and smiled at them, waving them on past her to the outside door.
“Come on,” Giddy said, shoving Thomas. Elfrede caught his arm and half lifted him as they went forward, past the warm light of the guard room and out into the very wet and chilly dark.
“There should be a boat here,” Elfrede said, slogging through the mud to the very edge of the moat. He’d pulled his hood up and over so that it hid his face, and Giddy’d done the same. Between them, they got Thomas over the side of the little boat and sat him in the bottom where it was wet. He shivered noiselessly.
“You didn’t get him a cloak,” Elfrede hissed. “Look at him.”
He looked down at himself, poor patched doublet rusty with old blood and blotched with rain. His teeth chattered and the throbbing in his head was brutal.
Giddy bit off an angry word, climbed out of the boat and floundered up the bank. She met shapes that must have been Avvin and her soldier coming out. There was a sort of conference, Giddy waving her becloaked arm in his direction. He closed his eyes and put his head down against the splintery rim of the boat’s side.
Something hit him. Whatever it was, they had dropped it on his head, then hauled him up and shoved his arms into it. A cloak. Rough cloth—dry only for the moment. And then came other things, bundles falling at his feet. Every move they made, or the boat made, or he made himself, hurt like a blunt needle jammed into the back of his head. As the new male voice murmured an amazed question, the hood of the cloak was jerked down over Thomas’ head.
“He has his uses,” Avvin said, close by. And then they made him sit up again, but this time with someone at his back, someone who pulled him back, warm and snug, and put a reassuring hand on his head.
The boat jerked.
Thomas cried out.
“Careful,” Giddy snapped.
“You could help,” somebody pointed out.
“Gid,” Avvin said, shifting her hand on his head. “Get out and give John a hand.”
“Me?” Giddy spluttered.
“You’re a younger man than I am,” Elfrede observed dryly, from under his own hood.
Avvin chuckled and patted Thomas’ shoulder, much to his discomfort, as Giddy climbed out of the boat. The boat slid backward then, stern bouncing against the black water.
Giddy and John Ethel∂orn splashed after. The boat lurched and danced as they clambered aboard it.
“I’m going to be sick again,” Thomas observed.
“Then lean over the side,” Giddy snapped, and he did, and he was.
“Row,” Giddy commanded, behind him. “I trust you can do that by yourself.”
It might have been hours later when they were finally brought up, prow into the ground, on the other bank. The wind was blowing badly, and everything was soaked.
“I want to go home,” Thomas said, then—as a reasonable alternative to death.
“Come on,” Avvin said. “We’ve got a ways to go.”
“Where to?” John Ethel∂orn asked, straining to pull the boat up onto the muddy bank.
“This way,” Avvin said, leading them up onto the road where it began to curve away from the Hall. “With all haste.”
But, “I’m not going further than this,” John Ethel∂orn announced, planting his feet in the middle of the road. “Not in the rain, and not without the Lord’s own orders.”
“Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to,” Avvin said. “And I’ll thank you to be quick about it, too—because I’m not too keen on standing here in the rain.”
“Well, I won’t,” the soldier said.
“You’re refusing my order?” Avvin asked, conversationally.
“You’re a pretty lady,” Ethel∂orn said, “but you’re not my boss.”
“Well, then—let’s just be honest with each other,” the lady said. “I am running away. As I see it—knowing this, you have three alternatives. You can go back now and tell the Lord of Sneyd that you left your post and rowed—you, yourself— his betrothed wife away across the moat, and then allowed her to wander off into the forest by herself without a reasonable guard—which I will have done by the time you get back there—and which he will not appreciate if I should turn up dead in the morning—which I easily could. Or you can wait here for him to find you, in which case he will assume you were part of the plot in the first place—which he’s going to assume whatever you do—or you can take your responsibility seriously, and come along and keep off the things that will inevitably go bump in the night.”
The man made an exasperated sound and threw out his arms.
“Besides,” she said, gone coy again. “I waited till it was you at the gate; I needed you on this little jaunt, John Ethel∂orn. A man as skilled and honorable as you are is more than a small prize to a lady in need. I’ve had my eye on you a long time—”
From Giddy came a low sound of disgust.
“Into the forest, did you say?” John asked faintly.
“It’s bound to be drier under the trees.” Avvin went to him and put her hand on his arm. “And I do so need your help.” Thomas might have laughed, if it wouldn’t have split his head to do it.
“Oh, come on,” Giddy said, and stalked off over the shoulder of the road, down across the wet gully and out into the fringe of the forest with the rest of the company bunched miserably behind her.
* * *
“Drier under the trees,” Giddy muttered bitterly, ringing out one sleeve of her cloak.
Avvin put the business end of a candle to her little pot of live coals. When the hissing flame settled, she fit the butt of the candle into a crack in the massive rock that made their leeward wall. “It is drier here,” she said.
“Relatively speaking,” Elfrede said diplomatically. The candlelight threw a very fragile circle of light against the glittering blackness that ringed them.
Giddy had hung her cloak on the dripping branch of a spindly tree. “I’m going to freeze,” she said. “We’re all going to be dropsic.” She went to the rock face and huddled against it. Elfrede had not taken off his cloak, observing that he was less worried about wet than he was about chill.
The trees hung dark and heavy over their little refuge. They hadn’t come far—not more than a few hundred unpleasant yards through bracken and rugged ground before they’d given up for the night.
“Where’s the fire, John?” Giddy managed a sneer in spite of chattering teeth. “I thought you were supposed to be the one with field experience.”
Thomas had been dozing, sitting on his heels away from the damp ground, his back against the rock. When Giddy spoke, he startled, losing his balance.
Ethel∂orn dropped a small armload of dripping wood on the pile he’d started. “Everything is wet,” he said.
Thomas put a hand out to catch himself—and dropped it, all unknowing, on Giddy’s knee. She batted his had off as if it had been something vile. Thus deprived of his support, he toppled over full against her shoulder, still scrambling for balance. She shot out from under him like a hare from cover, and he went over on his face in the sticky dirt.
“Do not do that again,” she said. And stalked over to kick at the dripping pile of wood.
“I can keep going for more,” Ethel∂orn offered. As no one gainsaid him, he went off into the dark again, while the rest of them shivered, and Thomas painfully pulled himself upright.
It was not a very wide rock. Giddy stood a bit apart as long as she could stand it, glaring at Thomas, her arms folded over her dark doublet and her eyes bright and angry under the jaunty velvet cap she’d stolen from Alf.
“Oh, please just stop,” Thomas said to her, tired of it.
She sniffed and turned her face away.
He sighed. “Look,” he said doggedly. “I’m wet and I ache and I’m sick to my stomach, and my head feels like an overblown bladder. What could possibly move you to think I’d make a pass at you now?”
“Let’s see,” she said. “Could it be our long past history?”
He pressed one hand to the side of his head to keep his brains in. “Even if I wanted to,” he said patiently, “I couldn’t. But I don’t. Want to. Believe me, at this moment, I have no games in me.” He put one hand over his stomach and took a careful breath. “I’ll warn you if I ever feel that good again, all right?”
She tossed her head, her arms folded. “Why don’t I just warn you right now?” she said.
He put the other hand up to his head and closed his eyes.
She shifted her weight. After a moment, she asked him, “Was that a promise?”
He squinted up at her.
“…not the kind you usually make. A real one?” Her voice was still minatory.
He pressed his hands over his eyes. “I swear it,” he said wearily. “By the bells on my head, all right? My grace, Brigit. Just come back here out of the rain.”
After another long moment, she drifted back to the rock and huddled up again, shivering, silent and radiating misery.
“We should have waited for another night, Lady,” Elfrede said.
“Vinny,” she corrected him faintly.
Elfrede cleared his throat. “We’ll have two sick—at least—before the morning if we can’t make a fire,” he said. He shifted his weight, throwing Thomas off balance again. This time, when Thomas fell against Giddy, she held her ground, gritting her teeth.
Thomas murmured, lost again in a dark sort of dream.
“Well, we’re not going to have one,” Giddy said. “So what’s the point of talking about it? We’ll all be dead by morning.”
Thomas sighed, closed his eyes and slowly pushed himself upright.
“Stop knocking me over,” Giddy snapped.
Eyes still closed, hand on the rock behind, Thomas got himself straight. For a moment, he swayed. Then he held his hands out for balance, squinting down at his feet, and set one foot in front of the other, very, very carefully.
“Oh, and what now?” But Giddy’s complaint was only halfhearted.
One foot before the other until he came to the sad, soaking circle of stones Ethel∂orn had so carefully laid out for a fire. Delicately, Thomas lowered himself until he crouched there. Almost absently, he chose a stick off the pile, studied it, and then placed it in the middle of the circle. Then he repeated the performance. And kept repeating it—slowly, carefully—until he had made a pyramid of sticks.
“I supposed,” Giddy said dully, “this is supposed to be some kind of absurdist mime comment on the hopelessness of our situation? I hope it’s not supposed to be amusing.”
Thomas held his hands out over the sticks, fingers spread and palms open.
“He’s hallucinating,” Avvin whispered. “I think he’s actually seeing fire there. Maybe we should have picked another night.”
There was some grumbling outrage at this, but Thomas didn’t hear it. He was too busy listening to the wood. In the process, he was getting warm. Almost too warm. The sensation of heat was traveling with his blood, out from his chest, down through his arms, maybe through the marrow of his bones. His palms felt like they were glowing.
That’s what he was hearing in the wood, the hiss of heat in the heart of it, as though each stick flowed with hot marrow, too. Now, the air was rising from the ground, pushing against his hands. Then, suddenly, there was a gasp from behind him and a flare and an eruption of heat at his face. Thomas opened his eyes and fell back.
For a moment, there wasn’t any sound but the snapping of sturdy flames.
Then, “What was that?” Giddy whispered. And louder, “What was that?”
“It’s a fire,” Avvin whispered.
“The whole pile, all at once,” Elfrede said.
Thomas turned and squinted back at the others. Amber streaks danced across their stark faces. “How’d that happen?” he asked them.
“What do you mean? ” Elfrede said, staring at him. “Don’t you know?” “No,” Thomas said stupidly.
He turned back to the fire, still squinting. John Ethel∂orn stood silently, just outside the bright ring of fire light, his face stony and eerily lit. Ethel∂orn’s eyes went from the fire to Thomas.
“More wood would help, then, I guess,” Elfrede said to Ethel∂orn, still sounding mystified.
“So,” Ethel∂orn said, his eyes still on Thomas, “I see.”
Then Avvin said with suspect cheerfulness, “Well, I’ve had enough of the cold.” She stood up, hugging herself, and came to crouch close to the blaze, holding out her hands to it. “It’s hot,” she said over her shoulder, sounding surprised.
Thomas shifted and pain shot through his head. No one else had come to the fire. Working himself from sitting to hands and knees to standing, he got himself away from the ring, moving back to the rock. The others parted as he came, flowed around him and gathered again beside the fire, keeping their distance.
Thomas hunkered down, his back to the clammy rock, and huddled there, his eyes on their gold-rimmed backs.
“Here,” someone said, a moment—perhaps an hour later. Thomas jerked himself awake. There was a full cup on the ground beside him. Nearly blinded by the firelight, he made out a human shape, silhouetted against it. What?” he said thickly.
“Drink it,” Giddy ordered.
He looked down at the cup, but was too heavy to move.
“It’ll help you sleep,” she told him. “And ease your head, if it still hurts.”
“I was asleep already.” He made no move to pick the thing up.
With an exasperated sound, she darted in to retrieve the cup, then moved a little away and drank it down herself. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, she was still standing there, holding the empty cup. “How did you do it?” she asked.
He shivered. “Do what?”
She hissed, and her arms crossed over her chest. “The fire. How did you make it burn?” She said this with insulting clarity.
For an instant, he was angry. “I didn’t,” he told her.
She hissed again. “Go ahead and sulk, then. I was just making conversation.”
He laughed. Immediately regretting it, he pressed his palms against his eyes.
She was still there. He could feel the air, moving around her.
“It was a mass hallucination,” she finally muttered to herself. “Stress induced. It’s the only explanation.”
“Go away, Brigit,” he said.
But, of course, she still didn’t. “My father loved you,” she said, as though that were a deep puzzle.
“He was too kind,” Thomas said. His eyes were hot and his hands too heavy.
“My father was a fine physician,” she said, thoughtfully, “but he was never indiscriminately kind.”
Thomas sighed. Her voice was too sharp.
“Out all of us,” she went on, “he always said that you would be the best.”
“Go,” he said again, and flicked his fingers at her, his eyes still closed.
“I’m glad he can’t see you now,” she said. Without another word, she was gone. He felt the space she’d left in the air and nearly fell into it.
They were all talking over there around the fire, now. Talking cheerfully, as if nothing odd had happened. Thomas heard more wood fall, heard the fire leap up, and the warmth of it almost reached him. Someone said something. Someone else laughed. Thomas closed his eyes and put his forehead down against his knees.
“Thomas?” Softly, oh softly. He brought his head up, looking out through hot eyes. Avvin put a hand out and smoothed the hair away from his face, tucking it back all around into the hem of the coxcomb. “Your cloak’s dry,” she said. “Let’s wrap you up in it, all right? We’re all going to sleep now.”
“This is not fair,” he said to her, but he let her fuss over him. She had him lie with his back against the warmed face of the rock, then she undid the fastenings of his hood and pulled it off, the bells making streaks of muffled brightness in the wet quiet. She sat beside him.
“Is it better?” she asked, patting his shoulder.
“Sure,” he said.
“Good,” she said, then curled up and fell immediately into sleep.