The next morning, she and Jules would begin their arduous trek into the mountains, beyond the borders of Athering. Legends held that Mt. Impri was full of caves, made livable by some exiled Queen or other. Yarrow hoped that was true. As wonderful as it was to stay with Dion and Aurora, she knew that she and Jules endangered their lives a little more every day they delayed. They didn’t want to push Fortuna harder than necessary.
“Until the last day of the funeral,” she’d said to him on their first night there, and he’d agreed readily. The next two days he’d spent with his family, joining them for two-thirds of the time during which the family was to sit with the body and prepare it for burning. He’d missed the first day altogether, as that was the day they’d ridden into Atton. He’d spent the required seven days at the temple, so Yarrow did not think that the Sisters of Mercy would begrudge him one day.
Yarrow, with nothing to do except lie as low as possible, found herself spending any time she didn’t use to pace her balcony or practise swordplay in the drawing room with the brother and sister team that ran the tavern. She and Aurora had become fast friends – as friendly as she could be with someone from whom she was hiding her identity. She found herself spending a lot of time with the shorter woman – no doubt to assuage the loss she felt at leaving Ghia and Anala.
“Why ‘Bacchanalia’?” she’d asked Aurora the first day as she sat at the bar. She’d taken to keeping her hair tightly tied back and slicked with some pomade she’d found in town, making it look almost brown, and wearing clothing that showed off her tattoo as much as possible. Not many people knew Bellica Yarrow had a tattoo. It was a mark of a commoner.
Aurora was wiping down the bar, considering her answer. “You’re from Atherton, so you’ve been to services at the Temple on Jourd’Aradia, right?”
“I’ve been a time or two,” the ex-bellica hedged, having never been for sevenday services in her life. She’d gone for other, more specialised cases.
Aurora smiled, and Yarrow got the feeling that the woman hadn’t gone that often herself. “Ever notice the list of Goddesses is really incredibly long?”
That she did know, having read a few books on mythology. There were myriad Goddesses in Athering. All were honoured at Temple, but most people just focused on their regional cults. Yarrow had never looked past Bellona, the Sisters of Mercy, or Juno – the last usually as a curse more than an actual working relationship between deity and supplicant. She nodded at Aurora, her curiosity piqued. She’d never heard of a Goddess named Bacchanalia.
“Well,” and here Aurora leaned in closer to Yarrow, as if she was sharing a big secret, “some Goddesses are actually…Gods.” She winked conspiratorially.
Yarrow laughed. “Really.”
Aurora held her hand up and laughed with Yarrow. “Tavern owner’s honor! Some Atherians actually worship…Gods.” She whispered, as if it were a scandal. Yarrow laughed some more.
Then stopped, thinking back. She’d heard some Nucalif folk call out for a ‘Poseidon’ as their battle cry. During the Campaign she’d thought it a figure from history or somesuch, but now she wasn’t so sure. Perhaps they’d been calling to a god peculiar to their area. Too, the Vocans worshipped a god almost exclusively. Mayhap it was not so strange as it sounded.
“I take it They’re paid more attention in Their regional cults,” Yarrow said.
“Oh, to be sure. I’ll admit I don’t know much about the others, but here in Atton we are blessed with a type of grape that survives our cold weather, and makes a wonderful wine – our most prosperous export.” She smiled around at the tavern, and Yarrow noticed anew the many bottles of wine they had. “It’s thanks to the bounty of the Wine God that we prosper here in Atton, so at Temple we pay heed to Bacchus. As well as the rest of the Goddesses,” she added hastily, and Yarrow almost laughed. Aurora didn’t need to fear Yarrow would find her blasphemous.
“Of course,” Yarrow agreed, returning the smile. “Bacchanalia is His festival, then?”
“When the first batch of grapes ripens,” Aurora said with a wistful smile on her face. “Usually sometime between Midspring and Midsummer, but we’ve had it as late as the end of Quatra before.”
“I hope I’m able to attend this year’s,” Yarrow said politely, but she doubted it would happen.
“It would be wonderful to have you there, Achi,” Aurora said, and Yarrow smiled harder, trying to conceal the truth about her name. It was so strange to be referred to by her middle moniker. “It’s a beautiful festival – a full sevenday long, with feasting and carousing and partying. It’s where I met my wife,” Aurora added, then stopped speaking, her face melancholy.
Yarrow had already noticed Aurora wore her ring on her left hand, middle finger instead of ring, and so said nothing. Casting about for anything to change the subject, she settled on her meal, though she was far from finished.
“The meals you serve here are absolutely splendid, Aurora,” she said with a smile, and saw her friend come back from wherever the far-away place she’d gone to had been. “I’m sure they don’t serve things so fine in the castle itself.”
Aurora waved her hand. “It’s just humble food,” she said, blushing, and Yarrow saw her guess had been correct: Aurora handled the food menu herself.
“Well it’s the best recipe for humble food as I’ve ever tasted,” Yarrow said, and Aurora blushed deeper. She smiled more that day, and Yarrow didn’t see the melancholy pass her face again.
The next day was spent much the same, except Dion was in all day and Aurora out running her errands, so Yarrow spent her day talking and flirting. Jules had come by briefly to tell them the time of the funeral the next morning, then gone, leaving Yarrow to Dion’s attentions.
At some point in the day it occurred to her that Dion was not as cavalier with his flirting with her as he was with the other patrons; she could sense real interest there. She spent the afternoon mentally debating the pros and cons of returning his attentions in earnest, continually falling back on the decision she’d made on the road, namely, that sex was no good without love, and would never be the same without Caelum.
Oh, come now, her old self scolded. You’re being a little melodramatic, don’t you think?
I’ve earned the right to be melodramatic, she replied with a sniff.
Her old self rolled her eyes at Yarrow’s current thinking. So you’re swearing off sex forever because some stupid man broke your heart?
No! Yarrow protested vehemently. The thought of no sex ever again was abhorrent. It’s just. Well. She floundered, unable to think of a single good argument. Her old self gave her a self-satisfied smirk and said nothing more. She didn’t need to. She’d won.
That night, Yarrow threw caution to the wind and invited Dion into her bed. When he accepted passionately, she felt her old confidence return a bit.
She had absolutely no regrets about it, she decided, lying in the comfortable bed next to him. He was a passionate and considerate lover, and she’d be lying if she said that his interest in her since her arrival hadn’t awakened something long-forgotten within her. She hadn’t been this flustered with a lover since…since the first time, she realised. So used to being dominant with the people she slept with, she didn’t let anyone make her feel anything. Not even with Caelum, for all that they had gently warred with dominance during their time together. She’d still been indubitably in charge – and well he knew it. She was always in control. Tonight, Dion had made her lose her composure. She realised that being flustered could be a really, really good thing.
She lay awake for a long time afterwards, staring into the darkness. She still couldn’t sleep that well; hadn’t been able to since leaving. Frankly she didn’t want to. What sleep she got was punctuated with nightmares.
She wondered that she’d moved on so quickly from Caelum. She didn’t really feel anything towards him anymore. No hate. No anger. No love. She couldn’t.
Mayhap I’m just ignoring it till the right time.
When would be the right time to come to grips with it?
She sighed. When she should care, she didn’t and when she shouldn’t, she did. Nothing was ever simple.
“What’s his name?” Dion’s voice came out of the darkness, startling her.
“The man you left behind,” he said, his voice gentle.
“Oh.” She paused. How obvious it must be to everyone else! She tried to think of a name; if she said ‘Caelum’, he’d know for sure who she was. Which he probably did, but at least this way he could truthfully deny ever having met Yarrow. “Cepheus,” she said at last, falling on a name out of mythology.
“What happened?” Dion shuffled closer to her and put a caring arm around her.
Yarrow almost laughed. “He left me for my sister.”
He kissed her forehead. “Want me to kill him for you?”
Now Yarrow did laugh. As solid as Dion was, the thought of him taking on a seasoned military officer was just priceless. “No,” she said, laughter fading. “I’m not mad at him. He didn’t really have a choice.” Though she couldn’t see him very well in the darkness, she could feel Dion’s sardonic look at her. “Family and inheritance reasons. I’m the younger sister.”
“I thought arranged marriages didn’t happen anymore,” he said, his tone lightly searching.
“They don’t. But blood is thicker than water, and family can still screw your life up royally.” Even past death.
He laughed. “That it can.”
They cuddled in silence for a while, just enjoying each other’s touch, until Yarrow’s curiosity got the better of her.
“What happened to Aurora’s wife?”
Dion sighed. “No one really knows. He died a few years back. Up on the mountain.”
“Avalanche?” she hazarded. She knew it was a ready enough danger in Atton.
“No. I wish. Would have been easier to take.” He stopped for a moment, and Yarrow was silent, letting him gather his thoughts. “Galen had a group of friends who were convinced they’d find treasure in the caves of Mt. Impri. He was more sensible than that, of course, but loyal to a fault. Characteristic of Atton-folk. Don’t know when to take care of themselves.” Yarrow thought of Jules and smiled. “As I’m sure you know,” he added and she knew he’d sensed her smile.
“That I do,” she murmured.
“So they got together for an expedition up the mountain. Despite the danger and my sister’s protests, Galen went with his friends. They were gone for a full tredicem. It was spring, and Thaw made the passes treacherous. Aurora waited at the window every day and night, consumed with worry, looking for his return. I couldn’t even get her to clean – something she does to ease her mind.
“Took some convincing to get her some rest. That’s when they returned. Didn’t wake her right away – didn’t want to upset her with the sight of him.”
There was a longer pause, and Yarrow grabbed Dion’s hand and squeezed. His thumb stroked her hand briefly before he went on.
“Torn to shreds, he was. Looked like the work of a treecat – but they’d gone above the tree-line. When I asked his friends what had happened, they raved about Flesh Screamers.”
“I thought those were legend,” Yarrow said, swallowing.
“I said as much, but they would not be deterred. Said none of them could move while it screamed and tore Galen to bits.”
He fell silent. Yarrow let him for a while, thinking about the terrifying idea that Flesh Screamers may exist. Then something occurred to her.
“Dion,” she said matter-of-factly, “if none of them could move then how did they survive to bring his body home?”
Dion stretched and moved to rest on his back, and Yarrow moved to her side so she could continue to look at him, dark though it was in the room. “That’s the strangest part of the tale,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “The youngest of them told me they’d been saved by Queen Zameera – that she’d appeared and killed the creature with deft strokes of her two vicious looking blades.
“That was when I was sure they were crazy – she’d been dead for years past, and even if she were alive…why would she be on Mt. Impri killing Flesh Screamers? And how would the young pup even know what she looked like? He’d never seen her. Then Geoff, the eldest of the group, confirmed the kid’s story. And he’d seen the Queen a time or two in his life.”
Yarrow felt a chill run down her spine at this branch in the story. Goddess, what awaits me in the mountains? “Do you think they were lying? That it was foul play?” she said out loud.
She saw him nod, slowly. “I did. So I called in the priestesses but they confirmed the men were telling the truth. Gave them sanctuary, mad as they were. They had to be. Couldn’t be otherwise.
“We had his funeral. The town moved on with life. Aurora’s never healed fully, but I didn’t expect her to. Some people mate for life. Galen was a good man – only person she’d ever brought home that I actually approved of. I never told her their tale. Said they’d gone below the treeline and been attacked by a treecat,” he said, an afterthought.
Yarrow found herself smiling despite the melancholic mood that had settled. “You’re very protective of her, I gather.”
She could see his teeth glint in the little light in the room as he grinned back. “Damned right. She’s all I’ve got. When our parents died I basically raised her.”
“I thought you two were twins,” Yarrow said in mirth.
“She’s still my baby sister,” he said staunchly.
She giggled, and Dion rolled onto his side to face her. “Are you laughing at me?”
“Oh, not at all,” she said, and burst into giggles again.
“I think you are,” he said, and pinned her to the bed expertly. “Good thing I know how to fix that.” He kissed her deeply.
When she could breathe, she asked if he was sure it was Bacchus and not Desirelle he was devoted to.
“Can’t it be both?” he said with what she could see was a roguish grin, and after that they let all thought drift away for the rest of the night.
Yarrow had to borrow some of Aurora’s clothing for the funeral, as she owned no white. It was awkward, as the tavern-owner was almost two feet shorter than the ex-bellica, but somehow she improvised – the woman had a non-fitted sleeveless peplos that Yarrow could slip into, and in order to make it go past the middle of her thighs, she found a fairly inexpensive clothing shop where she bought an underslip in white. She also purchased an inexpensive cardigan that would fit Aurora as well, so she could leave it with the woman when she left. For her hair she borrowed a white shawl from her new friend. “To show respect,” she’d said in explanation.
Aurora had nodded in acceptance, but Yarrow saw the twinkle in the shorter woman’s eye.
All in all she didn’t look too terrible – not that a funeral was a time to be vain, but she didn’t want to look as if she didn’t care at all about Jules’ family.
It was a simple service, held outside the Temple, and beautiful. Jules’ father was well-loved, and most of Atton had turned out for it. Yarrow stood at the back, behind Eric’s remaining family, though she was sure Nathaniel and his husband both knew exactly who she was. As she watched the pallbearers load Jules’ father onto the pyre and the priestesses move forward with torches and prayers, she noticed Jules was edging backwards, closer to her. Soon he stood next to her, and she looked at him sidelong. He didn’t return her glance and so she left it alone.
The main prayers were being said by a priest – unusual, but it did happen. Yarrow bowed her head with the rest of the mourners. When it came time to pray for Eric’s journey to the Sisters of Mercy, she prayed very hard – for her. Then she watched a priestess light one end of the pyre, and throw her torch up onto it. The remaining three priestesses followed suit, and they stood and watched Eric burn.
Eventually mourners drifted away, as the day wore on. Afternoon turned into evening and evening into night, and Eric still burned, Only Nathaniel, his spouse, their children, Jules, Yarrow, and Dion and Aurora remaining. Out of the corner of her eye Yarrow saw tears running down Jules’ face, reflecting the orange glow that was now his father, and she put an arm around his shoulder and squeezed. He leaned into the embrace and they stood there until they were the only ones remaining, and longer still until the fire was out, orange and yellow lights dancing in front of their tired eyes.
Jourd’Aradia, 11th Duema
She’d been warned about Thaw, but somehow she’d not believed it. Despite the warmth that was making snow melt and turn the road up the mountain into slush, it was a bloody cold four days that it took them to reach the caves. They were soaked through by the time they reached the first cave, and the wind that blew fiercely down the mountain had done nothing to warm them. Yarrow was sure she’d never feel anything in her hands and legs again. In most places they’d been unable to ride their horses, because of the treachery of the melting snow, and so had to wade through in their breeches and boots – which were supposed to be waterproof, but apparently had never been tested in Atton in spring. A few times they’d had to turn back and find another pass, for the one they were going to take was blocked off with a pile of snow, or a rockslide. There was no map to the mountains. There was only tenacity and luck to get them through.
When they entered the cave, she actually fell to her knees and kissed the ground. “Thank Aradia,” she exclaimed, chapping her hands and trying to get feeling back into them. “I thought I’d never stop feeling the wind. Isn’t it supposed to be warmer now that it’s spring?” she asked Jules as she got up and lead her horse deeper into the cave system, looking for the warmth of the earth that should be inside the mountain.
He laughed quietly, without mirth. “It’s never ‘spring’ in Atton, Yar. Out of four seasons, we have three winters – early, middle, and late, sometimes called Thaw.”
Yarrow snorted. “So what’s the fourth?”
“Tourist season,” he replied dryly.
They went through a few caves with their horses, each opening luckily big enough to admit the animals. The third cave they came across was a shock. It was a fully-stocked, very large, stable.
Yarrow let out a low whistle. “SomeOne is looking out for us.”
“Namely Cayusee,” he replied.
Yarrow made a sound of agreement in her throat and they led their horses to some empty stalls. They were all empty, but they chose the stalls closest to them. The warmth that Yarrow had hoped to find inside the mountain was present here, but it seemed more than it should be from just the rock itself, as if the cave had been heated.
Must be an internal heating system, she decided, but the idea didn’t do much to quell her sudden nervousness. If there was an ancient internal heating system in place from when the mountain had been inhabited by that exiled Queen Whatshername, then who in Tyvian was keeping the fires stoked now?
And who had stocked the stable with fresh hay?
Swallowing, she finished tending to Pyrrhus, who was the epitome of a happy horse now they were out of the melting snow and cold wind. The ex-bellica turned to Jules, who had just finished curry-combing his own horse as well and was now inspecting the room at large.
“There’s a door here,” he said from the corner, consternation in his voice.
She went to join him. “You mean an opening.”
“No. I mean a door.”
She saw he was right, but it was unlike any door she had ever seen before.
It was flush with the rock wall, with no apparent hinges or handle, and it didn’t seem to be made of wood. She stepped in front of him, moving closer to it, and placed her palm upon the smooth plane. It was cold, in contrast to the room at large, and felt more like steel than wood. But it was a white, opaque color, unlike any steel she’d ever seen before. When she looked closely she could see it contained pores, as wood did. Or flesh, she thought, and suppressed a shudder.
Slowly, containing her nervousness, she moved her hands all over the door, looking for a crack or hinge or anything that would open it. It was the only way out of the stables aside from where they had come in, so unless they got it open they were sleeping with the horses. Which wouldn’t be so bad for a night, but she wanted to rest inside the mountain for a while yet before they moved on again.
She finished her exploratory circuit of the door and let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Nothing. About to give up, she stepped back, and then noticed a small square just to the right of the door. It was level with her hip, and made of the same material of the door itself. She measured it mentally, and saw it was just big enough for her hand. Not daring to believe it would work, she pressed her palm against the square, fingers straight.
The door slid up into the rock.
Yarrow stumbled back, landing against Jules. He steadied her with one hand, the other brandishing his sword in front of them. She’d not even heard him draw it. Before either of them could speak, a voice came out of the walls.
“Bienvenue a la maison, nuestra la Reigna.”
A strained pause passed. “What in Tyvian was that, and what the feck did it say?” Yarrow asked, thoroughly scared now and considering turning tail and running. She turned to Jules, wanting to gauge his reaction. He had a concentrating look on his face.
“It’s Ancient Atherian, and I think it said ‘Welcome home, Queen.'”
Yarrow was flabbergasted. “How on Althea’s green earth do you know Ancient Atherian, Jules?”
He shrugged. “I don’t. Not fluently, at least. I studied it rather extensively in school – gave me an edge over Sarai, who could speak the lingua franca in the Temple with ease where I stumbled over those words.” He smiled, but it was not with laughter. “Frankly, though, this place gives me the creeps and I’d like to leave,” he added, and Yarrow felt a bit of bravado come back.
“And face certain death?” she asked.
He gestured with his sword to the still open door that led to darkness.”We could die here!”
“Yes, but it’s not certain.”
He made a noise of exasperation. “Fine. You first.”
I’d planned on it, she thought, but only nodded and drew her boot knife.
Slowly she stepped forward through the door, into the dark hallway beyond. A blue light passed over her face and body, making the small hairs on her skin stand up on end.
“Identificada confirmennen,” came the voice again. Yarrow jumped and turned in time to see the door slide shut again, Jules on the other side.
“Feck!” she exclaimed, and heard similar invective from his end.
“Dammit. Yarrow, are you alright?” His voice was muffled by the door.
“I’m fine!” she shouted. “Can you open it again?”
A pause. “No! I’m going to break it down,” she heard him say.
“No, wait!” she took a deep breath. “Let me see if I can open it again.”
She heard nothing from the other side, but knew he grumbled. Reaching her hand out in the complete darkness, she found the door with her fingers. Slowly she walked her hand to the right until it found rock. Working her hand up and down, she searched for another small square like the one on the other side of the door.
She found nothing.
Quelling her rising panic she moved her hand back over to the other side. The further down her hand got the more nervous she became, until – finally! – smooth and cold material touched her fingers and, before her surprised eyes, glowed in the darkness. The door slid open then and a worried-looking Jules stepped forward quickly. She released the square and the door shut, leaving them in unmitigated darkness yet again.
“Wonderful,” she growled, but before she could stumble forward the blue light came again and ran over Jules’ face and body.
“Identificada obscura,” the voice said, and Yarrow noticed for the first time it was a pleasant baritone. “Adits a la basidatan?”
Yarrow stood, utterly confused and hoped Jules had an answer. His voice whispered in her ear then: “Say ‘ouinta ne sera,’ Yarrow.”
“What? What does that mean?” she whispered back.
“Just do it.”
“Fine. Uh. Ouinta ne sera,” she said loudly.
There was a long silence, during which Yarrow’s heart skipped several beats. What in Tyvian was going on here?
The voice spoke again, then, in a very long sentence that totally escaped her comprehension. A second passed, and Yarrow found her eyes adjusting to the dark. She thought she could see Jules’ hand pressed to the small square that had opened the door, and in the next moment he called out his full name.
The square glowed again, brighter than it had before, and Jules hissed in pain.
“What?” she whispered, really wanting some answers.
“It’s hot,” he said, but didn’t remove his hand.
In the next few seconds the glow disappeared and the voice came again.
“Identificada confirmen. Bienvenue.”
There was a click somewhere, and they heard no more of the voice. Looking around, she thought her eyes were adjusting to the dark more, but soon she realised it was slowly lightening in the hallway.
She turned to Jules, who she could see now. “You know what’s going on here, don’t you?” she said, directing a piercing glare at him.
He shook his head. “Not really. Well. Sort of. I barely remember it, but one of the texts I read in school said that Atton was the first capital of Athering, and the royal family lived in ‘a palace of stone caves until the City Upon the River was built.’ I can only assume they meant this place.”
She repositioned the boot knife in her hand for easy throwing and started to move down the hallway. “What about the voice, the glow, the strange recognition of me but not you?” she asked, still not satisfied.
He laughed softly. “Recognition of you is an easy one – you’re a descendant of Aradia. You probably resemble one of your ancestresses, enough to make whatever being guards this mountain think you are she.”
She rolled her shoulder, a shrug conceding his point. “And the rest?” They were nearing the end of the hallway now. She could make out a room ahead.
“‘Ancient mageks’ is the only thing I can come up with,” he said. “Though the text did mention some sort of defence system. I assume that was magek, too.”
She made a sound of disgust in her throat. “Magek doesn’t exist, Jules. Just a silly superstition.”
A pause. “You have met Ghia, right?”
Before she could retort about the girl not being fully human and therefore not counting in this case, both were struck dumb by the sight of the room in front of them.
The roof curved high over the huge room that had obviously been used as a ballroom or banquet hall in the past. Parquet flooring, perfect for dancing, covered the ground, and large tables covered in sheets were pushed to the sides. Coloured lamps dotted the ceiling, casting a rainbow of light across the floor and walls.
“Holy Goddess,” Yarrow breathed, looking at the room before her.
“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Jules said, equally awed.
Across the hall were three more doors like the one they had come through. Yarrow jerked her head towards the leftmost one, and Jules followed her, their footsteps echoing in the large cavern.
Yarrow stopped at the door and gestured for Jules to precede her.
“You have to open the door,” he said, eyebrows raised.
“I have a hunch it will work for you this time,” she said, regarding him steadily. When he didn’t move she waved her hand impatiently.
He shrugged and pressed his hand against the square as she had to open the other door. The door slid up into the rock.
“Told you so,” she said with a saucy grin, and went inside. She heard him sigh and knew he shook his head at her as they explored the room beyond.
Turned out it was the kitchens and the servants’ quarters. After a quick search, they determined it was void of living things but, strangely, not food – the icebox was stocked full with unidentifiable meat, and there were even things like grains and such in the pantry. Yarrow felt that chill that had been her best friend since they’d arrived come back to say hello, and she tried to banish it by moving onto the next room.
This room prompted a yell and throwing of her knife from Yarrow, and the steel blade hit the throne she’d aimed it at, clattering to the floor at the feet of the skeleton who sat and regarded them with empty eye sockets. There was a crown still on her head.
“Congratulations,” Jules said wryly as he walked around Yarrow, “you killed it.”
That prompted a well-deserved smack on the shoulder.
Jules didn’t respond as he walked to the throne and retrieved Yarrow’s knife. Before he could walk back to her she’d joined him, staring at the long-dead Queen.
“Who’s this, then?” she asked into the long silence.
“Beats me,” Jules said, face earnest. “I’d hazard a guess and say it’s the last Queen who was exiled to here.”
“Thanks, Chief Officer of the Obvious,” she said sardonically and explored the rest of the room.
Finding nothing of interest, she suggested they move on to the third door from the main hall.
“And never come back in here again,” she added, looking at the skeleton.
The third doorway led to some stone stairs, which then opened to a long stone hallway, doors on either side all along it.
Yarrow opened the first one and it slid back to reveal an extremely small double-bedroom. So did the next five on each side, and each sixth door led to a huge communal privy and washing room.
“Rooms for guests and lesser nobility, I assume,” she said, and Jules nodded.
They were more than halfway down the hallway now and saw it ended in more stairs. Not bothering to check the rest of the doors on this level, they went up to the next one, and found the rooms up there to be larger. The third floor was bigger than the second with bigger rooms, and the fourth, fifth and six floors held entire suites of small, medium, and large sizes. The seventh floor held what obviously had been the Queen’s, Consort’s, and Queen-Mother’s (or heir-apparent’s) quarters. Yarrow gave each of these a cursory glance, not particularly caring.
“So,” Jules said, stretching now that he’d re-sheathed his sword, “which rooms do you want to take?”
She shrugged and replaced her boot knife. “We don’t need much room. A suite on the fourth floor would do. Let’s get the bags.”
He didn’t argue, which was only a mild surprise to her. He’d done so less and less, and she was getting used to it by now. They set about preparing for their new lives deep in the gut of Mt. Impri.
Jourd’Muerta, 16th Duema
Yarrow was looking for food, despite Jules’ many protests. Finally – he’d started arguing with her again! Things were getting back to normal. As normal as they could be.
“Kitchen fully stocked or no, we need to find our own food,” she’d said. “As good as our meals have been – I don’t even know what we’re eating! I’d rather start hunting and finding some vegetables, too, as soon as possible.” And I need to go outside before I go crazy.
Their five days in the mountain had been comfortable – not only were the beds plush and the food plentiful, there was hot running water too! – but, all the same, creepy. Yarrow waked to strange noises each night, disturbing her already restless sleep, and her tired eyes caught a shadow in her room that was just as soon gone, so fast she managed to convince herself she’d dreamt it, come morning.
She’d not asked Jules if the same had happened to him, for she was sure it was just her imagination. Besides, he looked well-rested so far as she could see and she was practised at noticing these things. She, on the other hand, had shadows under her eyes and looked more gaunt than usual, for despite the plentiful food, she found her appetite gone most days.
Her continued exploration of the mountain palace had not revealed the source of the voice that had welcomed them and now occasionally spoke to them. She’d mentally nicknamed it Aro, for it sounded a bit like him, and giving it a name made her feel as if there were another person with them, keeping them company.
She wished there was, in truth. Jules didn’t say much anymore, and she knew his mind was on Ghia. Not for the first time, she wished she’d stopped the girl from going to what Yarrow knew was a certain death. Attempting to free Molly? There was no way either girl could have survived to escape. She wished…oh, Tyvian. If wishes were jackahares I wouldn’t have to go so far down this fecking mountain to hunt.
She was below the treeline, on the north face of the mountain, searching for any edible animal or plant. She’d even welcome a treecat – I’ve faced one before. I could probably kill it now.
The forest this high up the mountain was silent, and the trees not strong enough for the felines besides. So she trekked further down, as far as she dared before she lost the chance of making it back home in time. Home! What a jest! Thank the Goddess it was past equinox, and the days were now longer than the nights. Winter’s grip had been shaken off in the rest of Athering and even Mt. Impri was navigable now. It was no longer slushy. That was a blessing. High up on the mountain, where the entrance to the caves were and where she had to go back when she was finished hunting, there was still snow, a light dusting – gentle, even.
Just when she was about to give up, she came across a jackahare gathering nuts from below a tyrn tree and placing them into its pouch. Silent as a cat, Yarrow dropped into a moving crouch and crept up on the animal, readying her knife for a quick strike.
A twig broke under her boot and the hare bolted. Cursing, Yarrow took after it at a dead run, weaving as effortlessly as it did through the trees.
At the base of a large oak there was a huge leafy bush and it was under this the jackahare dove. Yarrow slid to her knees in front of the bush and pulled back its leaves.
The jackahare stood in her den and hissed at Yarrow, guarding her clutch of babies – not even a few days old, their eyes were still closed. Yarrow sighed, for the mother was big and would have been a good meal, and apologised to the animal, who did not think much of this and continued to bare her large teeth and hiss. The ex-bellica dropped the branches of the bush and rose, brushing the dirt and leaves off her pants.
“Feck,” she said vehemently, and began the long trek uphill, back to the mountain, empty handed. At this point she’d be lucky if she made it back before midnight.
True to her pessimistic prediction, the sun had set by the time she reached the treeline, and she laboured up the rocky, snow-sprinkled slope in the dark. Soon the moons rose and cast their silver light, giving an eerie shine to the rust-coloured rock of the rest of the Blood Mountains that stretched away in a long range, far to the north, and the river with the same name that ran through them.
Yarrow stopped to look at the view behind her several times, and wondered what lay further north, beyond the mountain range that spanned the earth from her spot to the horizon. Did anything lie beyond it or was it just mountains and forest forever, as far as the earth went?
Maybe in summer, if Jules and I still live, we’ll journey north. See what there is to be seen.
She turned back and continued her zig-zag hike up, cursing the Moirae and Fortuna with every step. It was windy and cold and miserable again, and all she could think about was the warm bath that she knew awaited her in the mountain.
A sound like a song came over the wind, and Yarrow frowned and looked around. It came again, like a woman singing mournfully. Damn mountain gets creepier every day. The thought was half-formed in her mind when the sound became a high-pitched keening scream. She tried to clamp her hands over her ears but stood paralysed, rooted to the spot.
Out of the darkness came a lumbering white shape, galloping towards her with deadly purpose. It continued to scream and Yarrow felt her blood freeze in her veins as she realised what it was.
She stood, unable to move, desperately trying to draw her sword. Her body wouldn’t obey. Her skin felt tight and hard, all suppleness lost, as if it had turned to stone around her and locked her in place.
The shape came closer, and she saw six legs – no, wait, now two legs and four arms as it moved to trot upright, large iridescent wings behind it for balance. It was covered in a thick white fur, but that was all she noticed for in the next instant a blur of white and black collided with the creature from the side, knocking it down and rolling away with it, locked in fierce battle.
The screaming stopped abruptly, and Yarrow, suddenly free, collapsed and started rolling down the mountain. She flung out her arms to stop herself but it was too late, and she rolled until she landed in a crevice, her head landing hard on a rock. For a second she struggled to rise, but then darkness consumed her in a wave.