Kushiel's Justice (Page 80)

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The Vralian didn't answer; I wasn't even sure what language I'd spoken in. But he looked at me with grave eyes and offered me a dipperful of warm goat's milk. I sighed and shook my head. I could guess how the Rebbe would have answered my question.

It is my duty.

As I had mine, more arduous and distasteful with each day that passed. I led my horse into the courtyard. It was a clear day. The courtyard hadn't been swept yet, and the sun was bright on the new-fallen snow. Beyond lay a vast tract of woods, dense and pathless. I stooped and touched the ground.

“Blessed Elua, Mighty Kushiel, hear your scion,” I murmured. “I cannot search forever. If it is your will that I find him, let it be swift. And if it is your will that I spare him, I pray you make it known to me.

There was no answer, but then, there seldom was.

I rose and continued my quest.

Chapter Fifty-Seven

I didn't count the days.What was the point? I had no fixed destination. I rode back and forth across the cold, snowy land, seeking any sign of Berlik; any sign of human habitation. I measured the passage of time by my dwindling supplies. I gauged my position by keeping sight of a particular peak of the Narodin Mountains, hook-shaped and distinctive. There would come a time when I could simply search no more, and would have to seek civilization or starve.

The sun rose and fell.

I kept searching.

I ate as little as I dared, but I had to be careful. If I was too weary at the end of the day to make a proper campsite, I ran the risk of freezing. I could hunt if it came to it, but I was short of arrows and hunting wouldn't feed my mount.

He was a good horse, patient and willing. I doled out grain in handfuls. I could abandon him, I supposed, and continue on foot. I wasn't sure I had the skills for it. I wasn't sure I had the heart for it. It wasn't just the cruelty. It felt like I'd been alone for a long, long time. Without the company of one single living creature, I wasn't sure I could continue.

There was a certain peace to it, though. The Vralian wilderness was rugged and gorgeous. My nameless mount and I plodded through pine forests, breaking a trail through deep snow. We scrambled up rocky inclines, and I caught my breath at the splendor of the vistas revealed at the tops. Pine forest spread like an endless carpet, the temple of Miroslas long ago swallowed by it. The tall, jagged peaks of the Narodin Mountains in the background. Frozen lakes, windswept and serene.

There was a good deal of wildlife in the wilderness. I saw foxes and rabbits, their pelts turned a snowy white for winter. Other animals I couldn't name, low and quick, with dark, luxurious fur and bright, curious eyes. Twice, a herd of deer like no other deer I'd seen, tall and deep-chested, with splendid antlers.

No Berlik.

Days passed, one after the other. Sunny days, cloudy days. Betimes it snowed too hard to see, and we were forced to hunker down and wait until it passed. I grew skilled at building windbreaks and shelters dug into deep snow to hold my body warmth, and learned to carry my waterskin filled with snowmelt inside my clothing so it wouldn't freeze during the day. My stolen mount grew shaggy. We slogged through snow and clambered over rock. Uncounted days turned into weeks. I don't know how many leagues Miroslas' holdings encompassed, but they were immense. And aside from the wildlife, they were utterly uninhabited.

There was no sign of Berlik anywhere. There was no sign of anything human in this emptiness save me, and there were days when I wasn't too sure about myself.

The days grew shorter.

The nights grew longer, so long they began to seem endless.

I tried to keep the flame of hope alive in my breast; Elua knows, I did. But the place was simply too vast, the task too hard. The long hours of darkness, the eternal loneliness, took their toll. Bit by bit, the flame guttered.

My supplies were running low the second time we encountered the big deer; low enough that I reckoned I'd have to turn back within a day. The first time, I'd seen the herd at a distance. This time, we came upon them at close range. The herd weren't scared of us, but only watched us with mild gazes as though wondering what strange manner of deer this was with a second body sprouting from its back. My horse stood patiently as I took off my fur mittens and reached for the hunting bow. I nocked an arrow and drew, aiming at the nearest.

The deer watched me, brown ears pricked.

It was an easy kill. In this cold weather, the meat would freeze, so I wouldn't have to worry about it spoiling. I wouldn't even have to dry and smoke it. Now I could keep searching longer. Weeks, mayhap. It was a very big deer. Of course, my horse would starve. But mayhap if I turned it loose, it would find its way back to Miroslas. And I could continue alone, on foot, lugging my packs and pounds and pounds of frozen meat. Tramping through the Vralian wilderness and searching for Berlik, who might well be on the far side of the Narodin Mountains, a hundred leagues from here.

I couldn't do it.

The flame of hope was extinguished.

I lowered the bow. “Blessed Elua forgive me,” I murmured. “I don't want a reason to keep going.”

The deer walked calmly away toward the herd, its tufted tail flicking. I took a long, shuddering breath, releasing it in a sound that was half laugh, half sob. Tears stung my eyes, threatening to freeze on my cheeks. I swiped roughly at them with one hand, then stowed my hunting bow and put on my mittens, turning my mount's head.

“It's over,” I said.

There is a certain peace that comes with accepting failure, too. It settled into me like a stone. I accepted it. Accepted the knowledge that I had failed.

I had given up.

There are people in this world whose wills are capable of exceeding the limits of mortal flesh. I wasn't one of them. I was lonely and hungry and tired, and so cold that I'd forgotten what it felt like to be truly warm. I had failed, and nothing in my life would ever be quite right again. But I simply didn't have the will to continue.

I made camp that night thinking about all the people I had disappointed. About Urist and the men of Clunderry. Drustan, Breidaia, Sibeal, Talorcan…all of those who had loved Dorelei. Alais, and ah, Elua! I was ashamed to face Sidonie, knowing that the shadow of Dorelei's death would always lay between us. I had tried to atone for our guilt and failed. And Phèdre and Joscelin …the thought of the compassion and understanding they would extend made me cringe inside.

They'd never given up. Never.

But even the mortification of that thought wasn't enough to force me to keep going. The prospect was like a blank wall, unscalable and daunting. I could trek through this trackless wilderness for months. If Berlik was hiding here, I could miss him by a matter of yards. Then spring would come, and he would move onward into even vaster territories. And it wasn't just the sheer difficulty of it. Every step of the journey had chipped away at my will, ever since I arrived in Vralia. Micah ben Ximon, Ethan of Ommsmeer, Rebbe Avraham, my own doubts…all of them had led me to question the merits and cost of this quest.

In the end, it wasn't why I'd chosen to give up.

It just made it easier.

“I'm sorry, love,” I said aloud to Dorelei's spirit. “You deserved better. You always did deserve better from me. But I did my best.”

She would have understood, I thought. Truly understood. Dorelei had never expected the sort of heroism from me that I expected from myself. That the examples of those I loved demanded. All she'd ever wanted from me was honesty and a measure of kindness. And in that, at least, I'd succeeded.

The thought comforted me as I lay down to sleep in my snow wallow, blankets wrapped around my clothing, the farmer's widow's fur hat snug on my head. I watched sparks drift upward from my campfire and listened to my horse snuffle and snort behind the windbreak a few yards away. In the morning, I would think about the rest of my life and how I would begin to live it. Tonight, I didn't.

I fell asleep and slept without dreaming.

I woke to panic.

Not mine; my horse's. Its hooves stamped dully on the packed snow as it let out a low whicker of alarm. I was on my feet before I realized I was awake, fumbling for my sword-hilt with one mittened hand. The fire was burning low, casting a very small circle of light. Somewhere out there in the darkness, somewhat large was moving. Somewhat large enough to make the snow creak and groan. There was a rank, musky smell.

“No,” I said. “Oh, no.”

A bear roared.

My horse trumpeted with sheer equine terror and bolted, breaking its tether. I shouted a curse and dropped my sword, scrambling for the hunting bow. Flung off my mittens and nocked an arrow, tracking the darkness. A vast shadow moved; fast, faster than I remembered. I shot at it and missed. And then it was moving, fleeing. It could have killed me, but it didn't. It fled. Branches snapped in its wake. I ran blindly after it, floundering in the snow and crashing through branches, trying to fit another arrow to the string.

Gone.

I stopped, panting. I'd lost him. I'd also lost my hat, and probably my horse. I wasn't sure I hadn't lost myself. I closed my eyes and willed myself to breathe slowly.

There were stars overhead, but no moon. In the woods, there wasn't enough light by which to see. Still, a fleeing bear leaves a considerable path. I turned around and began the long, tedious process of following it backward by feel.

I don't think I'd chased the bear for more than a few moments, but it seemed like hours before I saw the flickering light of my campfire. With no hat or mittens, I was truly freezing. My horse was gone. I was lucky the fire hadn't gone out. I donned my abandoned mittens, then built up the fire with stiff, trembling hands and huddled beside it. My lungs ached from the exertion. My scars ached from the cold, from the memory the sight of him evoked.

“Damn you, Berlik,” I said aloud. “Why now?”

It was him. I didn't harbor any doubts. In the deep winter of Vralia, any ordinary bear would have been slumbering until spring. I don't know why I'd been so damnably sure his magic was broken. He'd broken the oath he'd sworn on the troth that bound him to his diadh-anam. It didn't seem fair.

Then again, life seldom did. At least not mine.

I dozed a bit, waking periodically to stoke the campfire. Mostly I waited for sunrise. I kept the hunting bow across my lap, an arrow at the ready, because it would have been foolish not to. I didn't really think he'd be back, though. If Berlik had wanted me dead, he would have killed me while I slept. I didn't know what the hell he wanted.

In the morning, I went to find out.

He'd left a trail a blind man could follow. So had my horse, but I reckoned he was halfway to Miroslas by now. I hoped so. And if I followed him, I would lose Berlik's trail. I ate a breakfast of pottage. Scoured my kettle with snow, melted snow to refill my waterskin. I packed my bags, slung them over my shoulder, and began trudging after Berlik.

On that journey, I counted.

It took seven days. On the third day, I shot a hare. That was the best day. The first day was hard. I'd gotten spoiled, riding. Oh, there had been times when I'd have to go afoot, leading my horse up some tricky escarpment, but it hadn't been this endless, grueling trek. And my ears were cold, so cold I feared they'd freeze. I'd hoped to find my fur hat, but some animal had dragged it away during the night. I'd looked for the arrow I'd shot at Berlik, but I couldn't find that, either. When I made camp that evening, I cut a swath of cloth from one of my blankets and wound it around my head. It was good, because I could use it to muffle my face, too.

The fifth day was the worst.

That was the day it snowed. Not so hard that I couldn't see, but heavily; steadily. Big, white flakes, falling straight downward, drifting through the air. Adding another layer to the soft blanket of whiteness.

Obscuring Berlik's trail.

I managed to follow it throughout the day, but the impressions his massive paws had left were growing more shallow. The edges were soft and blurred. I could no longer make out the sharp gouges of his long claws; the claws that had laid open my flesh. That had slain my unborn son. I thought about the day I had met Berlik. I'd asked him what would happen if I challenged him for the mannekin trinket. Berlik had showed me his claws. You do not wish to do that. He'd tapped the croonie-stone around my neck and bade me accept his oath. Told me that I might be grateful for it one day.

“You were wrong about that,” I said aloud.

I hated to make camp that evening, but his trail was growing too faint. There was no way I could follow it in darkness, not even by feel. With my dagger, I made a gash in the bark of a pine tree, indicating its direction. I tossed a few hunks of frozen hare into pot with a handful of grain. There hadn't been a lot of meat on the hare, and I was nearly out of grain. The arrow with which I'd shot the hare had gone clean through it and embedded itself in a tree trunk. When I'd tried to wrestle it loose, the shaft had snapped.

That left me with a hunting bow and two arrows. I'd watched Urist make arrows on the island where we were shipwrecked, carving points and hardening them in the fire. But there had been no end of birdlife there. We'd gathered feathers on the beach for fletching, then plucked better ones from the birds we shot. I didn't have that luxury here.

I tossed my lone dagger end over end, catching the hilt. Joscelin had taught me to throw, of course, and I was a passing fair shot at twenty paces. Mayhap good enough to bring down a hare. Mayhap not.

By my best guess, I wasn't more than three or four days' ride from Miroslas. I'd ridden for a long, long time, but I'd been crisscrossing the land, looking for Berlik. Still, on foot, it was another matter. It might take me weeks. And I might well miss it on my first pass. If I did, it could take days to find it or reach the village beyond.

I should have shot the deer.

Fat snowflakes fell, sizzling where they landed on the embers of my campfire. I sheathed my dagger and stirred the embers with a long stick, then laid a few sturdy branches on the fire. I watched the flames rise, licking at the dry wood. Snow fell, catching in my hair, gathering on my shoulders. Melting on my cheeks like tears. I watched the fire. Showers of sparks, snapping and rising. Golden flames. I thought about Sidonie standing in a shaft of sunlight, her golden hair backlit. Tangled on a pillow. Her eyes, black as a Tatar's, filled with tears.