Kushiel's Justice (Page 81)

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Just come home.

“I'll try,” I murmured. “Swear to Elua, I'll try, Sun Princess.”

The silent snow continued falling.

I slept fitfully and woke to a world of pristine whiteness. Somewhere in the night, the snow had ceased. Tall pines stood shrouded in white, the dawn breaking over them. The world seemed hushed and sacred. I could understand why a god would seek to built a kingdom here.

There was no sign of Berlik's trail.

It was gone, gone so thoroughly it might never have existed. I shrugged off my snow-covered blankets. I built the fire back up from its embers and boiled the last of my grain, eating it methodically with my fingers. Melted snow and refilled my waterskin. After a few errors, I found the tree I'd marked and brushed off the snow covering my mark. It pointed deeper into the forest, all of which was covered in a dense blanket of snow.

Trees and snow, nothing else.

I sighed, shouldered my pack, and began trudging.

Chapter Fifty-Eight

There were no tracks, but there was bear sign.As a boy in the mountains of Siovale, I'd been taught to look for it. Patches on trees where the bark had been rubbed smooth. Clumps of coarse hair. I'd never seen any near the sanctuary, but I'd been taught to look.

I looked.

It was hard. Snow covered everything. But here and there, I found it. From what I could determine, Berlik had been travelling in a straight line. I followed in the direction I'd marked, looking for broken branches. Looking for tufts of hair poking through their coating of snow.

Whenever I found one, I made a fresh mark. When I didn't, I backtracked along my own trail to the last mark, adjusted my angle, and tried anew.

I didn't find him on the sixth day. I did find a fox, which I tried to kill by throwing my dagger at it. It dodged effortlessly the moment my arm came forward. By the time I retrieved my dagger, it was gone. My empty stomach growled. When I saw one of the other animals digging beneath a tree, one of the ones I couldn't put a name to, I dropped my mittens and nocked an arrow. The creature scurried, a dark, anxious blur moving over the snow. I swung the bow wildly in an effort to track it, shot, and missed.

I lost that arrow, too.

It wasn't that I was careless or unobservant. There was just so much forest, so much snow. It could swallow up a castle without noticing. A man was nothing; an arrow, less. I tramped around searching for the better part of an hour before giving up. The quest I had abandoned compelled me.

On the evening of the sixth day, I made camp and melted snow for my dinner. I drank as much as I could hold, and more. Water was good, water was life. I'd learned that in the desert when I travelled to Meroë with Phèdre and Joscelin.

I could live for days on water.

I could die on it, too.

It was snowing when I awoke on the seventh day. Not hard; almost idly, as though the snow were an afterthought. I felt a little weak, but clearheaded. I drank deep of snowmelt, then broke camp and struck out once more. It was another day like the others, filled with searching and backtracking.

Except that I found him.

If Miroslas had seemed like a mirage, I have no words to describe my reaction upon finding Berlik's cabin. It was small, very small. It stood in a tiny glade I could easily have missed. When I found it, I stood for a time and simply stared, my mouth agape. There were gaps between the rough-hewn logs of which it was composed. He must have built it himself.

I set down my pack and took up the hunting bow. Elua, it seemed like a long time since I'd borrowed it from the Shahrizai lodge. I nocked my last arrow and trudged across the glade. Around the cabin, the snow was packed hard, gouged by bear-claws and boot-heels alike.

I kicked the door open.

It wasn't much of a door, not really. It hung on leather hinges, sagging a little. Inside, the cabin was empty. No Berlik. Only strips of salted meat, hanging from the rafter poles to cure. There was a crude stone hearth in the center of the room, but the hearth was cold. A pallet of pine-boughs in the corner, covered in blankets and furs. On one wall, there was a cross; a pair of branches tied together with dried sinew. I surveyed it all, breathing hard.

Empty.

My heart ached. I was so tired.

There had been a tree outside. An oak tree, a barren tree. Dry branches reaching toward a stark, snowy sky. It nudged at my memory. There had been a tree in Dorelei's vision. I went outside. Trudged toward the tree, arrow nocked.

I would have seen him before if I'd looked more closely, but I'd been fixed on the cabin. He was sitting beneath the tree, still and motionless, watching me. A man, not a bear. There was an axe not far away from him, embedded in a stump, but his hands were empty, resting quietly atop his knees. As I approached, he stirred.

I aimed at his heart. “Don't move.”

He did, though, rising to his feet. “I will not harm you.”

My fingers trembled on the bowstring. “I've heard that before.”

“This time it is true,” he said in his deep voice. “I ask only that you kill me like a man, not a beast. Put down the bow.”

“Damn you!” I shouted at him. “Why? Why here, why now? If you wanted to die, I'd have been glad to oblige you in Alba! Why?”

“So many questions.” Berlik tilted his head and gazed at the sky. “It's beautiful here, don't you think? Wilder than Alba.” He looked back at me. “When first I fled,” he mused, “there was no thought behind it, only horror at what I had done. It seemed to me that perhaps if I fled far enough, I could carry it away from my people.”

“And did you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Not all of it. Only my death, freely offered, can make atonement. And only at your hands, for it was to you I swore the oath I broke.” He was silent for a moment. “I would not have believed redemption was possible were it not for the Yeshuites. I broke an oath I swore on my diadh-anam. When I met them, I was a broken man.”

“And Yeshua healed you?” I asked coldly.

“Yes.” Berlik smiled. “He made me believe that the gods themselves are capable of forgiveness. That mayhap the Brown Bear of the Maghuin Dhonn herself would forgive me for breaking my oath to save our people.”

My throat tightened. “Then why seek death?”

“Because it is the price,” he said simply. “I am not a child of Yeshua ben Yosef. His sacrifice cannot pay the price for me.”

My arms were beginning to shake with the effort of holding the bow drawn. Berlik watched me without comment. I sighed and lowered the bow, although I kept the arrow nocked. “And yet you hung Yeshua's cross on your wall.”

“Yes.” Berlik nodded. “To remind me.” He was silent for a moment. “I do not know if it is presumptuous to call a god a friend, but if there is any god who would not mind, it is Yeshua ben Yosef. When Ethan first spoke of him, I thought it was a terrible thing to worship a god who let himself fall so low, who let himself be mocked and struck and hung to die like a criminal. But I came to see it. I came to see that he is the one god who understands what it is to fall low. That when every other face is turned away from you, he is the friend who is there, not only for the innocent, but for the guilty, too. For the thieves and murderers and oath-breakers alike, Yeshua is there.”

I wanted to weep. “It doesn't change anything.”

“It changed my heart,” Berlik said. “And that is not a small thing.” There was another heavy pause. “I prayed,” he said. “I left a trail for you to follow, and I prayed that if you found me, the diadh-anam would accept my sacrifice as atonement, and not punish all of her people for my failure. When my magic returned to me, here in the woods, I knew it was so.”

“Did you have to make it so hard?” I asked wearily.

“Would you have come here with a humble heart if I had not?” he asked.

“Probably not,” I said. “Would it have mattered?”

“It does to me,” Berlik said gravely. “It is my death. And I would have you understand what it is you are here to do. You could not do that with a heart filled with nothing but anguish and hatred.”

I gave a short, bitter laugh. “So now I am here to do your bidding.”

“We were never enemies, Imriel de la Courcel,” he said. “If I had the chance to live my life a second time, I would do many things differently. I would not be so proud in seeking to force the future into a shape of my liking. I would place greater trust in the providence of our ancient diadh-anam, and less in my own gifts. I would have forced Morwen to give back the mannekin.” He smiled sadly. “You told her it was not wise to cross D'Angelines in matters of love, that your Elua disliked it. I did not think his will could prevail on Alban soil. There were so many threads, so many futures. We were frightened. She thought that if we could control you, if we could bind you with your own desire, we could alter our fate.”

I remembered the sorrow in his face. “You knew she was wrong.”

“I feared it,” he said softly. “I was not sure. Enough to offer my oath and pray you took it in friendship and trust. Not enough to gainsay her. There was one path, one future …the child of both worlds, your child and hers, that could have brought a time of glory to Alba. That path, you refused. And in the end, Morwen was not wholly wrong. She, too, paid a terrible price.”

It was growing late in the day. The light was dimming, the trees casting long shadows. I was tired and cold and hungry. ” 'Tis all well and good to admit to mistakes and say there might have been a better way,” I said. “Elua knows, I've made enough mistakes of my own. But you'd do it again if you had to, wouldn't you? Kill Dorelei and our son?

“For my people?” Berlik asked. “Yes. We are few. The Maghuin Dhonn will continue to diminish, to mingle and blend with the other folk of Alba. In time, we may become a memory. But we will not be stamped from the face of the earth, all our sacred places destroyed, our magic broken and our lore forgotten. And it may be that we have a role yet to play.” He gazed at me with his pale, somber eyes. “You would have done the same. I pray you never have to make such a choice.”

I was silent.

Berlik sighed. “It grows late. Shall we be done with it?”

I swallowed. “I suppose.”

He knelt heavily in the snow. Even kneeling, he was a big man. He bowed his head and murmured a prayer, too low for me to hear, then raised his head and gazed up at me, snow falling on his face, catching in his shaggy black hair. “Let me die like a man. Please.”

I put down the hunting bow and drew my sword.

“Thank you.” Berlik smiled, genuine and startling. Somehow he looked humble despite it. There were tears in his pale eyes. He searched my face. “I'm so sorry. I promise you, it was swift. She felt no pain, only a moment's fear.”

I nodded. “I'll try to do the same.”

“My avenging angel,” he said. “Thank you.”

I nodded again, unable to speak. Berlik bowed his head. His coarse locks parted, revealing the nape of his neck. My blood beat hard in my veins and hammered in my ears like the sound of bronze wings clashing. I raised my sword high overhead in a two-handed grip. I was Kushiel's scion, here to administer his justice. For the sake of Dorelei, her life cut short too soon. For the sake of our unborn child. For the sake of the love I hoped to deserve.

For the sake of us all.

I was here to accept Berlik's sacrifice and to atone for my own sins. We had both transgressed against the wills of our gods. This was our moment of redemption. The gods had brought us here for a purpose.

And I understood for the first time what it meant that the One God's punisher had loved his charges too well.

“I'm sorry,” I whispered.

I brought the sword down hard, hard enough to shear through bone. Berlik's neck gaped and his head lolled. His body slumped. Crimson blood spurted, vivid against the white snow. I raised the sword again and struck a second blow, severing his head from his body. It rolled free. I could see his face. His eyes, framed by the woad claw-marks, were closed.

He looked peaceful.

Blood seeped steadily into the snow from the trunk of his neck, the flow slowing as his heart ceased to drive it. More snow fell from above, flakes drifting aimlessly. A light wind sprang up, stirring the snow on the ground, making it swirl around us. Not a storm, just a breeze. It was pretty, really; or at least it should have been.

Berlik was right. It was beautiful here.

Beneath the shadow of a barren oak tree, I fell to my knees and wept as though my heart were breaking.

Chapter Fifty-Nine

I built a funeral pyre for him.I didn't know what else to do. I kept his head, shoving it into Urist's leather sack. I couldn't bring myself to boil it down to the skull. I could barely bring myself to look at it. I hung it outside in the trees where scavengers couldn't get it, and let it freeze.

His body, I burned.

It took the better part of a day to gather sufficient wood for the pyre, but at least I had shelter and an ample supply of food. Berlik must have brought down one of those big deer. There was meat enough to last for weeks, and none of it spoiled. Even without the salt, it was cold enough to freeze in the cabin.

I built the pyre with dry branches and deadfalls, and dragged his frozen, headless body atop it. I lit it with the flint striker given to me long ago, and watched Berlik burn. His limbs twisted. The branches snapped and crackled.

“I'm sorry,” I whispered again.

I slept on his pallet of pine-boughs, beneath the furs he'd gathered. I stuffed my bags with strips of salted meat. I wondered if Rebbe Avraham had given him the sack of salt I found in the cabin. I wondered what the Rebbe would make of my killing him. Of the fact that it was at Berlik's request.