by Kaas Baichtal
Chapter 2: May
(read chapter 1)
With spring come, the world seemed a wonderland of beauty.
In the chill shadow of the mountains, in the early morning, chokecherries with their dangling white blossoms vied with lilacs and their towers of dusky blooms, their commingled scents heavy on the air. Wild hyacinths strove to complete their life cycle before the trees began to leaf in earnest. Blue-eyed marys clustered amidst blankets of shooting star.
The great black-and-white wall of Schumacher Peak loomed crystal-clear above the chain of valleys, surreal in its immensity.
Once, Tomas had been hale and strong: a huge man, big-bellied and laughing. He'd lived a comfortable life surrounded by friends and family, never looking beyond the borders of his surroundings for a greater truth.
But in the deepest winter, his supplies had run out and he'd survived on acorns and withered sarviceberries and the inner bark of trees. He'd slept in ditches under heaps of branches and frozen leaf mulch and snow. His days had become a blur of frozen tramping onward, chest clenched against the wind, eyelids raw, his gaze turned always toward the snowy flanks of his destination.
As the first rays of sun touched the highest crags this May morning, Tomas once ambrov Naros, once Companion to Sectuib Rayane, knelt in dirt and darkness pinching off the pale curled fiddles of new ferns and devouring them with a hunger that had become his constant state. His former life had been stripped from him. He was a savage, filthy and ragged, his beard tangled and his eyes aglint with a haunted fervor.
It had been twelve months since he left Naros forever.
At the edge of the valley the ground rose steeply. Low trees gave way to brush, boulders and pink clumps of showy phlox.
Arrowleaf balsamroot thrust up everywhere on these higher, drier heights. Gone were its flowers, which along with glacier lilies and buttercups had turned this hillside yellow only two weeks before. Gone also were the grass widows that favored these eastern slopes, and the carpets of five-petalled spring beauty, and the tiny snowflake-like woodland stars.
All seasons save winter passed swiftly here, and the flowers of earliest spring had come and fled while snow still lay in patches all around.
Once, Tomas had been supremely confident in who he was and what he believed in.
He'd been born and raised at Householding Naros -- an idyllic place, wealthy and civilized and insulated from the grisly culture the of the Sime Territory that surrounded it. Outside the walls, junct Simes raised Gens like cattle, killed each month and thought any other way of life a perversion. Inside Naros, protected from danger, Simes and Gens lived together in peace under the benevolent leadership of their Sectuib. That peace was possible because of channels, specially bred Simes who possessed the power to take selyn or life energy from Gens without killing them and pass it on to ordinary renSimes in need.
Like the sweetest fruits or most fragrant herbs in Naros' greenhouses, the channels had been bred for generation upon generation, becoming gentler and more open and ever more willing to serve, until their very Simeness seemed at times an illusion. Sectuib Rayane was the pinnacle of those generations of effort, beautiful and wise and possessed of such kindness, such spiritual grace, that even the wildest of Gens found it difficult to fear his touch and even the most brutal of Simes could not resist his offering of selyn.
But channels were indeed Simes, and had a Sime's hungers. They too required selyn, and their needs were tremendous compared to those of ordinary Simes because their powers did not come cheaply. And so there were also Companions, Gens trained to produce so much selyn that ordinary renSimes were blinded by awe of them. Tomas' mother had been a Companion and so he too was born with the capacity to become one. And it had seemed since birth that he was destined for Sectuib Rayane, that most sublime of channels, because he was always given the best place in the teachings and the best spot by the fire, and the mothers and the fathers had looked between the shining boy-child Tomas and the soft, speculative gray eyes of their Sectuib and knew what he was thinking.
After Tomas came of age, there were ten long years when he did serve Sectuib Rayane, and served him willingly and with pride and love, watching as the channel cared for the great flock that was the membership of Naros, healing injury and providing selyn and giving the advice and guidance that only a true leader can give.
And then that blissful interlude had ended, in pain and devastation and the ugliness of leaving.
And it was all because of the way Tomas' mother died.
The mountain shone a blinding white, surrounded by a corona of fast-moving clouds. The sky ruled him now, bringing the sun and the snow and the rain that held total power over whether he lived or died. The mid-morning sun touched the tip of the ridge and Tomas stopped to gather that warmth. He understood now that it was precious. Wind whipped his tattered clothes and knotted hair, freezing his shadow side.
From above, the next valley in the chain looked much like others he'd passed through in recent days: uninhabited and wild, with lush green surrounding a mirror-like lake. But there was a faint haze, and a scent: evidence of cookfires. There were human beings living in this valley. It was the first sign of civilization he'd come across in nearly a month.
Tomas was nearly on top of the border. He'd been dogging it for weeks as he made his slow way around Schumacher Peak, trying to come around to the proper side of it.
Therefore there was no telling whether it was a Genhold or a Sime encampment in this valley. In a Sime society he would have no legitimacy except as the property of a Sime, and he had thrown down his Narosian membership - and therefore, the protection of Rayane's ownership - when he had left. Even if he'd possessed proof of ownership, in this isolated wilderness even the Border Patrol might decide to overlook the law.
But at least Simes did not use distance weapons, and at close range his Companion's training could be used as a nageric weapon against them. His fellow Gens, on the other hand, carried guns or in the most primitive cases spears or bows. His nager would have no effect upon them. He no longer had anything they would want, making him not a potential prize, but a trespasser and a threat. Naros meant nothing to them; in fact if they knew of it he'd be marked a Sime collaborator and therefore fit only for instant execution.
He would have to tread lightly, passing as quickly through as possible no matter what larity humans lived here.
Tomas' mother had not been born at Naros. She had come from far away, brought naked and shackled in a wagon full of other Gens. Wild Gens, born in Gen Territory and captured by raiders to provide kills for prosperous Simes.
The juncts put her up at auction at a kill-yard, priced high because wild Gens make better kills than farm-bred, and because she was already pregnant with Tomas. For those same reasons, the people of Naros chose her out of the thousands of Gens sold there that day. They bought her to save her life. And by the time Tomas was born, she had made her decision to stay.
As did many who came to the Householding as refugees, Tomas' mother declined to speak of her past. She said only that she had cared for children in the Gen town that was raided and that the family she'd worked for were now scattered and lost. Why she had the capacity to be a Companion, and how she'd gotten some of a Companion's training, was a secret that was never revealed.
By the time Tomas was adult and had served those ten years as Rayane's Companion, his mother seemed to have been Narosian forever, integrated tightly into Narosian society with friends, lovers, channels she'd served, and parents whose children she'd helped raise all gathered around her.
But hidden in Tomas' coat pocket there was a tiny book, handwritten, containing the rites and teachings of a religion nobody at Naros had known his mother practiced. The book had been found in her possession when she died.
The book was worn by decades of being thumbed through. On its cover was stamped an emblem of a walled Householding surrounded by mountains and nestled beneath the wings of a flying dove. The seal bore the words In Sacrifice Lies Salvation.
The mountain drawn directly behind the Householding was Schumacher Peak.
And that Householding was Tomas' destination.
The sound of rushing water permeated all, coldwater brooks fed by slow-melting snow interwoven through the woods. As Tomas descended into the new valley he splashed into bogs of soft dark green reeds, shouldered through red-branched dogwood brush studded with tight flat clusters of vanilla-colored flowers. Bright yellow skunk cabbage and white trillium bloomed along the water's edges. Crabapple trees flowered white or pink or even, in the case of one purple-leafed specimen, wine-red. Tucked into the deepest shade, a fairy slipper orchid grew up from the base of a rotted stump.
He spotted muskrats, river otters and salamanders -- and once, a newborn baby moose standing knee deep in water, listening.
Tomas scanned the moist dark earth for wild asparagus and ferns, ready to kneel in an instant to pinch off the tips. And wintergreen berries, what few might remain. And grass, from which he could pluck tender white center shoots. And camas and young watercress from the edges of pools, dug up with fingers white with cold and clumsy with eagerness. He was ravenous.
With so many stops, travel was slow.
It was near noon when he came to the edge of the broad band of cattails that sprang up thickly around the lake. There he found the cloven prints of deer returned from the lowlands for the season. Balls of black dung marked the nearby presence of a bear. And etched into the ground circumscribing the lake was a dirt track scuffed by human feet both bare and shod. The faint shape of the true road it had once been could still be seen in the trees, in the land.
Across the water, a heavy clump of woods was the source of the faint signs of human presence. Beyond it and farther along the shore were broad wild-grown pastures dotted with grayed sagging barns and collapsed outbuildings, piles of lumber crowned by patches of weeds, the occasional lone silo standing capless but erect. A thin mist gave the scene a contemplative air, as if the valley pondered a slow return to virginity.
Soon enough he'd pass through the village proper. But for now, Tomas shifted his pack higher on his back and waded into the water to pull up cattails.
So long ago it seemed only a dream, he had left Naros a huge fat man astride a powerful plowhorse, leading the horse's mate behind him loaded with all of the supplies he'd require. That was when he still believed in the essential goodness of humanity and the necessity of generosity and kindness.
But so quickly he'd learned that in the outside world, he was not Tomas. He was prey and a resource. His possessions were for the taking, and he was for the killing or the casting aside.
The horses were the first to go, only two weeks after he'd left home. He'd thought he was safe enough camping in Gen Territory, and then out of the darkness beyond the firelight emerged two Gens armed with guns, wearing the overalls and muddy boots of farmers. The younger one seemed frightened and never spoke. He just stood back with his weapon trained on Tomas and his face white and still. The older one was grim, his voice harsh. It was the voice of survival, Tomas knew now. Plow horses, even old ones past their reasonable working days, might mean the difference between life and death for a subsistence farmer. Or for a Wild Gen willing and able to eat meat.
And Tomas meant nothing to them, just as the baby mice mean nothing to the owl that seizes upon the mother. To those who ran across him Tomas had even less history, less future, than he had to himself.
After the loss of the horses he'd been forced to abandon many of his tools and supplies. He had not the strength or the means to carry it all alone. He was not used to travelling on foot. He'd shocked himself by considering burying what he left behind. Two weeks out of Naros, and already Narosian generosity was leaching from his heart, bleeding out onto an unfamiliar roadside.
In the end he'd left the things lying in the open, hoping that someone kind would find them and be benefitted.
He'd been robbed many time since, and no longer believed there was such a thing as kindness. Not in the outside world.
As the sun moved toward early afternoon, Tomas crouched slowly drying upon the trail, pack stuffed with the hard green unripened heads of cattails, stripping cattail stalks and splitting them to get at the white parts. As he chewed, Tomas' eyes lingered on the steely gray lines of Shumacher's Peak. Somewhere up there was a Householding, a place where Simes and Gens lived in peace. A place like Naros, but different. Better. Sometimes it seemed only a dream. At other times -- like now -- it seemed to tremble within arm's reach, just beyond the next ridge.
His chapped fingers fumbled at his breast pocket, feeling for the book. Still there. Good.
In these valleys the earth was oversaturated in spring, and likely throughout the summer. Farmers would have to drain their fields using canals and ditches, then dig raised beds. Expensive, and time consuming. The extra time in combination with the short growing season would cost them the use of certain crops.
Alfalfa would not tolerate wet soil. The wild hay that would flourish on it was significantly lower in nutrition. Horses and cattle here would be small and tough. If the only hay these people had was in those wild-grown pastures, it'd be full of weeds and purple loosestrife. Easier to let the animals graze than to try to harvest.
For food or Genfeed, they might plant beans, hardy corn, rye, and barley. If they had no plows or draft animals, beans, corn, squash and potatoes could be cultivated by hand on small patches.
If they had no agriculture at all, they would have no choice but to live off the land itself.
At the edge of the woods, he startled a young woman crouched along a rushing brook.
She jumped up and whirled to face him, eyes darting, a muddy stick gripped in one hand and a pair of lily roots in the other.
She was young, but clearly adult. Her hard sunbrowned limbs carried an adult Gen's muscle and a scattering of dark hairs about her lip and chin attested to her maturity. Her eyes were darkly secret, like the surface of the water in a well. Her coarse black hair was tied back. Her clothing was little more than rags, her feet wrapped in crude slippers made of what looked like rabbit pelt.
She stared at him, her expression stunned. She took in the details of him almost as if he was some strange new animal never before seen in the woods. Maybe he was.
As for Tomas, he too was frozen. For all his bad experiences in the outside world, he was Narosian and therefore social and suddenly the need for human companionship hit him with a crushing blow. When she turn and ran from him, it felt as if she ripped free from inside him, leaving a gaping wound.
As she pounded wildly away from him up the path toward the village, he could only stare after her, heart thudding. Now he knew what kind of place this was.
It was a Gen village in its final death throes.
Growing up at Naros Tomas had learned strange and awful tales, carried by Gen refugees come to Naros to heal or to find a place.
Deep in Gen territory, far from the cankers that were the Sime Territories, Gen societies had remained stable and viable through ruthless and effective measures. Some wrapped their children's arms in manacles so they would be unable to kill, would die of attrition should they become Sime. Others ritually scarred their children's arms, so damaging the nerve pathways that a changeover would most likely never reach completion. But the oldest and most permanent of Gen societies treated their teenaged children as prisoners, locking them up where they were monitored day and night by eagle-eyed observers well trained to recognize the symptoms of changeover. Those who did become Sime were quickly euthanized, often before the tentacles broke out of the skin. Those who began to menstruate or grow beards or otherwise show irrefutable signs of young Genhood were released back to their parents. To avoid this system was to break the law. The streets were safe. Kills were almost unheard of. It was said that the core of Gen Territory was so stable that some areas still retained unbroken vestiges of Ancient technology: factories, large scale agricultural processing, and rail transport.
And then there were tiny Gen villages that managed success very near the borders, through a combination of fanaticism and diligence. Often purely agricultural, they required every free hand for labor, even children. Raids by adult Simes from over the border were too common an occurrence for the changeover of their own children to be the primary threat. These most primitive success stories showed Gens in their fundamental state: the true herd, quick to pull their pre-Gens into the protective center, quick to band together to repel predators, quick to notice signs of difference in the children among them and to quietly snuff them out.
But here in the mountains the risk of death by puma, bear, or bengal was as great as the risk of death by raiding Sime. The risk of starvation or death by exposure was as great as the risk of changeover. And a Gen was at least as likely to be robbed or injured by another Gen as by a Sime or some unthinking beast.
Here, neither the lockstep legal conformity of the big cities or the herd-family of the rural communes was sustainable. Instead, the climate and terrain bred isolationism and suspicion. The response to emergencies was less concerted, less alert. Accidents happened more often. Changeover victims stood a better chance of finishing changeover, becoming berserkers hunting their first kill. Berserkers stood a better chance of succeeding in finding that first kill, and there was a better chance they could escape unscathed afterward.
And then, because there was no where else for them to go, young Simes returned to kill again and again, lurking in the environs of their home village trying to pick off invididuals foolish enough or desperate enough to venture the woods alone and out of earshot. Those Simes might ultimately be shot, or might live an entire summer, killing many times and perishing only when winter set in rendering secretive survival all but impossible.
Gens bred but twice in three years - twice in five years if you subtracted changeovers - and junct Simes killed once a month if not more often. Even one Sime kill per month could wipe a small village out.
Ghost towns were a common sight on the borders, where unsuccessful attempts to take hold had ended when raiders had taken an entire village prisoner, or when plague or poverty had driven the last residents away. Common enough, in fact, that most Sime towns had been founded upon such ruins, when some raiderband or another had decided one day to simply stop moving onward.
Judging from the extent of the ruins Tomas now walked through, this had once been a town that succeeded. Perhaps the border had been farther away, then, or perhaps in this isolate region the hamlet had existed since the days of Ancients and had faded away only by slow and painful degrees.
But however it had happened, at some point in its none-too-recent past something had changed that tipped the balance toward a decline. This was a village in the process of unravelling into survivalist pockets and finally into extinction.
In the center of the village, little more than a widening of the road, the villagers were waiting for him.
At their fore, a man carried a shotgun and sat astride a stocky chestnut pony. Behind him were ranked the core of the villagers, a perilously small group. They were clean and healthy, dressed in sturdy work clothes and carrying tools and implements of labor. Here, an apron coated in flour. There, a sweating hand still gripping a forge hammer. That group stood shoulder-to-shoulder, united in the face of his invasion.
But beyond them, beyond the cover of shamrock and wintergreen that bordered the road, beyond the ramshackle wood structures that huddled along it, others watched from the edges of the woods. Ragged and dirty, bruised, hunted. No doubt they lived in marginal conditions. They were probably the first to be stalked when a Sime was at large in the woods surrounding. They were probably the least able to defend. They were the buffer between wild Simes and the core.
Tomas did not stop walking. That might be fatal. He would walk right past them, and keep walking right out of their lives.
"Who are you, and what have you come here for?" the man on horseback demanded in a thick dialect of the Genlan. His gun was levelled directly at Tomas and there was no question that he would use it if he had to.
Tomas held up his hands, showing that his arms had no tentacles.
"My name is Tomas," he said loudly and clearly. "I intend no harm. I only want to pass through in peace. My destination is farther up the mountain."
He pointed toward Schumacher Peak, and the villagers whispered and spoke to one another.
"Why would you go up beyond?" demanded one old man wizened by weather and hardship. His voice was suspicious, yet carried hints of fear and awe. "There is nothing there."
"It is the Wolf's country," said a middle aged woman wearing a stained apron and carrying a mixing spoon half-forgotten in her fist. The others nodded and voiced their agreement.
"It's death to go there. There is no road and nowhere to go on one. None I know has ever gone that way and returned."
"None have gone that way since I have been alive."
As they said these things, they stared at him as if he had fallen to earth with a thunderclap, and was striding through their village wielding a lightning streamer in his hand.
And he knew that though they could not zlin his nager the way Simes could, they could see the force-of-will and proud carriage that were his because he was a Companion. And through his voice, and his intensity, they would be able to taste his obsession.
He knew that it was within his power to save these people, to turn them back from the brink of extinction and breathe life into their community again. Heal it, make it flourish.
He had been Rayane's Companion, after all. To serve mere ordinary renSimes such as these people's Sime offspring would be, would be child's play for him. It was tempting, in its way. Any Narosian would want to help, seeing these people living in this poverty. He could step in and save them all, draw this community together in lack-of-fear, becoming their Sosectu - the Gen equivalent to Rayane - serving the Simes in transfer not by taking the selyn from other Gens, but from the tremendous font of his own Companion's nager.
And then with his Narosian education and modern knowledge of agriculture he could help them rebuild, teach those who had forgotten or never known how to grow crops. Teach them how to rebuild their homes, their workplaces, and how to do the same with their relationships with their fellow villagers. Welcome back the outsiders from their fringes. Teach them how to stand strong against the only true enemy in the world: the kill.
He could find a wife and marry, and his children would most likely be channels or, if Gen, have the potential to be Companions. They could follow in his footsteps. A Householding could be founded here, free and safe and full of joy and peace.
But obsession had driven him from Naros, and it would drive him ever onward until he reached his goal. He had seen countless communities on his road, and all of them had triggered his Narosian altruism, and any one of them could have become his new home. And he had turned away from all of them.
Only one thing mattered: the book, and where it'd come from, and the power it had over those who believed in it fully.
"No," said Tomas, speaking to all of them now, even those peering from among the trees. "There is a village. My mother came from there, and I've walked for a year to find it."
In their eyes, he saw the same lack of understanding, the same doubt of his sanity, that he'd seen in the eyes of the other Narosians in the end. To these simple folk, the walls of this valley were as opaque as Naros' walls were to its members. The vast mountain wastes surrounding this valley were as terrifying to these people as the junct Sime culture of raiding, killing, and Genbreeding was to the Narosians who lived isolated from but surrounded by it. Anyone who would willingly breach that safety to go forth into the horrors of the outside must be seriously misguided.
Or deeply inspired.
And he saw there fear and respect too, as if madness and inspiration were held in awe here. He could walk away. They would not dare block his path.
In the beginning, all of Naros was as stunned as Tomas.
That his mother had been willing to step forward, they understood; any one of the Companions would have done it to protect an ordinary Gen. But she had just served a channel in transfer and was low-field, too low-field to serve the junct safely. The attacker had been an outsider and an enemy. Naros owed him nothing, and as a Companion Tomas' mother had had the skill and training to invite selyn transfer but then shen him - reject him - in the moment of his commitment, destroying him instantly. It is what any of them would have done. And it was only sensible - how many other lives would she have saved had she lived? She was a Companion, trained to serve channels who saved dozens of lives every month. Instead she had thrown her life away to save the junct.
Thrown it away to uphold beliefs written out the tiny book.
In Sacrifice Lies Salvation.
In Tomas' desperation to understand, he learned that there were others. They were rare, but the stories were saved and retold, in tones of hushed wonder and no little skepticism: stories of wild-caught Gens who had gone willingly to the kill and died with a smile.
He wrote to the other Householdings that existed embedded like tiny secretive jewels in the filth of Sime Territory. Frihill, the House of historical scholarship, and Zeor, the archwizards of channeling research. He wrote to the government of Norwest Sime Territory, asking for their data on accounts of bizarre kills. His letters were sent in Sectuib Rayane's name because though the juncts thought Rayane was a pervert, he was still a Sime and he was still wealthy, while Gens like Tomas were simply animals. And Rayane humored Tomas for a time, because Rayane was indulgent beyond reason.
But others did not want to speak of it. First because they felt it disrespectful of his mother's memory, and later, much more powerfully, because they were sick of it and everything about it. Tomas' obsession began to tell upon his friendships.
And Tomas, because he could think of nothing else, did not notice.
He took over a small house so that he would have room for the crates of notes and letters he was accumulating, and for months he spent all his time holed up in it.
Tiny bits of data, isolated incidents, and accounts drawn from all over Norwest and some of the other Territories began to yield intriguing patterns. Stories gleaned from Gen Territory born refugees added even weirder elements: stories of "mother's helpers" hired to survive a changeover's attempt at a First Kill, and "Sime-runners" who smuggled those changeover victims out of Gen Territory, never to be seen again.
He drew maps, tracing the locations of the abnormal Gens and the different places they were rumored to have lived. And between scraps of data and hearsay and things that had been said in interrogations and even the perusal of Ancient roadmaps, he finally calculated where their base of operations must be: far up in the mountains in a place that had been wilderness even in Ancient times.
Garlen teaches, said the little book, that the world will not know peace until parent does not fear child and child does not fear parent. Therefore we must go forth and take the place between them. For salvation lies not in preaching, but in physical and spiritual self-sacrifice.
And Tomas realized, for the first time, that that was what Naros did: it stayed behind its walls and preached. Not its physical walls; Narosians went out and helped the surrounding peoples with growing food and with health care and education. It was their conceptual walls they did not pass. They did not stop the hordes of juncts from killing, nor from selling their children who Established as Gen. Could not stop them, or so it was said. It was simply too great a task. It was the same with Zeor and Keon and Carre and all the rest. They did not fight the kill so much as exist alongside it.
But the Householdings Tomas had already known about were not, as he'd been raised to believe, the only lights of hope in the world. Now he knew there were other people fighting the kill in other ways, silently and humbly. Directly on the front lines, among the changeover victims and their families, among the juncts and their Pens, struggling to overcome the evil of the kill from within the killing beast itself. One self-sacrifice at a time.
And the shock and loss from his mother's death and the chilling, yet soaring feeling of inspiration he felt when his data fell together, and the yearning to truly make a difference, all combined together to make his heart burn with a fire he'd never known before and did not know how to handle.
Nobody else understood how he felt. No one would even listen to him, except for Rayane. Rayane would listen to anyone, even little children who babbled about daisy chains and dolls and baby kittens. But when he listened to Tomas, his eyes would grow sad, and he'd place his hand gently on Tomas', and say nothing.
Tomas had never, even once, actually considered leaving Naros and seeking out the place where the followers of Garlen came from.
But then one day he noticed a young girl, twelve years old and not yet Sime or Gen but expected to come of age at any time. Beautiful, as all Narosians from the older families were, with brown-gold hair and a shy smile. Kneeling at Rayane's knee at a gathering, enjoying all of the attention. And Rayane had touched her face, his fingers and tentacles cupping her jaw, and he'd smiled, his smoke-gray eyes filled with wistfulness and tenderness. And all the fathers and mothers had nodded in satisfaction, knowing.
Knowing that when she Established as a Gen, this child would take Tomas' place as Rayane's Companion.
And she did.
Beyond the village, the path ended suddenly in a tiny glade knobbed with the roots of trees and feathered with new sweet grass. In its center, picked out by shifting patterns of light, was an Ancient headstone so worn its letters had faded nearly away. Still it could be read by one trained in the Ancient Genlan:
Beyond the Veil of Tears
My beloved Wife lies
Whose all-seeing Ghost
Seeing into my heart
Must surely weep.
Beyond this Sacred Grave
Lies sorrow's trackless land.
O Lord, I travel onward alone
Save for your Word.
Poison ivy grew up in a thicket behind it, and beyond that the ground sloped upward in earnest, rocky and bare in the embrace of a profusion of clutching firs.
Tomas caught a tiny sound behind him and spun to look back. He saw that someone had followed him on foot and was watching from a distance. It was the spooky young woman who he'd encountered first of all the villagers. She stared at him the way renSimes often did: as if she desired to take him, to possess him, to consume him and all that he owned. Her face showed her fear and fascination clearly.
Tomas turned his shoulders and faced her directly, letting her know that he was dangerous, he was not safe to approach, he was off limits. He'd been robbed too many times. He would fight if she tried it.
But she only hung back and watched him, her black eyes burning with a strange light. She seemed in that moment more animal than human, as if she lived permanently in that eerie mental space Tomas had found when he survived the winter alone and unaided.
The place to which Tomas would return in the days and weeks ahead.
And he thought, that is how I once looked upon the refugees who came to Naros then passed onward. Wondered how they could stand to leave what seemed the center of all the universe, to press into that black unknown beyond.
And if he could have, he would have told her. It had happened with accusations and shame. It had happened with discord and the shattering of Narosian peace.
First he had destroyed his own place in his House, through his obsession. And then though he could have stayed on, unliked and unmatched, having his selyn milked from him each month for distribution to renSimes, he had chosen instead to lash out and make sure he'd never have a place there again.
Oh, the look in Rayane's eyes, when Tomas had repudiated his House and cast down his ring in front of everybody. Helpless and betrayed and yet with a darker, more steely glint, because gentle as Rayane was, the part of Naros that would shen a junct rather than sacrifice one of its own had not yet been bred out of him.
When Tomas knew she would come no closer, he turned and walked away, toward the stony rise that would take him away from this valley and farther on his journey. He could feel her stare on his back as she was slowly left behind.
He knew what she had offered by following him this far. Silently, she had held out to him a place in the ragged pack that was this place's human border. Perhaps he could have been happy here. Perhaps he could have helped. Helped the whole village, or perhaps helped only her.
But since he had left Naros he had turned his back on many people and their homes. And however long her eyes might haunt him, they would never outlast Rayane's.
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