They were a matched set now, Aldous moving east from the city in the wake of Cressus and Vana, and Weiss moving east from the village in the wake of his own credulousness. On horseback, Aldous was making better time than Weiss, but they had to swing far to the north to get around the bog that had almost swallowed up Weiss, and so for the remainder of the night the distance between them was not much closed.
By dawn, though, Weiss was stumbling again, slow and weary and weighted, and Cressus and Aldous switched horses so that Aldous with her slight form could give Cressus’ mount a respite. They reached the first near the tenth bell and it was there, tied to a tree, that they found Terrick and heard his story. Weiss, travelling in the company of a Thron woman. Terrick was given a horse, and Aldous rode with Cressus. She could feel the anger crackling through his skin. It was whirring and buzzing against her chest, and she liked that, though it frightened her too. Weiss, Weiss, what are you doing?
At about midday, as Aldous was sharing dustbread and a flask of whiskey with Cressus, his electric anger suddenly hardened into glass before her eyes. She followed his gaze and saw two women travelling along the road out from the village. One of the women wore the simple belted tunic and linen headscarf of a farm worker, but the other was a Thron. You could see it even at that distance. Long black braid down her back, skin even darker than the tanned skin of the village woman. She wore a strange, loose-draped dress of deep coppery-gold, and she was leading a village woman away from her home. Aldous barely had time to register all this when Cressus and Vana wordlessly kicked the horses into a gallop. Aldous was clinging to Cressus’ back but she could feel everything in him flowing forward, reaching furiously for the Thron and her victim, and she thought in surprise that if she fell off the horse now, Cressus would likely not even notice.
Despite the bright midday sun, everything felt strangely cold and crystalline. Vana was low on the neck of her horse, a black river with her black hair and black tunic and black knifebelt. Cressus was a mountain, an icy height, craggy and howling with wind. Aldous shrank back into herself. They were riding to kill.
The pair saw them dawn the road and ran, although there was nowhere to go. They ran as animals run, zigzagging wide-eyed through the scrubby grass at the roadside, and Vana and Cressus without speaking herded them towards the gully of a mountain stream that crossed under the road ahead. When they had their quarry at the edge, they both suddenly slowed to a crawl, pulling up the horses and dismounting with a menacing, leisurely grace.
“Hello,” drawled Vana, thumbing her knives.
Cressus’ boots crushed through the grass, and the Thron stepped to face him. She held a wooden staff and braced it towards Cressus, but Aldous thought, “Cressus will snap that like a twig,” and so he did, darting forward with unexpected speed, wrenching the staff away, and casually breaking it in two across his knee. He tossed it into the gully and said lightly, “I’m going to enjoy this.”
The Thron woman moved quickly, slipping in front of the village woman, and barring out her arms as if she could somehow protect the woman from Vana’s knives and Cressus’ bearlike arms.
“Oh, don’t worry, we won’t kill you quite yet,” said Vana. Kill them? thought Aldous, a twist of horror contracting across her belly, and she made a half-hopeless gesture. Vana looked pointedly at Cressus and jerked her head back towards Aldous.
“Aldous,” murmured Cressus gently, coming over to her side. His breath danced over her neck as he bent very close to her ear. “Aldous, please keep quiet,” he begged. Vana’s back darted tongues of black, disapproving fire. Aldous’ eyes were wide as a child, and she had them locked onto Cressus’. She was holding onto him, the warm, rough skin puckered around his eyes, the set of his shoulders. “I will be quiet,” she said. She did not feel sorry—yet.
He was under the shadow of the mountains now.
“Caethron.” Weiss said it aloud, feeling the urgency and weight of it as Mare had said it before she parted from him. The gate. The safehouse. Carved into the very mountain, it was a way between where no pursuer could follow, and yet it seemed to Weiss that, wretched as he was, it might also be a bar for him. He kept strictly to the path on the map. The few travellers he met, he did not even acknowledge. He kept his head down, and his feet somehow moving, one before the other, and he was under the shadow of the mountains now.
When he came to the steps up to the gate, broad, shallow steps roughly cut into the mountainside, he looked foolishly up at the gate, and down at his map, and up again, and down again. The plains and Aiken where he had lived all his life were behind him, but with an effort he managed not to look back at it, and he breathed deeply and started up the steps.
He did not look back when he heard the dull thunder of horses’ hooves, the commotion of following that rummaged along the trail behind him, did not even look back when two strange voices, one of a woman and one a deep, booming man’s voice, called his name, growing in strength as the horses neared, telling him to stop.
The gate between the mountains was before him, and Weiss said, “Caethron,” in quiet wonder, and he raised his hand in a fist to knock.
A small door slid to, opening a window in the stone gate, and a face hovered in the opening. It was the face of a man about forty years old, slender and lucid, and it’s owner asked gravely who was there, and whence he came, and what did he want at Caethron.
“I am Weiss, of Aiken, looking for passage to Jesh’s Land and to Elionae’s City beyond that. I was sent by one called Mare to find refuge here—if you are willing to let me in.”
There were footfalls on the steps behind him but Weiss didn’t turn; the urgency in the eyes of the man behind the gate was enough for him, and his hands reaching out to pull Weiss in as he swung the gate open. Weiss stumbled into the courtyard as the man slammed the gate shut behind him, and the great iron bar of it fell with a knell of strength. On the other side of the gate, the great man and the woman in black shouted their fury into echoes of the mountain.
Back at the mouth of the pass, Aldous paced nervously between the two women bound back-to-back on the ground, and the horse tied to a tree. Her hands fluttered through the air, through echoes of Cressus snapping the wooden staff like a twig, his warm skin, of Weiss grave and determined out on the fields, the courage in the eyes of the Thron woman at her feet, the grey bank of a thousand thousand days of her life in Aiken, and she found herself torn down the middle, crying silently.
“Woman of Aiken,” said the Thron woman, her voice an arrow cutting clear and straight through the mountain air, “why do you weep?”