only the footprint

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"We're close now," said Aithne, stopping and giving Duncan a close look.

"We are?" said Duncan. Should he have realised that?

He looked around. They had been walking in the shadows alongside the high way for three days since passing through Kain Aelas. The landscape he studied now provoked no more sense of familiarity than those before it. On one side, yellow-green grass stretched out, intersected by sheep enclosures, gently sloping. On the other, the edges of a wilderness. Not deep enough to be a forest--not like Vallebrion with its rises and wolds, its hidden places, and the undergrowth that seemed to open before and close behind. This was sparser, and had probably covered the whole region before the farmers came and cleared it.

Now that Aithne said it, he realised that Lord Fernando's property must be in that direction. He remembered stumbling between the thin grey trunks of the birch trees, then pressing his back against one, closing his eyes and steadying himself. Finding the knack. He remembered the moment he had stepped from the forest onto the road, clothed in the guise of a People merchant.

The recollection might as well have taken place among paste trees on the back of a theatre wagon. He viewed it as an indifferent spectator.

Duncan realised that Aithne was still watching him. "I recognise it now," he said.

She made a tching noise and kept walking.

He followed. Sometime soon, the road would turn--ah, there it was. A narrow carriageway leading into the birch grove. The road sloped downwards, as if the sins committed there weighed it down. 

The light thinned. Duncan stayed close behind Aithne. She had one hand on the pommel of her sword, and he could see the ropes of muscles in her forearm. He edged closer, until he was walking in her shadow.

Duncan hardly noticed the time pass. He was trying to dredge up a memory of the path, the house... flashes of it came to him, limned in torchlight. The grey limestone quoins at the corner of the building, like teeth biting into the whitewashed wall. The iron crossbars of the wooden door that swung open to swallow him into the building. The gravel. Stumbling. The vise-grip of the man pulling him upright, shoving him through the door. Go on, spider. The master is waiting for you.

He talked into the solid wall of Aithne's back. "Thandi's blood," she said, turning around and putting her hands on his shoulders. "Duncan, where were you?"

Duncan pressed his eyes shut as he swam back to the present. He shook his head. "Ah, lad," said Aithne. "It won't be like you remember it, I promise."

She didn't offer to turn back to Kain Aelas. If she had, Duncan might have accepted. He was glad she didn't.

He saw the end of the birch grove before them. This was it, then. He put one foot in front of the other, and again, and again, and then walked out onto a wreckage. The cornerstones were scattered across a field punctuated by charred beams and tumbled fragments of wall. In a jumbled pile lay the burned skeletons of furnishings Duncan half-recalled.

He turned like a dog on a scent towards the remains of the outbuildings--the rough stone had survived the devouring fire, but the thatched roof was gone. He stepped through the place where there had been a heavy wooden door. On light feet, Aithne followed him.

Inside were the loose boxes. Rows and rows of them. He found his way through to a particular one he remembered well. Stepped over charred hay that still carried the scent of misery. Crouched down and put his eye to a gap in the stone. When he turned his head just so, he saw the sky.

"This was mine," he said. Without looking, he reached over to the iron hook to which his chains had been tethered. It bit into the fleshy part of his hand. Observing rather than feeling the pain, he closed his fist over the iron and used it to pull himself upright.

He walked back through the stable, remembering: this stall's occupant had cried to himself every night. In this one, the girl whom they knew as Sweetie had called out, had tried to get them to listen to her, to band together to fight the guards. The boy--Duncan found it hard to think of the one had occupied this stable as Duncan--had put his eye to the crack in the stone, and ignored her. One day Sweetie had gone, and never come back.

Aithne said, "We saved everyone who was in the stable when we got here. They are all safe now. They will be looked after."

Duncan nodded and stepped out into the afternoon light. The leaves were starting to turn, as if the tips of the trees were still burning from the night Aithne had destroyed this place. Fernando's bedroom had been on the first floor. There was nothing left of it. Only the footprint of the hall that had been lined with chairs, where two hounds--two boys--had been goaded to fight each other. Sometimes one of the guests had played a part.

"Duncan," said Aithne, gently. Not seeking his attention, but calling him back to himself.

"I'm all right," he said.

"Fernando is dead," said Aithne. "The Mo'oki will feast on his flesh, and even that is too good for him."

"Will it?" said Duncan. "What did he ever do to make the Prophets withdraw their protection? We are the ones in the grip of the Mo'oki. We are the pathless, nameless ones." He looked down at his unmarked hand. "We are the ones the Prophets reject."

He leaned his back against one of the walls that still stood and look up at the sky.

"I refuse to believe that," said Aithne. "At any rate, we made his son aware of what the father did. They may only have been halfbloods--" Duncan looked over in time to see Aithne's lip twist, "--but still, what happened here would be, ah, distasteful if brought to light. The son will not seek retribution. He has abandoned this place. It will be no more."

Duncan nodded. "I want to go now."

"Of course." She caught up to him and turned him to face her. "Are you all right? Did this help?"

"It did." Duncan chewed on his bottom lip. "I want to remember it like this."

"Ah, lad," said Aithne. When he leaned forward, she drew him into her arms and he breathed the scent of the forest from her tunic.

They walked out of the clearing and back into the birch grove. Duncan didn't look back. As they were passing from the birch grove to the road, they heard the thunder of several horses galloping up the road from the direction of Kain Aelas. Aithne pulled up her hood, hiding her hair. Duncan reached for his knack. They became two foot-travellers.

The hooves came closer. Aithne kept her head down, hand on her sword.

It was one rider, leading two horses. As he reached them, he slowed to a walk and dismounted. Aithne's hand relaxed. "Good den, friend," she said.

"And to you, friends," said the man.

"This is Duncan," said Aithne. "Duncan, this is Maniu. He's a friend."

"Good den," Duncan mumbled.

Maniu nodded. "Aithne, we've had word. The shipment we heard was going out of Kain Aelas is going. Tomorrow night."

Shipment? Duncan looked up at Aithne, whose brows drew down over glittering eyes. A grim smile toyed at her mouth.

"Good," she said. "Duncan, you'll want to come with us for this one."


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