Ventus – Day 44 of 135

A messenger coughed politely at the flap of the tent. Lavin took a small cloth bundle from him, and unfolded it to reveal the soldier’s ring. It was shaped like a carven wreath, the tiny flowers still embedded with salt crystals like dull jewels. He sat on his cot for a long while, turning it over and over in his hands.

Then he put it on, and blew out the light. He felt calm for the first time in days. As he drifted off to sleep, Lavin felt his confidence return, flowing from the immeasurable weight of the ages lying heavy in his hand.

Below and behind them, a horse nickered in the dark. Armiger glanced back–though Megan could not fathom how he could see anything in that shadowed hollow. Their horses were no doubt safe, but Armiger had to assure himself of everything.

They crouched on a hilltop overlooking the besieged summer palace of the queen of Iapysia. The palace was dark, a blot of towers against the sky, sinuous walls hugging the earth. The pinprick sparks of campfires surrounded the city on all sides. Thousands of men waited in the darkness below this hill, and Armiger had earlier pointed out pickets on the surrounding hills as well. This hill’s sentry watched the palace a hundred meters below the spot where Armiger and Megan hid.

“I count ten thousand,” Armiger said. He squirmed forward through the sand, obviously enjoying himself. Megan sat back, brushing moist grit from the cloak she sat on.

“It’s sandy here,” she said.

“We’re right on the edge of the desert,” Armiger said absently. He cocked his head to look at the hills to either side.

“Who would build a city in a desert?”

“The desals flood the desert every spring,” he said. “The Iapysians seed it in anticipation of the event, and harvest what comes out. The desals are using the desert as a salt trap, and don’t really mind if the humans introduce life there. It probably saves them some trouble, in fact. A good arrangement, so Iapysia has thrived for centuries.”

“Then why’s it all coming apart?” She tried again to count the fires, but they flickered so much she quickly lost track.

“Galas.”

There was that name again. It seemed a name to conjure by. If she breathed it too loudly, would those ten thousand men stand as one? Ten thousand hostile gazes turn on her? The queen was bottled up in that palace down there, and in days or hours they were going to storm its walls and kill her. Megan mouthed the name, but nothing seemed to happen.

“Is it rescue you are planning?” she asked. “What will you do, ride in and ask for her? ‘Pardon me, coming through, would you hand me the queen, please.’” She smiled.

“Rescue? No, I’m sure she’ll die when they take the place.”

“Then why are we here?”

“Not so loud.”

“Excuse me.” She placed a finger over her mouth, and whispered past it, “Why are we here?”

Armiger sighed. “I just want to speak to her.”

“Before or after they kill her?”

“They have the palace well surrounded,” he said. “Withal, I’m sure I could reach the walls; after all, they’re watching for the approach of a large armed force, or for sallies from inside. The trouble is, how to get inside.”

“Once you’re there?”

He rolled over to look at her. It was too dark to see, but she pictured a puzzled expression on his face. “Why do you want to get into the palace?”

“You are an inconsiderate lout.”

“What?”

“You’re going to leave me here where the soldiers can find me?”

“Ah.” He stared into the sky for a moment. “Perhaps you had better come with me, then.”

Megan growled her frustration and stood. She grabbed up her cloak and stalked down the hill. After a moment she heard him following.

Armiger was without a doubt the most insensitive man she had ever known. She tried to forgive him, because he wasn’t an ordinary person–but she had always assumed the Winds were better than people. Armiger, strange morph that he was, was worse much of the time.

Men, after all, were usually wrapped up in their own schemes, and thought about the things that mattered rarely if at all. She was used to having to prod them into remembering the basic duties of life. Armiger, though! On the day she took him in, Megan had taken on a responsibility and burden greater than any woman should have to bear. For it quickly became evident that Armiger was not really a man. He was a spirit, perhaps a Wind, one of the creators of the world.

Many times during the week-long ride here, he had gone from seeming abstracted to being totally oblivious to the world. He had leaned in the saddle, eyes blank, slack-jawed. This sort of thing terrified her. He forgot to eat, forgot to let the horses rest. She had to do his thinking for him.

Megan had come to understand that Armiger needed his body as an anchor. Without it, his soul would drift away into some abstraction of rage. She had to remind him of it constantly, be his nurse, cook, mother, and concubine. When he rediscovered himself–literally coming to his senses–he displayed tremendous passion and knowledge, uncanny perception and even, yes, sensitivity. He was a wonderful lover, the act never became routine for him. And he was grateful to her for her devotion.

But, oh, the work she had to do to get to that point! It was almost too much to bear.

She had thrown her lot in with him, and this was still infinitely better than the loneliness of rural widowhood she had left. Fuming about him was an improvement over brooding about herself or the past. He was coming to appreciate her, and the vast walls of his self-possession were starting to crumble. She was proud that she was making the difference to him.

Surprisingly, she felt jealous of this queen, as if the great lady might steal her mysterious soldier. Well; anyone could be stolen, and as likely by a peasant as a princess. She found herself frowning, and resolutely pushed the thought away.

She reached the horses and murmured reassurances to them. They had lit no fire tonight, and the darkness was unsettling. Megan was used to the presence of trees, but they had seen the last of the forest days ago. She felt naked amongst all this yellow, damp grass.

She heard him coming up behind her, and smiled as she turned. Armiger was black moving on black, his head an absence of stars.

“We need help from inside. We have to get a message to the queen,” he said.

Megan crossed her arms skeptically. She knew he could see her. She just looked at him, saying nothing.

“There is a way,” he said. “It will weaken me.”

“What do you mean?” She reached quickly to touch his arm.

“I can send a messenger,” he said. “It will take some of my… life force, if you will, with it. With luck, we can recover that later. If not, I will take some time to heal.”

“So my careful nursing is being thrown out with the dish water? I don’t understand! Why is this so important? What can she give you that matters? She’s doomed, and her kingdom too.”

He stepped into her embrace, and smoothed his hands down her back awkwardly. Armiger was still not very good at reassurance.

“She is the only human being on Ventus who has some inkling of what the Winds really are,” he said. “She has spent her reign defying them, and I believe she has asked questions, and received answers, that no one else has thought of. She may have the key to what I am seeking.”

“Which is?”

He didn’t answer, which was no less than she had expected. Armiger had some purpose beyond any he had told her about. For some reason he didn’t trust her with it, which hurt. If it were something that would take him away from her, she should worry, but Megan was sure that as long as he could hold her, his other purposes mattered little. She closed her eyes and clung to him tightly for a while.

“What do you have to do?” she asked when she finally let go.

“Will you keep watch for me? This will take all my concentration.”

“All right.”

He sat down and vanished in the shadow.

“I can’t see. How can I keep watch?”

He didn’t answer.

For a while Megan moved about, fighting her own exhaustion and worrying about what he was up to. She stood and stared up the stars for a long time, remembering how she had done that as a child. The constellations had names, she knew, and everyone knew the obvious ones: the plowman, the spear. Others she was not so sure of. Her brother would know, but she had not seen him in years; he had never left their parents’ village, and lived there still with his unfriendly wife and four demanding, incurious children.

How strange to be here. She repressed an urge to skip and laugh at the strange turns life took. The day when she found Armiger half-dead on the path near her cottage had started just like any other. Before she knew it, she was nurse to a wounded, emaciated soldier, listening to him rave in the night about the Winds and gods… and three days later she awoke in awe to the fact that he was so much more than a soldier, more than a man.

And he had let her come with him. They were, at least for now, a couple. It was as though she were suddenly living someone else’s life. She shook her head in wonder.

A gleam of red in one of the horse’s eyes brought her attention back to ground level. At first she thought Armiger had lit a fire, but the glow was too small and faint for that. She went over to him and crouched down.

Armiger sat cross-legged, his eyes closed. His hands were cupped together in front of him, and the glow came from between his fingers.

Seeing this, Megan stood and backed away. “Don’t”, she whispered. “Please. You’re still too weak.”

He made no move. The glow intensified, and then slowly faded away. When it was completely gone, he stood up, hands still cupped. Then in a quick motion he flung his arms up and wide, and brought them down again loosely. His shoulders slumped.

“There,” he said. “Now we wait.”

“What have you done?” She took one of his hands. The skin felt hot, and there were long bloodless cuts in his palms.

“I have called the queen,” said Armiger. “Now we will see if she answers.”

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