He had been caught in many snowstorms over the years. The first, during his second year as a Temerare, had been the worst. Still an Apprentice, he had been sent out with Alicc to scout ahead and find camping grounds for Marjin and Neitha and Jindann and the rest of the Temerares. Barely an hour into their trek through the wilderness and the storm had blown in, howling, hurling ice. The temperature had dropped so suddenly that he had felt his leathers start to freeze and harden around his body.
Alicc had found a depression in the ground, not even a foot deep. He had shoved Robeth down into the hole, grabbed their saddle bags and blankets, and climbed down after him. The horses, cold but well-trained, had laid down around them, shielding them against the worst of the wind.
They had lain there for hours, huddled together under the blankets, listening to trees crack and split in the brief silences between the howls of wind.
Eventually the storm had exhausted itself. They had to hack their way out of the snow and thick crust of ice. The horses were dead, frozen solid. Half the trees were gone, and the ground was littered with the corpses of birds. Scavengers were making quick work of what they could eat.
That was the first time he had actually laid eyes on a seircovra, and he had barely survived the encounter.
Alicc still had the scars.
That first storm had been the worst.
He dragged his fingers over the stones. No door. He couldn’t find the door.
Think, Robeth. You’re a Temerare. Think like one.
No cloak or gloves. Dead torch. Two knives. Solid boots, fur, and leathers; but those wouldn’t keep him warm for very long at these temperatures.
Where was he, exactly?
He looked around, squinting against the wind and cold.
The clouds were thick enough to hide both moons. He caught the shadowy dance of trees in the night, below and off in the distance. He was high. Very high. Barrth had led them all the way up to the fifth level, and the secret door he had tricked Robeth into exiting led out onto the roof of the fourth level. The flat surface, the stone lost under a sheet of ice, rolled away to either side, creating a walkway of sorts —
Walkway. Jessle had said there was a walkway along the very top of the Inn. One that looked down through the opening and into the inner courtyard.
If he could find a ladder and climb onto the roof of the fifth level, onto that walkway, he could yell down into the courtyard. Or maybe even climb down. The inner wall was covered in geometric reliefs. Maybe they were thick enough and wide enough for him to grasp; if he could get down to at least the third floor where there were guests .…
Terrible plan. But it was a plan.
His lungs were beginning to hurt.
He picked up the dead torch, ramming the pointed end as best he could into the seam between two stones. It leaned awkward against the wall, but didn’t seem to be in danger of blowing or rolling away.
He pulled his sleeves down over his hands, tucked his hands under his armpits, and started to the right, counting his steps, following the outer wall of the fifth level. He dragged one elbow along the stone, his head down, his chin tucked against his chest. His ears burned from the cold.
Around and around, the wind screaming.
His feet slipped. He caught himself, kept going.
Around and around.
A bump; but it was just a window, locked and barred from the inside. Another bump, another window.
Maybe there was no ladder. Maybe there was no means of climbing up to the walkway.
Around and around.
His jaw ached. His face ached.
His foot kicked something. The torch. He had walked all the way around the fifth level. And nothing.
He tilted his head back. The roof of the fifth level was a good eight feet up, and was likely just as ice-coated as the fourth level. He could jump that high, but his hands would slip right off. And if he fell wrong, he would probably break something.
Then he really would die out here, alone, in the cold.
Marjin would never forgive him.
Neither would his mother or Santeneth, for that matter.
He really couldn’t let them down by dying out here, alone, in the cold.
Besides, he had to live so he could brag to Santeneth about the secret passageways. She would be very annoyed.
He giggled. Then stopped. Giggling was bad.
A plan. He needed another terrible plan.
There had to be another way inside.
What was it Teirkka had said? Something about the gate? A bell?
Yes, that was it. A bell. There was a bell at the front gate to alert the staff of guardians when guests arrived.
He dragged his feet, careful not to slip on the slick stone. The wind yanked at his clothes and hair, driving snow and ice into his ears, under the collar of his shirt and jacket.
His toes touched air. He crouched down, peering into the darkness. He could just make out the smear of solid black that was the roof of the third level.
Each level seemed to be about six to eight feet in height. Under normal circumstances he could jump down that far without any problem. He did it all the time while mapping the new wilderness of the Rewoven World, moving in and among trees and over rivers and streams.
But he was cold and tired and hungry, and he was rapidly losing feeling in his extremities. Grabbing anything would become increasingly difficult, and would soon become impossible. His knees were already shaking. It wouldn’t be long before he was crawling instead of walking.
Minutes. And not many of those.
He crouched and dropped onto his butt. He sucked in a breath at the feel of the cold stone through his clothing, the sudden inhalation making his lungs seize. He sat there for several precious seconds, coughing.
When he finally recovered, he inched forward. Angled his back and legs. Kept his arms tucked close. Gravity took over. He slid over the edge, down the wall. The geometric carvings of flowers and trees bumped his skin. He felt the side of his arm skim the frame of a window. A near miss. Oops.
And then his feet hit. He bent his knees, trying to absorb the shock of the impact.
He was on the roof of the third level.
Moving forward slowly, he reached the edge. His toes touched air again. The trees were closer, clearer now. They swayed back and forth. These were tall, wild trees, not the carefully maintained orchard outside the front gate, along the main road. That meant he was to either side of the gate, or maybe even completely around the back side of the Inn.
He sat down, scooted forward, sucking in his breath again at the touch of the stone. Angle, slide, drop.
His knees buckled. He fell, whacking his face against the roof and the ice. He tasted blood. And then it froze on his cheek and lips and chin, closing off part of his nose.
Shivering, shuddering, he pressed his elbows against the roof and pushed himself back upright. He slipped. Pushed again. Slipped again, banging his forehead hard. His thoughts spun. Awkwardly twisting, he pulled his right hand free of his armpit and used it to finally pushed himself up. The ice burned his palm and fingers.
He sat there for a long minute, thoughts still spinning.
The frozen blood pulled at his skin and the inside of his nose.
He swung a leg around, scooted forward. Half crawling, half walking. He made it to the edge of the roof again. This time his fingers touched air and emptiness. He tried to slide around, pushing with his feet, rolling on his side, but he misjudged the distance. He tumbled over the ledge, he fell, fell, down to the roof of the ….
Where was he? How high was he?
He was on the second level now. Yes? Was that right?
All he could hear was the wind. His legs ached, his knees wouldn’t work. His elbows throbbed, and his right hand felt like lead.
Second. Two. He was on the roof of the second level. Almost there. Roof of the first level, and then he would be on the ground. And then he would find the gate. And then he would ring the bell. And then he would be safe. He would be warm again. And he could sleep.
Sleep sounded nice. Sleep sounded very —
Get up. Move.
He grit his jaw. It felt like a tooth popped. He slid around, rolling his ankles, trying to find purchase on the ice. His feet kept slipping. Roll. Slide. Slither. That’s it. You’re a snake. A snake in the snow. Like in that stupid book Santeneth told you about, the one with the secret passageways and lost treasure. There was been a snake in that one, wasn’t there?
Well, if not, there should have been.
He giggled again.
The edge. Finally.
He rolled, fell right over. Dropping with a heavy, painful thump onto the roof of the first level. The ice cracked under the impact, tinkling and spiderwebbing. He lay there, stunned, his breath gone.
Pain. Everything hurt.
Was he bleeding again? He couldn’t tell. He was too cold.
Well, that was an advantage, at least. If the cold didn’t kill him, it would save his life by slowing any blood loss.
He giggled again.
That was bad. He shouldn’t be laughing.
He was at edge of the roof. He couldn’t remember how he got there. But there it was, the edge of the roof. His head hung over, the wind roaring around his ears, through his hair.
Snow. He was in snow. He knew it was snow because it was cold and flaky and when he got some in his mouth, it melted.
Had Santeneth buried him in a snowbank again?
No, that wasn’t right. Santeneth was back at court, sitting in some comfy chair listening to a councillor drone on about road maintenance schedules and grain reserves. He was … here. North. That’s right. The Inn. Bear. The Inn of the Honeyed Bear.
And he was freezing to death.
His leg twitched. Kicked.
The snow fell away, enough for him to see.
He was sitting against a wall, half buried.
And there was light.
Was he dead already?
No. Maybe? Flowers didn’t usually glow and float in midair. But that’s exactly what this flower was doing. Hovering right at eye level. Waiting.
He didn’t recognize it. He didn’t know what sort of flower that was, at all. A new flower. He needed to get a sample, a specimen to take back to court.
His arm lifted, swiping at the flower.
It bobbed away.
He jerked his arms, pressed one against the wall and one against the ground. Get up. Up. Push. something snapped inside his right hand. He was standing. Sort of. Leaning. Leaning against the wall, but he was mostly upright.
Lift your foot. Go forward.
The flower floated away, staying just out of his reach.
Follow. Follow the flower.
One step. Two. His knee bent. Brace. Three, four, five.
Snow and ice crunched. All he could hear was the wind. Follow the flower. Follow the light. It was out of reach, but he was getting closer. Wasn’t he? Yes. Maybe. Closer. Keep walking. Keep walking. Don’t stop. Keep walking. He couldn’t feel his feet. Keep walking.
The wall disappeared. He fell sideways, hit another hard surface. Wood and iron. The gate. The port-something-or-other. Cullis. Portcullis. That was it.
It was closed. Of course it was closed.
A bell. She had said there was a bell.
Where was the bell? Was that it? The rope by the flower? The flower was floating by a rope. Should be pull the rope?
He pulled the rope, and he fell.
He dreamed. He dreamed of a sky with two suns and three moons and more stars than he could ever count. One sun steady in its course, rising with the constellation of the Dawn Bear and setting with the constellation of the Dusk Bear. The other sun a wanderer, rising and falling now here, now there, kissing one constellation and then another. And three moons, one round and red, one pale as a skull, one a soft gold that waxed and waned in the shadows of the two suns. And so very many stars, blues and greens and reds, some bright enough to be seen even at the height of the day.
And then there was a great nose, a cry of grief and rage that echoed from the depths of the sea to the peaks of the mountains to the heights of heaven.
And the stars fell. So many stars. The great red moon cracked and fell. The sun steady in its course fell, plunging down between the paws of the Dawn Bear.
The world heaved and cracked. Mountains crumbled and melted. Seas burned.
There was only pain and grief and rage.
And then there was silence.
His body felt heavy. Blankets. Bed. Hearth with a crackling fire. Something goopy was slathered on his face and there seemed to be a bandage wrapped around his hand and most of the way up his forearm.
He rolled his head against the pillow.
Marjin was sitting beside the bed, slumped sideways in a chair. Her eyes were open, but she seemed to only be half awake. Behind her, Elder-Healer Lanassha and Healer Markkete were bent over a table, hands moving gracefully between piles of herbs and flowers and a large mortar and pestle.
Bethlajin moved into his line of sight. The apprentice smiled down at him in relief. “The Hallowed Ones have blessed you, Lord-Temerare. Welcome back.”
Marjin jerked upright. She blinked rapidly, stared at him hard for a moment, then sank forward until her body was almost curled into a ball. “Beth. Please don’t do that again,” she whispered.
He tried to answer, but his voice came out as a croak.
Lanassha stepped around Bethlajin and Marjin, a steaming cup in his hands. “Tea with honey, lemon, ginger, tikkal root, and maba mushrooms. It will help with the pain and inflammation. We have also applied honey from the bear to the injuries.”
Bethlajin was nodding enthusiastically. “Lady Neis was quite adamant. And quite generous. She insisted that we use as much as we needed.” His expression fell. “It was … um ….”
Lanassha sighed and handed the cup of tea to Marjin. “We shall leave you some privacy. We’ll be in the adjoining room, however, so let us know if you need anything.”
With an arched eyebrow at Bethlajin, he led the other two healers through the door. Robeth caught a glimpse of the main room in the suite that he and Marjin had been given when they first arrived. He was back in his room — a room he hadn’t even had the opportunity to use, until now.
He pushed himself up a little. Marjin reached around, rearranging the pillows and shifting him bodily on the bed until he was propped mostly upright. A few tentative sips of the tea, then he guzzled most of the cup. By the time he sat back, his head was a little clearer and the aches in his knees and back had faded to a dull throb.
His right hand was another matter. It felt wrong.
Marjin grimaced, setting aside the mug, still sitting forward in her chair. “It’s bad, but could have been much worse. Your boots protected your feet, so you won’t lose any of your toes. Your ear’s a mess; some of the cartilage and the lob are gone, but it doesn’t seem to have affected your hearing. But the damage to your hand …. You lost your fourth and fifth fingers. I’m afraid even the honey couldn’t save them. The rest of your hand … it’s still intact, but Elder-Healer Lanassha says there’s extensive tissue damage, which means the nerves and blood vessels were probably damaged, too.”
He lifted his arm off the blankets. The limb shook as he studied the bandage. He could smell the honey through the winding fabric — and see the odd, unsettling indentation where two fingers should have been, but were not.
He laid the arm back down, carefully
“When you are well enough, I am going to hit you. Very hard. On the head.”
“I’m sure I deserve that.”
“And when we get back to the camp, and I’ll tell Alicc and Neitha and Jindann what you did, and they will want to hit you, too.”
He closed his eyes, leaning back against the pillows. “Now that seems like a bit much. Did you catch Barrth?”
“No. I was too busy trying to find you.”
“Doesn’t matter. We know where he is, and why.”
There was a pause. When he cracked open an eyelid, Marjin was still sitting there, scowling, her arms crossed.
“So what was that about a glowing flower? And bears in the stars?”
He exhaled, rolled his neck, and opened his eyes. “I know why the Hallowed Ones have taken such an interest in this Inn and its Lady and what happens within its walls.” He flexed his remaining fingers inside the bandage. “And I have a pretty good idea as to why Barrth killed Hendrikk.”
Marjin insisted that he stay tucked under the blankets and get some sleep. He didn’t have the strength to argue, let alone stand and fight his way across the room and back down to the cave. So he stayed, and he slept, and he dreamed again. Not of falling suns and stars and boiling seas this time, but of the honeyed bear wandering through a frozen forest. Snow and ice crackled under the bear’s massive paws, but the other animals drew close: sparrows and foxes and rabbits and ordinary bears and even wolves and seircovras. As the bear wandered, honey beaded and dribbled from its fur, leaving drops and puddles of liquid gold. Saplings and seedlings sprouted in the bear’s wake, and the animals gathered round to drink.
He felt something closer to normal when he awoke again. The dull throbbing had faded further to a vague ache that spread from his feet all the way up to the crown of his head.
His right hand still felt heavy, though, and nothing seemed to work properly below his elbow.
Marjin insisted on feeding him. She shoveled soup and bread into his mouth, then made him drink some more tea. By that time, his bladder was full and Elder-Healer Lanassha was thrilled to hear that Robeth had made use of the pot in the corner.
Apparently that was a good sign.
He slept some more, and when he woke again, he insisted on getting dressed.
Marjin, surprisingly, did not protest. She helped him into a set of leathers and furs, new trousers, and new boots, plus his cloak and one glove. She even found a fancy scarf in the bottom of one saddlebag (so ugly that it must have been a gag gift from Santeneth) and used it as a makeshift sling to hold his arm steady.
And then, while the three healers were off doing other things and they could get away with no one seeing and arguing, they went back up to the fourth floor. Marjin led the way, and they each held a torch. The secret door opened just as it had before, but the passageway was warmer this time. It was day now, and he had his cloak and one glove.
They made their way down, down and down, through the levels of the Inn; through the subterranean cellars; and into the tunnel that led to the Cave of the Honeyed Bear.
The scent was so strong that it made his head swim.
They paused on the ledge overlooking the cavern, while bees swarmed and buzzed. In the center of the vast space, among the combs and honey, lay the bear. Not sleeping, but resting, content, eyelids drooping and paws flexing as Lady Attala Neis brushed her hands through its fur.
Honey coated her fingers and wrists, globs clinging to her sleeves almost to her shoulders. Honey stained the front of her dress, too, and her chin, and oozed from the corners of her mouth.
Even as Robeth watched, she lifted a hand from the bear’s hide. She licked her fingers clean, smearing more honey on her face.
Her eyes settled on them. Moved back and forth from Robeth to Marjin and back again, and then down to the bear, seemingly unconcerned.
He made his slow way down the slope, Marjin at his back. When he turned to hand her his torch, her eyebrows jumped in question. He continued to hold out the torch and finally she took it, both of her hands now occupied. She frowned at him, but he turned away, facing Lady Neis.
“I don’t know your name.”
Silence as she continued to sweep her hands through the bear’s fur.
“Many names were lost during the Schism, even as Hallowed Ones themselves were lost.”
Her hands slowed and her eyes flicked up. The bear twitched a paw, its upper lip curling to reveal sharp teeth.
“They know you’re here. They spoke to me through the Hallowed Flame. Tassha of the Needle, Ekkart the Far-Seeing, Gerrta of the Song, Lieneill the Far-Hearing, and Far-Wandering Dhajin of the Flowers.”
She stilled then, and the bear’s eyes snapped open. A shadow moved among the massive honeycombs and the buzzing of the bees grew louder, more agitated.
“They want to help you. They want you to come home.”
Her chin tilted back and her eyes closed. For a brief moment, inexpressible grief and longing pulled at her face, the corners of her mouth. Tears slid down her cheeks, mixing with the honey.
“I fell,” she said. “I fell forever. A sea turned to vapor beneath me and, when I woke, I was cold and alone, and there were mountains. I slept and woke again, and this time my bear was with me.” She patted the beast’s snout and it rumbled happily, lip uncurling to hide its sharp teeth once more. “My bear who was my gift to the world, and who survived its unmaking. I slept and woke, slept and woke. Mortals came, a few here, a few there. I showed them how to pray so that I would heal, so that I might regain my place in heaven.”
Marjin sucked in a breath behind him, her voice barely a whisper. “The upright pentagrams.”
Lady Neis dragged her hand through the fur, gathering more honey. She licked her fingers. “And then Barrth and his Temerares found my bear and found me, and he knew, and he loved me.”
Robeth nodded. “So he built the Inn. Or, started to build the Inn.”
The shadow on the honeycombs moved closer, sharpened. Lord Barrth stepped out from behind a massive comb, half-a-dozen bees swarming around him; some of them were as big as Robeth’s head, fuzzy and fat.
Barrth glared at him, and he felt more than heard Marjin shifting on her feet, getting ready to drop the torches.
“Why did he pretend to die in a storm? Why did he fake his own death?”
It was Barrth who answered this time, his face curling into a sneer. “A hexess. She sought to kill the bear and take its heart. I was awakened in the night. I could hear the hexess, her foul chants.”
“Gerrta of the Song, warning you.”
Barrth’s gaze dropped to Neis. “Perhaps. Yes, perhaps. I killed the hexess. I could do nothing else. My lady would have suffered much if she had succeeded. Even — gone away. Forever.” He swallowed hard. “We could not leave the honeyed bear alone after that. We could not take the chance that another might threaten it —”
“ — Like Hendrikk,” Marjin interrupted.
“Kill you, I will,” Robeth quoted.
Barrth’s eyes widened. When he spoke again, his voice was raw. “I saw him, heard him through the walls. He was plotting with that merchant. He would have taken the honey. Invaded the bear’s sanctuary, stolen from my lady, sold the honey for gold and fame.”
Lady Neis shook her head. “Hendrikk was no true threat. He could never have taken enough honey to truly harm me.” She looked up at Barrth. “As I told you. To leave him be, to leave him with his plotting and his gold.”
Robeth’s hand twinged and he suppressed a grimace. “But he didn’t listen.”
“No. You did not listen. You murdered Hendrikk. You murdered him with your pentacle, the sacred symbol of your faith.”
“… Yes, my lady.”
“You have been my most loyal devotee. You have loved and protected me from the first moment you saw me. But you have murdered.” She inhaled and exhaled, long and sharp. “You shall not live to see my glory grace the heavens again.”
Barrth’s eyes closed and he seemed to shrink a little.
Lady Neis turned her attention to Robeth and Marjin. “And will you speak of this to the Grandesse? Must I leave, find another cave for myself and my bear, find others to pray for me, until I am well enough to ascend once again?”
Robeth darted a glance at Marjin. “That was Hendrikk’s threat, was it not? If you interfered? I will tell, I will. That you are a Lost One.”
Marjin shifted around behind him, the torches flickering. “The few other Lost Ones who have been found have proven to be … less than benevolent.”
Neis’ expression hardened, her fingers curling. The bear rumbled loudly, its whole body shaking. “They hurt,” she snarled. “They were in pain, and grieving, and only wanted to return home.”
Robeth drew in a breath, fighting against the urge to backpedal, to run in the face of her anger. “Perhaps the Hallowed Ones realize that now. Perhaps in their wanderings, in watching and listening and walking the world to repair it, they have learned that the Lost Ones are not enemies. Or no longer enemies.” He suppressed a flinch when the bear lifted its massive head. One bite, one swipe of a paw, and he would be dead. “That is why they spoke to me through the Hallowed Flame. Warned me about Hendrikk. To protect you.”
She did not speak, studying him.
A bee swooped down, settling onto her shoulder. It rubbed against her chin, buzzed happily, and took off again.
Robeth licked his lips. “I will not speak of this.” He shifted so that he could see Marjin.
She was frowning, fingers tight around both torches. Then she sighed.
“A second sun in the sky again? Would make the summers longer and the winters warmer again. We haven’t had a decent harvest in five hundred years.” She shot a mock glare at Robeth. “And not having to worry about this one freezing to death would be nice. We can … I don’t know … tell everyone that you chased the murderer out into the storm. Another guardian who had a long-running feud with Hendrikk. He’s gone. Dead. A believable tale, considering the state you were in when we pulled you through the front gate.” She turned a hard stare on Barrth. “But if I hear anything about another murder or a suspicious death or strange disappearances, we come back and we haul you off to the nearest Judge for punishment. We’re Temerares. There won’t even be a trial. Understood?”
Barrth looked away.
“Understood and accepted, Temerare Quil.” Lady Neis stood.
The bear shook its head and looked up at her, then at Robeth and Marjin. Stretching its front paws, it yawned hugely, teeth gleaming. Lurching and lumbering to its feet, the bear blinked a few times, then yawned again. Turning, steps heavy, the bear made its slow way through the massive honeycombs, dripping gold. A swarm of bees followed along, wings and eyes glistening, buzzing loudly.
The light and the warmth faded gradually as the bear moved away. Lost behind the combs, they could only follow the glow of its light across the walls. The bees continued to follow the bear for a short distance, then swooped back, flying up to the ceiling.
Soon, the only illumination came from the twin torches and from the Lady, standing steady and still, honey staining her lips.
[End Part Six. Read the Epilogue.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]