“Whoa there, Eldan,” Usher Wen said with a laugh, “we can get you more to eat if you need.”
Eldan looked up from his bowl, embarrassed, lowering his spoon. “Sorry, Sir. I’ve been really hungry.” Cale made a muffled snorting sound, obviously holding back a laugh, and he glanced at her with a smile, the tension in his body releasing.
Usher Wen shook his head. “It’s fine, no apology needed. I suspect that your rapid healing may be linked to an unusually high metabolism, meaning that you need more food than you realize. Even so, eating faster will provide no benefit, you simply need to eat more.”
Eldan nodded and turned his attention back to the thick barley stew in front of him, making a concerted effort to slow his pace. This was the second night he had eaten with Cale and Usher Wen since she had awakened, and she was to be released from care the following morning, barring any unforeseen complications. As glad as Eldan was that she would be returning to classes and their quarters, he would miss these shared meals with the medic. The three of them had quickly settled into an almost familial routine of dinner, games and conversation.
“How are your injuries feeling today? Did they give you any trouble on the terrain course?” Usher Wen asked, buttering a slice of crusty bread.
“No,” Eldan replied, shrugging, “they are a little sore, and the scars feel strange, tight, I guess, but I could run the course normally.”
The medic’s eyebrows rose slightly. “Even having seen the progression myself it is hard to fathom, but I am glad to hear you are doing so well after the removal of the last of your sutures.” He pushed the loaf of bread and butter toward Eldan, encouraging him to take another slice.
“How badly was he injured, on that day?” Cale asked slowly, without looking up from her tray. Every time their conversation touched on the attack in the river she looked haunted, seeming to sink within herself. Eldan raised his eyes from the bread he was cutting in concern.
Usher Wen grimaced and he hesitated before speaking. “He was wounded very badly, indeed. It is an extraordinarily lucky chance that those injuries were taken by someone who heals so quickly,” he said softly. “Many of the events that led to the three of us sitting here together seem to have been sheer lucky chance, in fact.”
Eldan awkwardly finished cutting his slice of bread in the silence that followed, the sound of the knife sawing through the crust sounding unbearably loud to his ears. When the slice was free he put his hands in his lap, chewing his lip as he tried to think of what to say that might break Cale free from the miasma that had settled around her. In truth, he was sapped of any interest in discussing his injuries more at this point, as well. Too many of the conversations so far had been heavy with implication, accusation or suspicion. Even Usher Wen had been confrontational on the subject at the outset, before deciding Eldan must have always had the ability to heal quickly. Eldan had gone along with the idea but couldn’t help feeling like he was lying by omission, which felt worse as he spent more time with the kind medic.
“Did I die?” Cale blurted suddenly. “I know I was revived, that my heart stopped, but was I dead?”
Eldan blanched, reflexively shaking his head and opening his mouth to repeat his mother’s assertion that resuscitation only worked on people still holding onto life, but Usher Wen just looked thoughtful.
“Life and death, as terms, are both definite and nebulous, and frankly the states are mysterious to us still. Obviously we can discern the living from the dead, and yet the flame that is life is utterly elusive to us, we cannot create it, or say what it means when it gutters or snuffs out.” Usher Wen pulled off his spectacles, wiping them absently on his tunic. “For a moment you hung between, in a place where a technique could still reach you, yet unable to revive on your own. It was not death, no, that is a journey from which none return, but you traveled further than most who remain among the quick.”
He replaced his glasses, leaning forward, “I have heard of cases where people had experiences that seemed sublime or profane in situations such as yours. No one is sure why this happens but if it did, you needn’t fear you are alone,” he said gently.
Cale stared at the medic, something he said clearly having resonated with her, but after a moment she gave a wan smile, shaking her head. “No, it wasn’t that, I just needed to know what happened.”
Usher Wen sat back, looking between Eldan and Cale. Finally he clapped his hands on his knees, seemingly signaling a shift from the direction the conversation had taken. “Shall we play a game, then? I can clear up and fetch the cards while Eldan finishes eating.”
Cale smiled and nodded her assent, and as he stood up to take the empty dishes Eldan pounced on his waiting slice of bread, tearing off chunks to scoop up his remaining stew.
When the medic had left the room Cale leaned toward him. “We have two free days after tomorrow’s class, right?” she said quickly, her voice low. Eldan nodded, making a helpless gesture, his mouth full of stew and bread.
“We have to go back,” Cale whispered urgently.
“Where?” Eldan said thickly.
“The 32nd annex.” Cale’s storm cloud eyes were wide and serious, and Eldan swallowed hard. He didn’t like the idea of her traveling over the distance but he could sense how important this was to her, and the request tugged at the gaping desire of his own to return. After a moment of indecision he made a single, sharp nod, and Cale released a low sigh of relief, settling back just as Usher Wen opened the door.
Cale and Eldan stood inside the gates of Servandor in the gray, pre-dawn light, waiting for the guards to allow general passage. Eldan carried his pack, stuffed with hard rolls, pastry and fruit taken from the tables outside the dining hall, along with his canvas weapon roll, this time holding only his stave. They had decided to travel down the riverbank and Eldan was deeply apprehensive about being so close to the water, despite knowing the ape that had attacked them had been killed. He had no confidence that he could take on a delta ape with his stave but felt reassured by the weight on his back anyway.
The city center was already a hive of activity when they slipped into the dark streets from the Court, as this was the day the military personnel involved in the attack were to be publicly commended. As Cale and Eldan darted through, skirting the main square on their way to the gates, they had seen workers finishing the raising of a curtained gallows next to the wooden stage, making Eldan even more grateful that they would be missing the ceremony. He was expecting the trial to be made spectacle but public executions were falling out of favor, so he was surprised to see the gallows being set up, even with curtains that would be drawn to conceal the final act. His mother, and father, for that matter, were staunch opponents of execution, public or otherwise, and Eldan found even the structure itself deeply unsettling.
Eldan heard a sharp whistle from the parapet and guards began dragging the wooden barricades from the gates, preparing to allow the morning traffic through. The iron gates were raised high and locked in place as usual, since passage was not completely barred even overnight, just limited to persons with special dispensation or requirement to move between the city and annexes.
Eldan and Cale were nearly first in the small line waiting to exit the main city but a large caravan from outside was let through first, presumably consisting of merchants bringing deliveries for the ceremony and accompanying festivities. The guards waved their line back as the horses and wide, covered carts thundered out of the tunnel, kicking up clouds of dust. Finally the caravan was past and traffic began to move in both directions, with shouts and whistles from the guards on the parapet to those below.
“State your name and business.” Eldan stood before a disinterested looking guard with bags under his eyes and a shadow of stubble on his cheeks.
“Eldan Ward, we are going to the lower banks for recreation and a picnic,” he said, giving the line he and Cale would both be using. It wasn’t common that people from the city traveled downriver solely for pleasure, but not disallowed, either, and they had not been able to think of another viable reason to give for entering the annexes.
The guard sighed, looking between the two of them. “And you are…?” he asked, gesturing toward Cale.
“Cale Ward,” she said confidently.
The guard shook his head, “well, least I don’t have to worry about some noble’s kid honor. Y’know you will be missing the ceremony, right?”
“Yes, Sir,” said Eldan, deciding not to attempt to give an explanation for why they would leave the festivities.
The guard shrugged, “just need to see what’s in the bag. If yer coming from Court you can’t bring any unsanctioned Court materials outside.”
Eldan dutifully pulled off his packs, handing them both over. The guard withdrew the well-worn stave from its sleeve, glancing at it quickly and handing it back, then opened the pack and rooted around inside. “That’s a lot of picnic for two kids,” he said eventually, seemingly satisfied nothing else was inside the bag.
As the guard handed back his pack Eldan felt his cheeks reddening slightly. “I get really hungry,” he mumbled. His appetite had steadily grown to the point that it was becoming a constant distraction, so he had packed enough food for a lunch and several large snacks.
The guard shrugged again, his attention already on the next person in line. “Go on, then, be back before nightfall.”
Eldan hurriedly put his packs back on and he and Cale made their way into the tunnel. The sun was rising by this time, the gray dawn mists quickly dissipating, and the tunnel was filled with echoing chatter and laughter from the people streaming into the city. Even the curve at the tunnel center ahead looked lighter than Eldan remembered, and a few of the travelers still held lit lanterns that illuminated the walls with swings of warm light. He hesitated briefly at the tunnel mouth, peering into the sheltered alcove where they had waited out the storm on their entry into the city. Cale laced her fingers with his, glancing at him with apprehension visible in her eyes but her jaw set in determination, and they treaded forward.
The tunnel was far shorter in reality than it was in Eldan’s memory, and soon they stood outside the gates, looking over the 1st annex. The river sparkled in the morning sun in the distance, white-sailed ships dotting its surface. They had decided to retrace their journey to the 32nd exactly as they had come, since it was unclear whether Cale would still know her way around the annexes as she had before. Strangely, she remembered most of their journey to Court, including their long walk up the riverbank, but the memory had no context to explain their starting point.
They traipsed past the long line waiting to enter the city and entered the 1st annex proper, pushing their way slowly through the crowded streets. The market was already in full swing and the atmosphere loud and chaotic as people thronged the vendor stalls and shops. Eldan and Cale were constantly bumped and jostled, at times carried in directions they didn’t wish to go by the movements of the other shoppers.
Eldan felt a tug on his back and whirled around, grabbing the wrist of a sallow man with thin hair who held a pastry snatched from Eldan’s pack in his hand. The man sneered at him, revealing gapped, yellow teeth and easily pulled his wrist free from Eldan’s grasp, melting backwards into the crowd.
Eldan reached over his shoulder to pat at his stave pack, reassuring himself it was still in place. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” Cale said, tugging at the sleeve of his tunic.
The piercing sound of someone whistling through their teeth carried over the shouts and chatter of the marketplace and Eldan whipped his head toward the sound, finding the same forge-hand who had been manning the Ironsmith’s stall on their journey to Court staring straight at him. When their eyes met the man beamed, beckoning them with a wave. Eldan looked at Cale, who shrugged, motioning for them to make their way over. When they reached the tented stall they had to wedge themselves in at the corner of the table, as several customers were examining wares while two forge-hands manned the stall.
The forge-hand who had called them over was busy negotiating the purchase of a sword with an ostentatious, jeweled hilt with a pudgy, red-faced man wearing an equally garish velvet jacket with gold brocade trim, and flashing several large jewels on his fingers. Even at a distance Eldan could tell the sword was mostly decorative, with too many jewels to sit comfortably in the hand, and too much work done in soft gold and silver to hold up to real use. The forge-hand glanced in their direction, giving a quick wink and holding up a finger while he finished the transaction. Finally the paperwork was complete and the sword slipped into an engraved and bejeweled scabbard, which the nobleman strapped around his considerable girth before strutting away, the dense crowd parting around him.
The forge-hand, a young man with thick hair swept back and twinkling blue eyes, approached them with a grin. He was dressed much like Eldan, wearing a flax tunic dyed red with bloodroot and heavy canvas pants. “Hey, I saw what happened to you out there. Didn’t look like you’re here for the market so figured I would see if I can help. We gotta look out for each other, right?” He gestured between himself and Eldan, his smile broadening.
The forge-hand’s relentless good cheer put Eldan at ease, even though he was worried they were just wasting time by stopping to talk. They had a lot of ground to cover to make it back to the gates by nightfall and their progress had been painfully slow so far. “We just need to get to the wall at the riverbank,” he said, “this is the only road we know to get there, but if you know a faster way we would be grateful for directions.”
The forge-hand, impossibly, smiled even wider still at the question. “That’s an easy one! Come on inside, our workshop is right behind the stall and if you go straight through and out the back it will put you in sight of the wall. Come on, then!” He waved them in and after a glance at each other Cale lifted the canvas at the side of the tent, ducking under with Eldan just behind.
The forge-hand called to his partner to cover him for a moment, garnering an irritated look that he blithely ignored as he pulled aside a flap in the back wall of the tent to reveal a wooden door. They stepped through into a large workshop where several forge-hands were doing finishing work, sharpening and oiling blades, engraving, or applying decorative work to hilts. More mundane projects were taking place, as well, tools being fitted with wooden handles and a wagon wheel being repaired. A large, sliding door in the side wall was open and a horse stood just inside, waiting to be shod. Eldan’s heart clenched at the sight of the workshop and he stumbled, suddenly nauseated.
“Impressive, eh? Wait til’ you see the real action in the back.” The forge-hand elbowed Eldan in the side, completely misinterpreting his reaction. Cale caught Eldan by the elbow, steadying him as they walked through the shop.
The ringing of iron and steel grew louder as they approached the other end of the long, warehouse sized building, and when the forge-hand rolled aside the heavy, iron reinforced door they were struck with a wall of heat. The din and smells of a forge running at full tilt hit Eldan with the full weight of visceral memory, tears burning immediately in his eyes. He ducked his head, pretending to wipe his brow with his tunic as he drew in a shaky breath, trying to regain his emotional equilibrium. Cale’s hand tightened on his elbow and he clamped his arm to his side as he raised his head, focusing on the open door on the opposite side of the room.
“Whatcha think?” the forge-hand called over the noise, gesturing at the room around them.
“Amazing,” Eldan said through gritted teeth, refusing to look away from the square of daylight that was his destination.
“We know you have to get back to the market and we can see the way from here, so please don’t worry about heading back. Thank you so much for your assistance, and I hope we will have the chance to repay your kindness one day,” Cale said sweetly, smiling at the forge-hand.
The forge-hand’s smile dimmed and he looked slightly confused at being suddenly released from his role as their guide, but quickly adapted, bowing with a flourish and rising with his grin back in place. “Like I said, us forge-hands gotta stick together. Where is your post, anyway? You look young even for an apprentice,” he said to Eldan, raising his voice higher as someone began pounding heavily on an anvil.
Cale pointed to her ears and shrugged apologetically, “thank you again! I am afraid we really must go, as well,” she called, pulling Eldan forward with one hand and waving cheerfully with the other. The forge-hand slowly lifted his hand to wave back as Eldan looked back over his shoulder and raised his own in thanks. He truly was grateful for the assistance in passing through the annex, he just hadn’t realized how profoundly he would react to being inside the Ironsmith’s workshop.
Eldan reeled slightly when they stepped back out on the street, the cool air after the heat from the forges making him light-headed. Just as the forge-hand had said, the river wall was directly ahead, and Eldan plowed straight across the street, barely noticing the aggravated looks from passerby who were forced to halt or dodge to let him pass. Cale kept hold of his arm, making a few waves of apology and thanks on his behalf.
When they reached the wall Eldan sat down heavily, putting his head in his hands with a soft moan. “I have to get new clothes,” he muttered as Cale sat next to him.
“I have coin at Court, I must have been sent with it because there was a purse hidden inside my pack. We both need new swim clothes and I have enough to get you other clothes, too,” Cale said sincerely, taking his statement seriously.
Eldan shook his head in embarrassment. “I have a little, too, maybe enough.” He knew he didn’t have that much but couldn’t bear the thought of Cale spending the only coin she had on him. They would need to replace their swimwear, at the very least, and he hoped he could negotiate that purchase with the small amount he had brought to Court. He had saved more from doing odd jobs, and on occasion his mother letting him handle minor repair work when the shop was busy, but had left it at home for safekeeping. His gut twisted at the thought of his attic room and he forced himself to stop thinking about what he would find when they reached the annex. He twisted to look behind him at the long drop to the riverbank. “Are you sure you will be able to make the climb?” Eldan turned back to Cale in concern.
She gave him a playful nudge and attempted a laugh, which quickly turned into a wet cough, and then a constricted, painful looking wheeze that Eldan could only watch helplessly, waiting for it to end. When the coughing fit finally stopped she sighed, one hand clenched into a fist at her sternum, and leaned over the edge to look for herself. “Down is easier than up, right? Anyway, it’s not like there is a better option. If we try to walk through the annexes we will never make it in time.”
Eldan nodded hesitantly. “We don’t have to do this today, though. Usher Wen said you have a cracked rib and..”
“I need to go today,” Cale interrupted, cutting him off, her eyes flashing with determination as she stared into his.
He lowered his gaze in defeat, adjusting his packs on his shoulders as he stood up and reached down a hand to pull her to her feet. “I will go first, then.” He gave her a last look and hoisted himself over the wall to begin the descent. Cale started over when he was about halfway down, her movements looking stiff but sure. Eldan suspected she was in more pain than she let on and winced in sympathy as he watched her flinch back an extended arm to feel around for a closer handhold.
Eldan’s own injuries were still noticeable but no longer restrictive, and even now he could feel the faint sensation of needling heat. He again had the sensation that he could push his body into some different form of movement and he itched to press against that immaterial barrier, but he kept his attention focused on Cale’s climb.
When Eldan’s feet touched the bank he turned and scanned the water warily, searching for any movement out of the ordinary, keeping one hand touching the stone in case he needed to scramble back up. Finally he tore his eyes away to look back at Cale, who seemed to be frozen with about a third of the descent left to complete. He realized her arms were shaking and his heart began to pound as he saw one foot slip and she scrabbled against the rock to regain her hold.
Eldan surged the moment heat bloomed in his chest and radiated through his limbs, pushing inward and downward until his vision unspooled and he streamed up through the crevices of the wall, flowing around Cale and catching her tightly in one arm. She gasped, her hands loosening from the stone, but he was already pouring back down, settling her on her feet before slamming onto his knees, his head pounding.
Cale stumbled backwards a couple of steps and lowered herself to a sitting position, wheezing audibly, while Eldan groaned, his chin dropping to his chest as exhaustion crashed into him like a wave dashing him to the ground.
“What.. in the abyss.. was that?” Cale panted out between wheezes.
“I don’t know,” Eldan said miserably. “Something, well, some things have been happening but it goes so fast I can’t really understand… It’s like I can feel this wall that’s everywhere and beyond reach at the same time, but then suddenly I see the way through to the other side. Then, once I’m through, for a moment I can move in every direction at once, or that’s how it feels, at least. I thought you might fall and I went after you and then we were here.” He rubbed hard at his forehead, unhappy with his explanation but unable to offer a better one. “That’s only happened twice but other things have happened, too.”
Cale’s breathing slowly returned to normal as she sat, looking thoughtful. “I didn’t really see what was happening, but it felt like you were just moving insanely fast. You didn’t really move like you were climbing at all, though, more kind of.. traveled.” She stood up, dusting herself off. “Can you walk? You look really tired.”
Eldan shrugged off his pack and dug out a couple of pastries from the bottom, not wanting to eat any the pastry thief might have touched. “I think so? I’m really hungry.” He shoved a tart into his mouth with a slightly trembling hand, swallowing it in three large bites. He ended up eating two tarts, a turnover, a hard roll, and a heart fruit in the span of a couple of minutes before standing up, feeling considerably better.
They walked down the riverbank at a steady clip, both largely recovered from their exertions climbing the wall. Cale seemed to be lost in thought and Eldan let her be, replaying the moment when he retrieved her from the wall in his head. He should not have had the strength to do what he did in any circumstance. Even if he could support her weight on steady footing he knew he couldn’t do so with just finger and toe-holds on a sheer wall, and yet he had done it without a thought for the impossibility of the attempt. He couldn’t remember a climb, though, only flowing up and down, the only sense of solidity coming from feeling his arm wrap around her waist. He felt for the barrier he could sometimes push against, and though he thought he could sense its shape, it felt slippery and elusive, like trying to capture a bubble floating in the water without breaking it.
“Do you want to tell me about the other things that happened?” Cale asked suddenly. “I’m guessing something happened in the water and I understand if you don’t want to talk about that.” She shuddered at even the mention of the attack, her eyes sliding to the river.
Eldan followed her gaze, scanning the placid surface. “I breathed underwater. Neither of us would have made it back up if it hadn’t happened but it was more than that, I could see clearly and it made me stronger, and I could feel myself healing.” He looked up at Cale, who seemed pale but managed an encouraging smile, so he continued. “The other time was more like today, when I was sparring in the weapons assessment. I felt the same way I did when I was underwater except it wasn’t dangerous so it felt really good. Then, when I was about to be hit I pushed through that wall and.. I don’t really know what happened, but I traveled through the hit somehow.”
Cale nodded as though she had been expecting him to say something along these lines. “Have you tried to do it again? Breathe water, I mean?”
Eldan shook his head with a grimace. “It hurt a lot, both when I started breathing water and when I stopped, and I’ve been afraid I imagined the whole thing. Anyway, I haven’t really wanted to swim yet.”
“I don’t think you imagined any of it,” Cale said softly. She didn’t say any more on the subject so Eldan returned to his thoughts, his apprehension growing as they steadily grew closer to the familiar banks of the 32nd annex.