In true Fred fashion, he was snoring in minutes, and the door between him and the main room did not muffle the sound. Strin sat on a plain, creaking chair at the table in the main room, eating his soup. Besides his chair, the room contained three others, a square table, a water basin, a fireplace, a frayed and fading rug, a battered cabinet, and one young woman. Ananya sat across from him, waiting politely, her back to Fred’s snoring.(1)»
“I haven’t thanked you yet, Ananya,” Strin said gently in the silence between snores. “So, thank you. I’d apologize for Fred’s behavior as well, but I see that you’re acquainted with his particular … style.” Strin hid his smile by sipping the remaining broth.
“Yeah.” She felt like smiling and feared she may be blushing. She knew she should be furious with the child—he was rude, inconsiderate, and … lots of other things. He hadn’t seen her in three years! He could at least say, “My, Ananya, I’ve missed you!”
Somewhere inside, Ananya knew that’s why she smiled. She believed he wanted to say that, but couldn’t.
“Seems like you know each other well,” Strin said. His voice was devoid of overture. “He never mentioned you.”
Ananya looked up, but Strin was not looking at her; he was studying a corner of the room. A gray-yellow mound sat there. It resembled a round rock, about knee-high, curled tightly about itself—except that it rose and sank slowly. It was breathing.
Strin looked amused at Ananya. “May I ask about the golem in the corner?”
“That’s Piku.”(2)» Ananya shrugged as if it were nothing. “He hangs around me most of the time.” Piku was her only true friend since Fred had left. Sure she smiled and talked with the other villagers, but the smiles were no more than contortions of the lips, the talk no more than pleasant, empty words. The girls thought her aloof and the boys … she didn’t think they thought of her at all. But that wasn’t their problem, or Strin’s. It was hers.
“What brings you here anyway, Strin? Last story that came through said you two were far south.”
“‘Rutsuians blow in more than wind and rocks,’” Strin said, quoting the old proverb. “But there’s time enough for that tomorrow. Now’s the time for sleep. I’ve had an eventful day.” He smiled, as if that explained his statement, and Ananya thought it was a weary smile, hid beneath bright eyes and a calm expression, but weary all the same.
Strin stood, placed his bowl where Ananya had placed Fred’s, and stretched out on the rug.
“You can use my bed,” Ananya said quickly, “you’re the guest, you don’t have to—”
“I’m the guest. I’ll sleep here. Good night, Ananya.” He said the words as if he had always known her, as if she were a relation of his. “Thank you.”
He wrapped himself in his drizbane, rolled away from Ananya, and fell asleep.
Quietly, Ananya walked to a rattling windowpane and stared into the black depths of the Rutsuian. She wasn’t sure what she felt or thought— after a while, neither feeling nor thought bothered her—but she felt a deadness within. She lost herself in the howling wind, the crashing of rocks deflecting off the shield, the rustle of the dying fire, the occasional haunting groan, which seemed to echo Fred’s own snoring. Ananya didn’t know how long she spent staring into the turbulent night, but before she broke away, before she decided she must sleep, she thought that the deadness within must understand the storm somehow, in some way she could not comprehend.
The voice came from everywhere, and Fred spun about, around and around, but he could not find the voice. The Horizon hung before him, crashing down and spilling outward, toward him, like a waterfall. The blackness swirled frantically, streamers of void racing furiously against the oblivious background, but the motion provided no movement; the desire, no realization. It scurried upward, over Fred’s head, and crashed down on the other side. The streamers twirled and twisted in the space above him, descending, its dance more complicated than the wind. The strands coalesced slowly, more rapidly than he could distinguish, and before him stood the awkward, gangly form of Anya.
He approached without stepping. “You were always a great friend, Anya.” The words were understood, not said.
Whispers, fast and fierce, circled his head like wasps. They screamed, rambling, incoherent, terrified. It was not fear! Fred was never afraid. The fear was someone’s but not his own.
But the shrill voices would not leave him.
As he ran—as he had always run—he did not move forward or lift a foot. The landscape groaned as it tumbled past him. He was being followed, but he could not see the shape. He ran forward, looking backward, and saw neither his path nor his pursuer.
Wait! It was a person, it was a girl, it was Anya, no! … it was Ananya, arrayed in a white gown and crowned by chestnut hair. Her dress, her hair, and she herself wavered in the stillness of the air. He was running toward her, toward a Sertrima hulking before him, toward Ananya as tall as the cliff, toward a Sertrima with the Horizon in its maw.
The Aerie passed overhead like a sun racing across the sky, and Webi stood upon its pinnacle, his vines and tendrils rays of dark green. The earth was empty and void except for Fred and the fight. The Sertrima’s legs pierced through Fred’s body and he bled darkness. Ananya stood proud and regal, and punched him in the gut.
He dashed through Dewy’s trees, covered in kinkerry juice and blood. Ananya waited for him behind every trunk; the Sertrima lunged from treetops and emerged spider-like from the ground. The plains were vast, the darkness thick, and he was trapped. It approached, whatever it was, and struck.
Fred crashed to the hard wood floor and woke.(3)»
He remembered the final image: he had kissed Ananya and the Sertrima had devoured him; or had that been the Sertrima’s lips and Ananya’s jaws? Fred laughed at himself and climbed back into bed.
“You will come home and visit, won’t you, Fred?”
Fred didn’t know why, but now he remembered his mother’s question when he left three years ago. Her eyes had filled with tears, but that always happened to his mother. “Of course.”
“You said goodbye to Anya, didn’t you?” Fred nodded, and his mother stared at him for a long time, her lips trembling, but smiling. Fred knew she wanted to say something. His father nodded, and that was that. He had given Fred an extensive talk the night before.
“I … I never told you, Fred,” his mother whispered, “but you know Seer Ralna that comes around sometimes? When Anya was born, she told me,” —his father handed her a handkerchief and she blew her nose—“she said you two, that you were destined for each other.” She wiped her eyes. “So don’t get yourself killed, Fred. She’ll still be here.”
Fred had tried to forget those words since he left.
Anya had always been a good friend, but no more. He was not going to let the so-called prophetic word of some old, gnarled Seer dictate his actions. He refused to let the Hand of Fate grab him by the collar and drag him along a path he did not choose. He reaffirmed the oath he had made the day he had left: he would never marry Anya. He turned over and closed his eyes, trying to sleep, but one thought bothered him.
Why did she have to go and get pretty?