Chapter twenty one
A KNIGHT'S DISGRACE
Under ordinary circumstances Jenya considered herself a reasonably patient person. These, however, could hardly be considered ordinary circumstances. Saramis returned from Dramon late in the day after the ball, with no sign of their young friends. Jenya had figured as much, half suspecting that Saramis had only chosen to go there because just sitting around and waiting was as irksome to him as it was to her. Not that his return eased their predicament in any way. They had to wait two more days for Ktan to return for that.
He rode in just after dawn. Almost as soon as he walked in the door he was confronted by Jenya and Alios, and Saramims too after Jenya’s foot nudged him awake. Though the practical part of Jenya knew it was unlikely, she had fully expected Merigan and Willbrand to be with him when he returned. The grim look on his face and the absence of the young duo trailing behind him made it obvious, however, that this was not the case.
“Any sign?” Saramis questioned.
“They made their way up north,” Ktan replied. “They were in Winsor, of that there can be no doubt. They approached a number of people there and seemed to make no secret of their intent to go to Zalan, but they never got that far.”
The others waited for him to continue, but maddeningly, he said nothing more, as if there were nothing else to tell.
“So what happened to them?” Saramis blurted out.
“I don’t know. The witch hunter was after them, that is certain as well. He sent assassins after me in Zalan. I’m sure he hasn’t found them, or hadn’t when I left a day and a half ago. I followed the trial back to Winsor, trying to find some sign of them, but I saw nothing. Somewhere between Winsor and Zalan they turned off the trail.”
“On purpose?” Aliois asked.
“Who can say?” Ktan replied. “If they knew they were being followed that is a possibility. Or perhaps they just got lost. In any case, they are not adept enough at woodcraft to survive for very long in the wild. They will have to return to civilization, and soon. I took a chance coming back, but I had to let you know that I had found their trail, and there was no one I could trust in Zalan to take the message to you. As it is we will have lost more than three days by the time we get back to Zalan. We have to trust to luck that they will remain in hiding for at least that long, but in any case we should be off with all speed. The sooner we get back there the better.”
They could all see the wisdom in this, in fact, they felt much better. There were still many unknowns, and with the witch hunter after them Willbrand and Merigan were in deadly danger, but it didn’t appear as if they had been caught, and at least now they had some idea as to where the two young people had gone, and anything was better than just sitting around waiting.
It didn’t take them long to get ready to depart. Saramis and Jenya had not been idle while waiting for word from Ktan. They had known they might have to leave at a moments notice, and had secured new horses and supplies for just such a contingency. They were ready to be off within the hour, but just as they had finished saddling up the horses Ferdinand appeared at the entrance to the stable.
Ktan quickly told him they had found Willbrand and Merigans’s trail, though Alios noted he did not say exactly where, nor where they were headed. He supposed that made sense. Even though Ferdinand was their friend, when you were hunted by the crown it paid to be careful. Even a friend could give them away if questioned under duress. It was not really something Alios would have thought of. He was a fugitive too, in a way. Everyone in Norvell Wood was. Even so they had been at best a minor annoyance, and except for the occasional rare patrol, the King had not bothered them in their woodland hideout. On top of that he had only been doing this for a four or five years, no where near as long as Ktan and his companions. They had been running around through the kingdom right under the King’s nose for years now and he could tell he could learn a lot from them.
Alios had been pleased to hear the news that they had at least found some sign of the young people, and expected Ferdinand to feel the same, but the man’s face remained grim as Ktan told him.
“I have news,” he said. As he said this he turned and looked straight at the bowman. “Come.”
“What is it?” Saramis questioned.
“Come, it is not far.”
Ferdinand said nothing more, just turned and walked away, leaving them little choice but to follow. As far as Alios could tell their benefactor was a legitimate merchant and, except for the fact that he was harboring Ktan and his friends, had nothing to do with any clandestine operations. Now, however, Alios wasn’t so sure. Perhaps he was more deeply involved in this than the bowman had suspected. Alios looked at Ktan and his companions carefully, but from the frowns on their faces and the questioning looks they gave Ferdinand he could tell they were just as much in the dark about this as he was.
The sky was clear and the sun was inching its way toward zenith by this time. Ktan was clearly disturbed by the delay, but he said nothing.
As Fredinand said, it didn’t take them long to get to their destination. It was a nondescript house just a few block’s from Fredinand’s in the market section of the city. A faded wooden sign tacked at head height beside the door proclaimed it the residence of one of the town’s healers.
The inside was dark compared to the bright sunlight outside. The windows were shuttered, an unusual occurrence this time of day when most were thrown open to let in the light. Alios stepped in with some reluctance. He did not care to be here. He had little faith in healers. His wife and children had died in a healer’s house, and it seemed little that the healer had done for them, even to ease their suffering. He looked around slowly as he entered, his eyes searching for those huddled in the corners of the room, or lying prostate on the floor, those that had been condemned to come here. The room was empty however, except for themselves and an old woman standing silhouetted in a far doorway, the wick of a candle flickering in her hand. There were no wails of the dying here, the plague was long gone, but Alios could still catch the echo of their cries, could still smell the scent of death.
No, he hadn’t put any stock in healers, considering them at best well intentioned but misguided men and at worst charlatans whose potions and words did nothing at all for those suffering, if not worse.
When Ktan and his friends had found him, wounded, in the city last week, they had wanted to take him to a healer but he had protested. To him the healers house was a house of death, and indeed it was true that most of the people who passed through the doors of such houses did not remerge alive, but most of the time this was not due to any lack of skill on the healers part, but instead the state of the medical craft as it existed. The healers did the best they could, but with little tools and no knowledge of germs or the way in which most infections were spread, there was little they could do. Considering this lack of knowledge, it was to their credit that almost half the people who came though their doors did indeed survive. And indeed, Jenya’s simple ministrations had helped Alios to heal more quickly, though he would have been loath to admit even that. All the bowman knew, however, was all his experiences with these kinds of places had always been bad, and he had a feeling this would be no exception.
Apparently Alios was not the only one unhappy with the situation, for Ktan suddenly spoke up.
“What’s this all about Ferdinand? Why have you brought us here?”
He was impatient to move on. He desperately wanted to get back to searching for their two young companions, which left him with little patience for riddles. At first he had thought maybe what Ferdinand was going to show them something that had to do with Willbrand and Merigan, but he couldn’t see how a healer here in Donolan could be connected to them.
Ferdinand stopped and turned toward them, looking once again, to the bowman’s surprise, right at Alios.
“A man was found east of the city this morning,” he said. “He was badly burned. Not knowing what else to do with him they brought him here. He has been asking for you.”
“Me…” Alios repeated slowly.
“Yes, you. Apparently he is a companion from that forest of yours.”
“Norvell Wood,” Alios stated, and suddenly the knot that had formed in his stomach the moment he walked into this place pulled tighter.
He strode forward, any hesitation he had felt vanishing. He was right on the heels of the old woman as she led them down a narrow hall and into another room.
This room was dark too, the shutters on the window tightly sealed. Alios couldn’t help but wonder why things had to be so dank and dreary in here. Still, he had no time to ponder that, for this room was occupied. Two people, one, obviously the healer himself, standing in front of a small table with various and sundry items of healing laid out on it. The other, a man lying on a cot beside him. A small lantern on the table cast enough light on the figure for Alios to see the man’s face clearly.
The man’s eyes had been closed, but they opened at the sound of Alios’ voice. A thin linen blanket covered the man, but the others could see that one side of his face was badly burned. The man’s arm came out from under the cover, as if gesturing Alios to come closer, and they could see his arm was burned as well.
“Alios, thank the Gods I’ve found you,” the man said weakly.
“Gallec, what happened?” Alios exclaimed, his voice filled with concern.
“Norvell Wood…” Gallec began, but then stopped; as if that was all he could get out. Alios wasn’t sure if he stopped because of pain or emotion. Either way it seemed a very bad place for the man to halt his sentence.
“Norvell wood. Yes, Norvell Wood what? What happened?” he prodded.
The man took a deep breath in an obvious attempt to get a hold of himself.
“Norvell Wood has been burned,” he finally said.
“Burned?” Alios repeated, sounding surprised, as if he had not noticed the man’s injuries. “There was a fire?”
“Yes, deliberately set by the King’s men. By Variman Vashay!”
Ktan’s ears immediately perked up at this.
“Two… two days ago,” Gallec went on, “in the late afternoon, we saw smoke rising from the south. We send scouts to investigate. They came back and told us the entire wood was aflame. By then the smoke was like a wall rushing towards us, and we could tell it was no ordinary fire. I learned later that it had been set by the King’s men. They had rode around the entire forest from the south to east and west, lighting fires as they went. There isn’t much rain this time of year, and the forest was dry enough to go up like a tinderbox. The fire was upon us almost before we knew.”
Alios’ face had gone quite pale by now, almost matching the sickly look of the man in front of him. Behind him Jenya felt her breath catching in the throat as well. This couldn’t be a coincidence. The bandits had been in Norvell Wood for years now, and the King had not bothered them much, certainly hadn’t tried anything like this before. There was only one explanation for this, especially if Variman was involved. The King must have found out the people of Norvell Wood had been part of the attack on the trade convoy.
Which meant that whatever had happened to Norvell Wood was their fault.
Perhaps that wasn’t technically true. They hadn’t asked Alios to volunteer his people. That had been his idea. In fact, they hadn’t even asked Alios to stay with them. He could have gone back to his forest at any time and no one would have thought the lesser of him. What he had done, he had done of his own volition.
In spite of that, Jenya still couldn’t stop herself from feeling a pang of guilt. Alios might have volunteered, but he had done it to help them, to help Willbrand and Merigan. If that had brought doom down upon Norvell Wood, then they were responsible for it, even if only indirectly.
Now it seemed to be Alios’ turn to hesitate before speaking.
“Arlen. My brother,” he said finally. “Do you know what happened to my brother?”
A coughing fit prevented Gallec from answering right away. The healer came forward, lifting up a cup with some dark fluid in it. The wounded man drank as soon as he was able, then spoke again, his voice sounding just a bit stronger.
“We broke camp and fled north. By this time the fire was nearly upon us. It moved fast, faster than most of us could go. By the time the fire caught up with us all was chaos. With the smoke and the flames, it was impossible to keep track of who was where. Within a short time it was every man for himself.”
“Arlen was with me. At first we stayed near the back, trying to urge the other on, but soon the smoke obscured everything, and we could feel the heat from the flames. There was nothing we could do but run. Unfortunately it was right into an ambush. The King’s men were waiting for us at the north end of the forest. By then I had lost track of everyone and found myself surrounded by flame. I managed to get through, but was badly burned as you can see and didn’t get much farther before I collapsed, thinking it was to be my end. But I had reached the edge of the forest by then, and the flames did not reach me. Nor did the King’s men take me, instead leaving me for dead. But they did take anyone who emerged from the forest, and killed anyone who resisted. I think your brother was among those who were captured.”
Alios fell silent. His thoughts were now running along the same vein as Jenya’s. He too thought this must be the result of their attack on the trade convoy, only he wasn’t blaming Ktan and his companions, he was blaming himself.
The room was silent for an agonizingly long time.
“Alios, I’m sorry,” Jenya finally broke the silence.
Alios flinched at that, as if the words stung.
“No,’ he retorted, turning toward her. “You have nothing to be sorry for. The fault is mine, if anyone’s. He’s alive though. At least I can be grateful for that.”
“Alive yes, but surely you must know…’ Saramis began, and then suddenly shut his mouth.
Alios turned to look at him. Saramis just stood there, first glancing at Ktan, then Jenya, but he said nothing more.
The silence stretched once more, until it was broken again, this time by Ktan.
“Surely you must know where they will take him,” he finished for the magician. “If Varamin Vashay was involved, the captives will go straight to the Pit.”
The Pit. Even Alios had heard of it. Everyone in Mandaria had. The Pit was a prison set deep in the mountains near the southern tip of the Galian peninsula. It was Variman Vashay’s own personal hell, or rather, the hell to anyone who opposed him. Built to his personal specifications, it was the place where the people who most displeased him were sent. Few had seen the inside of the prison; fewer still had come out alive, and certainly none of the prisoners there. Alios felt what little hope he had left quickly abandoning him.
“No one ever escapes from the Pit,” he hear d himself mutter.
“That’s not true.”
Alios spun around, his eyes darting to Ktan at this proclamation.
Ktan looked them all over before continuing, measuring his words carefully, though Alios could not see why.
“One person did escape,” he continued. “A long time ago.”
Alios didn’t know how to reply to that. It was a well known fact that no one had ever escaped from the Pit. Was Ktan just trying to give him false hope?
“I have never heard of such a thing,” he stated, staring at Ktan.
The warriors eyes skittered around the room.
“Such things should be discussed at another time,” he said.
Alios glanced at the healer and the old woman who was his assistant. It was obvious the man did not wish to speak further in front of strangers.
“Say what you have to say to your friend and let us not tarry,” Ktan stated.
Much as Alios wanted to question Ktan further, he could see the wisdom of this. He turned back toward Gallec.
“Is there anything else you wish to tell me?” he asked. “Is there any way we can aid you?”
Gallec merely shook his head.
‘I am content. I just wanted to make sure you knew. The healer will do what he can for me.”
Alios nodded, giving the healer a not overly friendly look. He reached out and grasped Gallec’s hand.
“Good luck my friend, I will stop in again soon to see how you are doing.”
“Worry not about me,” Gallec replied. “Do what you can for your brother.”
Alios nodded, letting go of the man’s hand and they retreated from the room. Alios jerked his head at the healer, who understood he wanted to talk out of earshot of the wounded man, and followed them out. Halfway down the hallway Alios stopped.
“Will he live?” he whispered.
The healer shrugged.
“There is no way to tell at this time. I’ve done what I can for him. The wounds are bad, but I’ve seen people in worse condition survive. There is hope.”
“Hope,” Alios spate out, surprisingly bitterly. He shook his head, but decided it was pointless to say more. He turned away and followed the others as they left the building. It was almost mid afternoon now and the streets of the marketplace were crowded, no place to have a private conversation. Alios had to wait until they returned to Ferdinand’s house to continue their discussion. He didn’t waste any time, stopping as soon as they walked in the door.
“If someone escaped from the Pit, why have I not heard about it?”
Ktan quite deliberately folded his arms across his chest.
“Isn’t it obvious? The prison has a reputation. That reputation is part of how it is perceived. The Pit is the ultimate punishment. Variman rules by fear and the Pit is the embodiment of that. To be sent to the Pit is to know there is no hope, no chance of redemption or escape. To reveal the fact that someone had escaped would diminish its potency.”
Alios nodded. It was pretty much as he expected Ktan to say.
“So who was the magician who managed this?”
“It was a long time ago,” Ktan replied. “Things might have changed since then. The path of escape might no longer exist.”
“So why do you tell me this then?” Alios questioned, not noticing that Ktan had not really answered his question.
“I merely state the truth,” Ktan answered simply.
Alios wasn’t sure what this meant. It seemed to him there was more; something Ktan was not telling him. Even so, it did indeed give him hope. If one person could escape, then it could happen again.
“I have to find him. I have to try to help him,” Alios said, though almost as if talking to himself. He stopped then, looking at the others, the looks on their faces and suddenly he guessed what the problem was. They were expecting him to ask them to come with him. It made sense; he had been helping them, after all. But they had not accomplished their task yet. Willbrand and Merigan were still out there somewhere. They had, in fact, been about to continue the hunt when Ferdinand had interrupted them with this new revelation. The witch hunter was after their young companions, it was only a matter of time before he caught up. They were pressed for time. They couldn’t afford to go off on a tangent; they couldn’t afford to spend days, or even weeks, trying to get into the Pit, trying to save Arlen while their friends were still in danger. He understood. Their loyalty had to be to their friends, just as his had to be to his brother.
“I’m not asking anyone to come with me,” he said. “I understand you have to find your friends. That has to be your priority, just as I hope you understand mine has to be to my brother.”
“Of course,” Ktan replied.
And that would have been it, except at that very moment Jenya chose to speak.
“We’ll… we’ll come with you.”
All eyes fell on her. Ktan frowned, Saramis looked surprised. Jenya herself, well, Alios couldn’t really read the look there. The words seemed to come out slowly, as if she had to force herself to say them. If she were concerned about her friends, this would be natural. Yet looking at her Alios got the impression there was something more.
“Jenya…” Ktan began. He had seemed perfectly agreeable to what Alios had suggested, and Alios had known him long enough to know he expected the others to go along with his choices. There was no rebuke in his voice, however, instead he sounded… conciliatory.
“No,” Jenya cut him off. “Alios deserves this at least. We’re the one’s who got him into this mess. He deserves our help.”
“I blame no one by myself,” the bowman contradicted.
“Nevertheless, I say we should help.”
“And what about Willbrand and Merigan?” Saramis questioned. “Do we leave them to fend for themselves?”
“No,’ Ktan spoke up, and then said nothing more for some while, just stood there looking carefully at them all until finally finding his voice again.
“Saramis and I will go with Alios. Jenya, you ride to Zalan and look for Willbrand and Merigan.”
This was more than Alios had hoped for, and sounded quite reasonable to him. Although he had to admit he would miss having Jenya with them, she would surely be safer hunting for Willbrand and Merigan than going where they were going, and this way, both his brother and Ktan’s young companions would have a chance. It seemed like a good solution, so he was surprised at Jenya’s response.
Alios turned toward her and frowned. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ktan lower his head, looking not surprised at all, looking as if he had expected her to say that.
“No,” Jenya repeated. “If you are going to the Pit I have to come with you. I…”
Her voice failed her, and she turned away from them. Alios just stared at her, the frown deepening on his face, wondering just exactly what was going on here, until softly, barely to he heard, she finished her sentence.
“I’m the only one who knows the way.”
Jenya sat on a crate by Ferdinand’s front door. The others were still inside. She had walked out right after her announcement. She didn’t want to dwell on what she had said, didn’t want to think about it. She didn’t know what Alios thought of what she had said, and she didn’t really care. She would leave it to the others to clear things up for him if he had anymore questions, if they were so inclined.
Or so she thought. At that moment the door to Ferdinand’s house opened. She turned her head and saw Alios standing in the entranceway. For a long time he remained there, looking at her. Eventually she turned away without a word. She heard the door close, then a rustle of movement as he sat down beside her.
The street around them was deserted. They were no longer in the marketplace. This was a residential area, a place much less traveled. There was no one about to overhear their conversation.
“It was you, wasn’t it?’ Alios said slowly.
Jenya did not reply, did not even turn to look at him.
“You were the one who escaped from the Pit,” he continued. “It was you. That’s why you have all those scars on your back, isn’t it?”
Still she said nothing, just sat there as if turned to stone. He waited patiently.
It was barely a whisper.
Jenya lifted her eyes, falling silent as two men walked by. She remained silent even after they had disappeared around the corner. Alios said nothing, just remained where he was, waiting. Obviously he was curious about the details but, as had happened when he had seen her back, he did not wish to press her. After a while he started to think she had no desire to say anymore, but eventually she broke the silence again.
“It was almost eleven years ago. I was riding to Dramon with three companions when we were set upon by a squad of Imperial Knights. I don’t know how they found us. Someone must have spotted us on the road. At any rate, we were outnumbered, with little chance to flee. We took shelter in an old farmhouse, determined to sell out lives as best we could. At first we held our own, but as night fell reinforcements arrived and they stormed the farmhouse, overwhelming us just before dusk.”
“They had broken in, and I was fighting on a wooden stairway when it gave way. I struck my head in the fall and was knocked unconscious. When I woke up, I was a prisoner. I learned later that all my companions had been killed. They burned the farmhouse. When Ktan arrived there, he thought we were all dead. That was two days later. By then, Variman had taken me to the Pit…”
Her voice faltered. He could see this was a difficult tale for her to tell. Alios could certainly understand. He knew the reputation of the place, had seen the marks on her back. He had no wish to bring back the memories of what had befallen her there. Nor did he feel any desire to have an account of what happened to her, except, of course, how she managed to escape.
Nevertheless, she went on.
“They tortured me, of course. Or rather, Variman did. He knew who I was. He knew all the old Sacred Knights. He used to be our commander after all, back before the Witch War. He knew I was close to Ktan, Ktan, the knight he wanted more than anyone. He wanted to know everything I knew, and eventually… eventually….”
Again her voice faltered, and the anguished expression on her face became so great that Alios could not help but reach out and place his hand on her shoulder. He didn’t want her to continue. This was not anything he needed to know and he could see how much the words were tearing at her. He felt a sudden urge to shout, to say ‘enough’, that he didn’t need to hear anymore, that it didn’t matter.
But he said nothing.
Jenya’s shoulders slumped and her face went gray as death.
“Eventually I told him.”
Alios didn’t know what to say, or if there was anything he could say. He wanted to offer words of reassurance. He could only imagine what kind of suffering she had gone through. Of course she had told Variman everything. Anyone would have. He had a feeling, however, that saying that would give her no comfort. For something like this, he realized, there were no words, there was no comfort.
“I… I tried to resist,” she went on, the torment plain in her voice.
“Jenya, don’t,” Alios couldn’t help but say. She had already told him more than enough.
“No,” she spat out. “No, you need to hear it all. This is what I am. I can’t deny my disgrace. I would have killed myself, or at least, that’s what I told myself, but I was watched all the time, all the time I wasn’t in chains. There was no chance of that, no chance of escape, even in death.”
It was late afternoon now and the sun was inching its way downward in the western sky. Now it suddenly sank below the level of the rooftops across the street, casting them both into shadow.
“Not at first, anyway,” Jenya went on. “Eventually, after Variman was convinced I’d told him everything, he began to ease the restrictions. I think he thought he had broken me completely. I think his aim was to control me so thoroughly that I would become an ally, a tool he could use himself. After all, I had betrayed all my friends; I couldn’t go back to them, even if they were still alive. I think he tried to make it appear as if he was all I had left.”
“I might have been close, but I wasn’t quite that far gone. I kept my ears and my eyes open. I became friendly with the guards, watching their routines, though they didn’t know it, and they told me things sometimes. There was a system of old caves under the Pit, caves full of fell creatures, or so it was said. The entrances had been closed off, but occasionally one of the creatures would somehow find its way up into the Pit. Which meant there had to be a way down there, and eventually, I found it.”
“Its not an easy way. By all rights I should have died down there. But I didn’t care. In fact, I think that was what I expected. When I got out, and made my way back to civilization, I found out just how much my betrayal had cost us.”
“A dozen of our closest friends had been executed. Ktan and Merigan, because of Ktan’s caution, managed to escape, but just barely. The entire network that we had built up to that point was in tatters.”
“Variman was right about one thing at least, I had no where to go. I couldn’t face Ktan, though I was glad he and Merigan at least had survived. Again I thought to take my life now that there was no one to stop me. Perhaps I should have, but again my courage failed me. I couldn’t do it. There were still some people I knew, people who Variman had found too useless to bother with. I got in touch with one of them and he gave me enough supplies to go on. Then I turned eastward, headed for the border. I was going to leave Mandaria, never to return.”
"Somehow Ktan found me. I never really found out how he managed it. I can only surmise the friend I got supplies from got word to him somehow, for no one else even knew I was alive. I didn’t want to talk to him, I didn’t want to see either him or Merigan, but of course that didn’t stop him. Eventually I told him what happened, told him everything I’ve told you, and then I wanted to go, but he wouldn’t let me. He forgave me, though I know I didn’t deserve it. He convinced me to stay, to stay with him and Merigan. Deep in my heart, of course, it’s what I really wanted and in the end I gave in.”
Jenya fell silent again and this time it was obvious the story was done. Alios felt his own emotions twisting inside him, though he was sure it was nothing compared to what she must be feeling. He had hardly expected so detailed a confession and couldn’t help but wonder why she had admitted it all to him. One part of him felt good that she would trust him with such a tale. Obviously it wasn’t something she would tell just anybody, and though they had only known each other for a short period of time it seemed like she at least had accepted him. This was overshadowed, of course, by the pain it caused him, and yes, it did cause him pain, to see her in such a state, to know how difficult it was for her to tell him this. Alios had always made friends easily, and the truth was, he admired Jenya a great deal. Her level headedness, her courage and audacity at the ball, even the way she had tended his wounds all gave him the impression she was an extraordinary woman, as he had once told her, and her confession in no way diminished that admiration. It really had nothing to do with him, but even if it had, he would still feel the same. In his eyes what she had told him just made her seem more human to him. He had heard enough stories about the Pit to know that what had happened there wasn’t her fault, would have happened to anyone.
“And so here we are as you see us now,” she finally continued. “It’s funny. After the battle at Mergess Hill Ktan was accused of leaving his post and was expelled from the Sacred Knights, even though his doing so was the only reason the Sacred Knights won the battle. He had to give up his armor then and yet I… I, who betrayed all my friends as well as my sacred trust, I still get to wear it, even though it is he who deserves to and not me. I don’t even deserve to stand in the same room with him…”
Her voice choked off once more. Alios felt as if someone were stabbing a dagger into his gut.
“Jenya. Don’t. Don’t say any more. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Of course it was,” she retorted, bitterness creeping into her voice. “I neither want nor deserve either pity or sympathy. I… I’m not even sure why I told you all this. It was a long time ago. Sometimes… sometimes I think it was in a different world altogether, or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part. But…”
She turned toward him, taking a deep breath, the torment falling from behind her green eyes at last.
“But, as I said, it was a long time ago. It has faded though it will never go away completely. No matter how much you regret something or wish you could have changed it you can’t do that. There is nothing you can do but go on. “
Her voice sounded stronger now.
“It was a long time ago, but I’m the only one who’s been there. I’m the only one who knows the caves. That’s why I have to go, if you will still have me.”
An ox drawn cart approached from down the street, packed with crates of unknown content, the man leading it walking slowly with his head down, apparently taking his wares to market before the last light of day fled. He didn’t get close enough to them to overhear the conversation, and even so, the creaking of the wheels as his cart went by would have concealed their discussion in any case.
Alios felt the need to immediately rebuke Jenya’s last statement.
“Jenya, no matter how you may feel about yourself I don’t think any less of you,” he replied. “The truth is, when Saramis mentioned the Pit my hope fled, but it returned when you said you would help. I don’t think I can do this without you, without all of you who are willing. I don’t care what happened back then, when you were young, in a moment of weakness. I would no sooner cast aside your offer to help then I would a warm fire if lost in the dark of night. I would be grateful for any assistance you and your friends could give me. Yet still I worry about your two young companions, Willbrand and Merigan.”
“As do I,” Jenya replied. She took a deep breath, and then stood up suddenly, looking around, and Alios could see no trace of her former grief on her face. She had put it aside, just as she had so many times in the past. As she had said, there was nothing to do but go on. “Let us return to the others. That is something, I think, that needs to be discussed among all of us.”