The camp didn’t have much going for it, that was certain. It was getting colder by the day, snowing overnight sometimes but not enough to stick in the daytime. Seldat’s little village was struggling enough before the so-called “Fall” a few weeks ago that there were several empty homes for us to use. Dirt floors and holes for latrines – there was a time when I never dreamed of living in such conditions. It occurred to me that Aia had lived in this place years ago, and the respect I felt for her was more like a knife than a flower blooming, knowing I respected a woman who was dragged away from me while I watched, helpless.
I swore internally for thinking about my friends again, the thousandth time in the day, and stood up from the fire in the center of my hut. Kyren, one of my two hut-mates, looked up from the floor where he lay.
“You look mad again,” he commented. His words came out in puffs of fog.
I shook my head and forced myself to smirk. “Don’t worry, I’m not mad at you.” I turned to walk out the door. I needed to go somewhere, anywhere – a walk around the woods again, perhaps. There was talk of moving the camp soon. Adreth had a surprising number of confidants around the whole of the world; in the first week after arriving at Seldat word spread that we were here, and people started showing up with information in tow. They told us about work camps and horrors in the countryside. Some had news from Nivenea herself, none of it good. Adreth and Adria were working on some kind of plan, the nature of which I was only glancingly privvy to. They needed me as a symbol and a name. They did not need me to make decisions.
Not that I wanted to make decisions. I had nothing to give. I was getting frustrated at having to be here at all, but Adreth kept telling me he needed me, and would need me more in the future. I thought he’d lost touch around the whole issue – his judgment with everything else seemed sound enough, yet when it came to me, he had no grasp on reality.
All the thoughts swimming through me traveled faster than my senses, and it took more than two seconds for me to notice a woman on a horse un-horsing herself to walk into Adreth and Adria’s hut. The woman looked sufficiently weathered to be called a messenger. The realization jolted me, and suddenly I was on a mission to find out where this mysterious messenger had come from. Every newcomer in the camp was another chance at finding out more about Cadde.
“Les,” Kyren called after me, “do you see something?”
“Messenger I think. I’ll let you know.” I wasn’t sure if he heard me in my walk-away, and much as I’d hate to admit it, I didn’t much care if he heard me or not. I jogged across the camp to Adreth and Adria’s door and knocked. I wanted to barge in, but something kept me from doing so. “A moment,” Adreth shouted out at me.
I waited and listened. They spoke in hushed voices. A creeping feeling of dread raised every hair on my body; I couldn’t follow those anxious thoughts, not yet. They could be talking about anything. Troop movements, negotiations with the Celet forces…things that didn’t really concern me.
It seemed like forever before Adreth peeled open the flimsy door and beckoned me in. When I entered the messenger looked at me, then back at Adreth. She was shorter than me but sturdier even so. In a fight I’d place bets on her, not me, though to be fair there aren’t many people against which I’d have much of a chance. This strange fear only added to my concern that this woman looked afraid of me. That couldn’t be right. Either I was misinterpretting the situation or she thought I was someone of more consequence than I was.
Adreth didn’t flinch. I wasn’t convinced he was capable of such a thing. Adria kept her eyes on her brother, just like the messenger.
“Baron, there is something you should know,” Adreth’s eyebrows quirked just slightly, as if to say, Are you ready to hear me say this?
The look on his face tightened something in my gut. I think I knew immediately that there was something going on about Cadde – something very bad. None of the thoughts were concrete, though, as my vision and hearing shifted, and the words from my mouth sounded as if they came from someone else.
“What is it, Lieutenant?” Was my voice always that wispy?
“I-” the messenger tried to speak and was cut off with the flick of Adreth’s hand in her direction.
“Les, I am very sorry to tell you that Cadde has been lost,” his voice was measured and slow. “Our messenger, Emm, was told by the survivors from Pelle that your wife was blight-touched soon after you left. They were not able to find her when they evacuated your home.”
Emptiness, just then, throughout my body. All I felt was cold, disconnected. I wanted to burn down the encampment and burst into tears all at once, and instead the only thing I did…was stand still.
It would be so much better if she were dead. She probably was. This wasn’t happening.
Adreth dismissed the messenger, people moving around me while I stood outside of time. He spoke to me. “Les,” he looked me straight in the eye, “I’m sorry.”
I swallowed. Should I have laughed? “No,” I must have said, because it certainly seemed like I was talking. Shit. “I have to…I should go. I should go.”
“No,” my voice rose, anger flying past my lips even while I couldn’t quite feel the heat of the emotion at the time. “I shouldn’t be here. I should never have been here – if I hadn’t been here then-“
“Sh,” Adreth inched between me and the door. If he’d been a smaller man I think I would have tried to push him out of the way, but even with half my brain working properly it was obvious that he was a large man, much larger than me. If he wanted me to stay he could make me stay. “I’m not going to pretend this is nothing to you, but I’m also going to need you to keep this contained.”
“Contained?” At that I did laugh. There were tears on my cheeks – they must have been mine. “I don’t think you understand. Cadde is blight-touched and it is my fault.”
“The hell it was,” Adria spoke up, looking altogether uncomfortable with the whole situation, yet unwilling to leave. “What could you have done if you were there?”
“She would have known me. She…maybe she wouldn’t have run. She would be alive.”
“Would you?” Adria’s puzzled gaze saw much clearer than my own. “Pelle was evacuated. It was destroyed. Everyone left was killed or captured. If your wife is alive it’s because she ran off, and if you’d been there, you would be just as dead as any of them.”
“Dead and better off,” I choked.
“You’ll keep that to yourself,” Adreth loomed closer, and with him the idea that he could smash me to bits. I had never met a man who wielded charisma and intimidation in such equal measure. I envied that. “You’re here. You’re with us. You are not alone.”
Because you need me for something, you mean? I didn’t say that. I wasn’t sure if it was true. The way he expressed caring felt real when everything else in the world didn’t. As much as I wanted to blame someone for something, it was clear that Adreth wasn’t pretending.
“I can’t do this,” the words spilled out too soft and too quick. I wasn’t sure they could even understand them. I turned away from Adreth, towards a wall. I pressed my knuckles to my forehead just to feel the pain.
There was silence for a long time. I could hear Adria shifting uncomfortably while Adreth stayed still enough that it was almost like he’d disappeared. It was getting dark outside, I was pretty sure. Kyren would wonder where I went.
“Adria,” Adreth’s voice was smooth and low, even soothing. “I think you should find Kyren. Have him come in here, see if you or he can find something for the baron to eat.” It was as if he was Aia with her mind-reading ability.
“Here?” He must have given her some kind of gesture or look, because the next thing I heard was Adria clearing her throat. “Not a problem.” She left.
“Please, Baron, have a seat,” Adreth moved to take a place on one of the sitting-pillows near the fire circle. It gave me pause, but I eventually obliged to take a seat across from him.
I didn’t look at him. There was a crystalline quality to everything I saw, blurred by tears. The part of me that was still supposed to be a “leader” – whatever that meant – lamented Adreth watching me in such a state. Another part of me, the larger, growing part, didn’t care what happened to me or anyone else. That thought was almost comforting.
We sat quietly for a while. I wondered where the hell Adria got off to, looking for Kyren. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted her to come back.
“I’ve never lost a mate,” Adreth’s voice startled me to attention. He sat forward, elbows on his knees, gazing into the fire rather than me. “I have lost many friends, family…people you can’t replace. It’s never easy and it doesn’t get easier.”
I guffawed – almost laughed – and at once felt sick. How could I laugh at a time like this? Was I really so hollow to think…? “Lieutenant, never easy is as far as I can imagine from what this is. This whole thing…” the image of the broken spire flashed in my mind, and I squeezed my eyes shut as if it would drive the image away. It didn’t. My parents, my friends, my wife…like as not, they were all dead, and I should have been dead with them. The laughter grew in my chest. “What kind of god,” I choked through laughter and tears, “left me alive through all this? Whose joke is that, Lieutneant? Explain that to me.”
His dark eyes flashed up to meet my gaze, something haunted hidden behind them, a thing I didn’t expect to see. “I’m not going to try to explain the universe to you, Baron, but let me tell you this much-” Adria peeked through the door with Kyren behind her, both of them pausing in the doorway, no doubt feeling the weight of Adreth’s talk with me. He continued, barely pausing. “What I do – what we all do – we can’t do it hoping that some deity will protect us. Reason or not, you’re alive and they’re gone. We’re all we’ve got.”
I didn’t understand it in that moment, feeling the raw, penetrating pain of grief. Looking back, that may have been the wisest thing anyone’s ever said to me.