Pareetha and her daughter watched from atop a flat boulder midway down the pass, where the path from White Bear met the road. A few hundred paces along the path, past a grove of gnarled ancestor trees, her guards lingered outside an abandoned longhouse. It had been easy to find volunteers; more difficult had been convincing the rest of the villagers to stay away. Pareetha had chosen the young women and men with the steadiest hands and coolest tempers.
The wind shifted, carrying with it the stench of rotting wounds, rancid food, and unwashed bodies. Sevi coughed and covered her nose.
“If just one of them trips, they’ll all topple down the pass in a heap,” she said, her voice muffled by her glove. She was thirteen years old. She had never known a life without war. “Then we’ll be smelling them forever.”
“Hush,” said Pareetha. The soldiers plodded only a few feet from them. She looked over the tops of their heads, very few protected from the cold, and tried not to meet their eyes.
Sevi dropped her hand and sighed. “I just want them gone. I want them gone forever.”
Pareetha’s heart ached to hear the weariness in her daughter’s voice. “As do I.”
A pause, then Sevi added, more quietly, “I want him gone forever.”
They turned, as one, to look up the road.
On a switchback above the junction, a tall red carriage tilted precariously as it rounded the bend. The Virtue’s seal, a white heart inside a yellow moon, glared from the broad side. The Virtue’s flags, the same symbol upon a field of red, whipped and snapped in the wind. In the mountain twilight, the red paint was fading to muddy black. It towered over the soldiers and carts, its wooden wheels rattling on the rough road, the leather straps of its suspension creaking with every bump. A team of eight buffalo, their horns filed to nubs, plodded in harnesses of red leather and tarnished silver. The creatures were so skinny their ribs made washboards of their flanks.
Pareetha had been watching the carriage since it had lumbered over the first pass and began its precarious journey into the valley, a drumbeat of expectation in her chest. Excitement is not so different from fear, her mother used to say, words Pareetha had not understood until her mother died and the war began. A thread of smoke rose from a chimney on the carriage’s roof. The Virtue had always been too thin-skinned to endure the cold of this land he had tried to conquer.
Her thoughts uncoiling like a whip, Pareetha imagined the carriage tipping, the carriage toppling, a slow fall that would scatter the soldiers around it like ants. The stove or brazier within would spill its coals into curtains, into cushions, into extravagant silk robes. The mountains would echo with the deafening crash. Fire would engulf the splintered red box.
The man inside would scream.
The air would smell, briefly, of cooked meat.
Snow and rain would eventually wash away the smear of greasy black ash.
Be careful of your dark thoughts, her mother would have said, for the ancestors might hear you. When she was young and curled at her mother’s feet, wide-eyed with wonder as the wise woman talked and laughed, Pareetha had believed the warning. But if the ancestors in their ancient trees had heard her pleas these past twenty years, they had not seen fit to answer.
She stepped to the edge of the boulder and raised her hand. The nearest soldiers stopped so suddenly they bumped into one another. Murmurs and whispers carried along the line, a tremulous ripple. Pareetha heard them say witch. She heard them say nightfall. She hated the rough sound of their southern language. On the fields outside Kint’s mud-plastered walls, the soldiers had been stunned. They had been angry. They had been defiant. They had not understood how they could have been defeated by mountain nomads, barbarians, squabbling family clans, knotty-haired hedge-witches, savages.
Now their faces showed only weariness, or nothing at all.
A woman riding horseback, dressed in a captain’s uniform, drew her horse alongside the rock where Pareetha and Sevi were standing. Her hair was the same dull, dirty gray as her mount. Her face was broad, her jaw as square as the butt of an ax. She had to look up to address Pareetha.
“We regret to you this imposition on your peace,” the woman said. She was clumsy with the Sufa tongue, carefully stepping her way through the formal constructions like a drunkard picking through the aftermath of a tavern fight. “We are the one who is Ona. We ask to you grant us pass your lands on this way. We ask to you read to us what would be read.”
To her credit, Ona did not sound like she had grown bored of making this request, although she must have made it half a hundred times before, in every village and town the army had passed on its long retreat, before every clan elder or witch council. They had been marching south for three months. This cold, lonely valley, called the Gates of Ice by those who lived here, was their last stop before they left Sufa for good.
“Over there,” Pareetha said, pointing to the building where the young guards waited. Earlier they had cleaned the old chimney to light a fire. The longhouse had been empty since its previous inhabitants had died in the prison at Blueswallow at the hands of the Virtue’s torturers. “That is where your master will hear us.”
Ona looked. “There?”
Pareetha could not tell if it was fear or distaste that passed over her face. “There.”
The captain did not answer for so long Pareetha began to wonder if she was going to refuse and risk punishment. The witches of Halap Peak, far to the north, had woven a binding of obedience over the Virtue and his commanders while he remained within Sufa. Pareetha did not know what the binding would do should he test it, but it was unlikely to be pleasant. Halap women wore rattling armor fashioned from the bones of their ancestors and trained mountain cats to carry their minds on long-ranging hunts. Two hundred and thirty-seven of their sisters had been burned alive when the Virtue’s army sacked a temple in the Qista Valley. Those who survived were neither squeamish nor forgiving.
Finally Ona said, “I will bring him.”
She tugged on the reins to bring her horse about. She paused when her gaze fell on the grove of the ancestors. These were ancient trees, so twisted by wind none was much taller than a man, so gnarled their dark bark had long ago enclosed the bones buried within. Nobody knew the names of the ancestors who rested in this grove, only that they had been the first to settle in the Gates of Ice, the first to make the shores of White Bear Lake their home, the first to call upon the power of the mountains and glaciers and cold winter wind to weave spells of protection and strength over this lonely valley.
The valley's nine wise women had known their names. But that knowledge, and so much more, had been lost when they were murdered. Sometimes, in quiet moments late at night, Pareetha whispered nonsense syllables to herself, trying in vain to echo her mother’s cadence, trying to draw what was lost from the darkest folds of her childhood memories. It never worked. She could not recall the sound of her mother’s voice.
“I do not know what promise is kindly offered by this place,” Ona said.
She was not looking at the ancestor trees anymore. She was looking at Pareetha, and the words might have been a taunt, but there was no mockery in her voice. Sevi, at Pareetha’s side, was holding her breath. The soldiers around the captain pretended not to listen.
When the treaty negotiations had begun on the plains of Kint, The Virtue, surrounded by his cardinals, had spent days demurring and debating, repeating and reneging, never agreeing, never conceding. One day he would thank the people of Sufa for their mercy; the next he would promise to rain fiery retribution upon their heads. He made outrageous demands, refused reasonable compromises, and required a new silk pillow to cushion his chair every morning. It was not long before the clan and family leaders began to despair. They had cowed the Virtue’s army, but he had no intention of retreating. He did not believe he had been beaten.
Then one morning the mother-witch of Kint, a bird-like old woman with thin white hair and one blue eye, had stepped forward to offer her city’s terms for the Virtue’s surrender. The cardinals had looked upon her delicate frame and patched clothes, and they had laughed. They had laughed with the snorting certainty of men who did not believe an old woman could harm them. They had laughed and ordered her taken away. They had laughed when she spoke her name, her title, her ancestry. They had laughed and laughed until the muddy ground opened beneath them and one cardinal vanished into a damp, crumbling pit, his screams cut away by a wet sucking sound. The laughter stopped, but the mother-witch did not.
The Virtue did not plead for the lives of his cardinals until eight more had died. Then, only then, was he willing to negotiate.
The wind turned again. The boughs of the ancestor trees scraped and rasped.
“Bring him,” Pareetha said. “You will hear our terms inside.”
Ona nodded curtly and urged her horse up the road, toward the red carriage.
Sevi shifted her weight from one foot to another and ducked her chin into her fur collar.
“Mefi told me the slickrock clans pelted them with clumps of dung,” she said. She sniffled and rubbed at her pink nose. During the signing of the treaty, the slickrock elders had demonstrated their terms of surrender on a man who had been found wearing the hair of Sufa children in a braided sash. It had taken three days for his flesh and blood to turn entirely to stone, but less than half that long for him to stop screaming. “They didn’t even lift their heads. They’re afraid of being turned into piles of rubble.”
“You needn’t wait with me,” Pareetha said, not for the first time.
Sevi sniffled again. “They’ll have to stop in the valley, won’t they? I don’t want them to stop here.”
“It’s too late for them to safely cross the second pass,” Pareetha said.
The first snowflakes began to fall, whirling down from the low gray clouds in lazy spirals. Sevi held out her hand to catch one. “What do we care if they’re safe? Can’t you make them keep going?”
“I will not deny them a night in the ancestor’s forest. I do not think they will linger much after dawn.”
Sevi gave her a questioning look. “But you can’t do anything. Can you?”
Her daughter’s question—asked not hopefully, but doubtfully—struck Pareetha like a punch to the throat. Sevi had never known a time when her people were powerful.
Pareetha said nothing, and Sevi turned away. Her gaze skipped over the soldiers and settled on the carriage, where the captain had dismounted to approach the door. There had only been one awesome power in Sevi’s young life, and he rode in that fire-warmed box while his army stumbled in the cold.
• • •
With the agonizing slowness of empty ceremony, eight soldiers formed twin lines outside the red carriage, flanking its narrow door. They were empty-handed; some did not even have swords in their scabbards. They waited, shivering in their boots and threadbare uniforms, as the scant gray daylight bled from the valley. Pareetha had sent Sevi into the longhouse to alert the guards and warm herself, and she was beginning to wish she had gone as well. She could not feel her nose.
Some time passed before the carriage door opened and smoke billowed out, obscuring a soft orange light. Pale hands emerged, grasping the shoulders of the closest soldiers. A short, slight man with papery-white skin and a shaved head stepped from the carriage onto the metal steps. A second man, nearly identical, followed.
The Virtue’s cardinals all looked the same, no matter their age or land of origin. Pareetha had seen dozens of them over the years. She had even killed two, once, so long ago she had not yet known how long the invasion would last nor how many clans and tribes and towns would fall. When she had still believed they might drive the Virtue away before winter, before spring, surely before the end of summer. Helping with her deadly mission had been a pair of brothers, skilled witches from the western canyonlands. Both men had died.
It was not a fair price, the lives of two good men for the lives of two scuttling, sneering sycophants. When they died the cardinals had smelled of wine and piss and overripe plums.
Outside the carriage, the old men unfolded a long length of red cloth and held it high above their heads. They waited. Their arms trembled. Snow escaped the gray sky, the flakes whisking sideways rather than collecting on the ground. The northern pass was shrouded in clouds. The army’s ragged trailing end of carts and mules had cross the summit while Pareetha was not watching.
Finally: the cardinals’ arms straightened, the soldiers’ attention sharpened, and a solitary figure emerged from the carriage. The red cloth hid him from view: Pareetha could see only the jutting peaks of a golden headpiece. The crown bobbled the cardinals shuffled along, their slippers scraping over gravel and stone, the red cloth snapping in the wind, with the eight soldiers behind them. The procession moved awkwardly down the road and up the path to the longhouse.
Pareetha waited with Ona until they had passed, then followed. They did not speak as they walked side by side to the longhouse. Ona glanced at Pareetha and her guards before stepping through the doorway. The cardinals had accompanied the Virtue into the warmth, but the eight soldiers remained outside in the cold.
Noises came from within: low voices, the clatter of logs, the elegant swish of folding silk. Another stretch of time passed. The mountain twilight deepened. The sky was now the color of steel. Snow whirled on the restless wind.
“Come in,” said a voice from inside. It was little more than a whisper, that voice, but the gray evening stilled to listen, the ice-edge snowflakes suspended a moment in the air. The wind itself trembled like a cowering hare for the space of a breath. “Come in, come in. Join us.”
One of Pareetha’s guards huffed. “You need an invitation?”
Pareetha gave the girl a quick smile and hoped it was reassuring. “Wait here. This won’t take long.”
One of the Virtue’s soldiers, a boy, made a small, animal sound in his throat. A companion comforted him with a touch on the shoulder. Pareetha stepped into the longhouse before her smile turned to a grimace and frightened the children more. The warmth was sudden and startling; Sevi had added fresh wood to the fire. She stood now beside an empty stool, her expression anxious, her fingers twitching nervously at her sides.
The Virtue was seated on another stool in the center of the room. His two cardinals stood just behind him, their hands folded into their long sleeves. Ona stood by the hearth. Beneath the smoke, Pareetha smelled strong, flowery perfume over the sour stench of an invalid near death.
She sat on the empty stool and folded her hands in her lap and she thought: So. So, this frail, sickly creature was the conqueror of a hundred realms. Here was the nightmare who had swept through Sufa with bone-rattling speed. Here was the man who had set his eyes upon the lands of snow and ice, the savage lands, the witching lands, the mountains of whispers and death, the valleys of memory and blood, the realms where stone touches sky, untamed and unconquered since the beginning of time—but he had not conquered them, and he had not tamed them, and his reign was over.
“Greetings, gentle mother,” said the Virtue. He spoke in a high, whispering voice, like wind passing through an empty house. “You are kind to receive us.”
He had aged decades in the three months since the Treaty of Kint. He was even shorter than he had been before, as though his bones were crumbling into themselves. His scalp was bare except for a few lonely white hairs, and the elaborate crown of glittering rubies and gold cut into his skin so deeply Pareetha wondered if he could remove it at all. His eyes were watery blue surrounded by jaundiced yellow. He had no eyebrows. His hands, resting on his knees, were so brittle the merest slap might shatter them.
“You find me revolting,” said the Virtue.
Pareetha looked at him, looked and did not flinch. She could see how his countenance might bear artifacts of long-faded beauty: sharp cheekbones, strong nose, lips curled into a pink pout. As a young man he would have glittered as he rode before his army and roused crowds with his speeches, gathering followers as a corpse gathers flies. He must have shone so bright it stung the eyes.
Pareetha said, “I find a plague of boils revolting as it sweeps through a city.”
The cardinals sneered and hissed.
“I find a blight revolting when it turns crops and trees to rot.”
The Virtue laughed. A string of spittle dripped from his lips.
“I find a festering wound revolting when it leaks poison into the blood,” she said. “But you, you are no more than a moth smashed beneath a thumb, easily brushed away.”
“Ah! Ah, gentle mother, I have tasted your pain before,” the Virtue said. There was wonder in his sibilant voice, as though he did not quite know what to make of her words. “I have tasted it from others like you and not like you. Has this been your home always?”
“This has always been my home,” Pareetha said.
“It is so very unlike what a home should be.” The Virtue looked around the longhouse curiously, examining the rough wooden roof beams, the crumbling sod ceiling, the crooked fireplace, the dirt floor. “Does the wind howl so all the time? Do you burn the dung of your animals? I have heard that it is the favored fuel in barbaric places.”
Pareetha did not answer.
The Virtue’s eyes narrowed. “You would begrudge me even my curiosity, gentle mother. I come from a land very far from here. You do not know of it. It is a land so splendid the sun itself is envious of its glimmer. We have cities of golden towers. We have hills so rich and green the milkmaids grow as fat as their cattle. We have such wealth even the poorest beggar collects gold coins in his cap.” The jewels on the cardinals’ rings caught the firelight as they tittered. “I have been very long from home. It is a beautiful land. You cannot imagine. You do not have a mind such as mine, that can know what others can never comprehend. I pity you for that. I could have gifted you a home like that. Such goodness, to save you from this cold, bleak place.”
“We do not need your pity,” Pareetha said. “And what you offered was neither gift nor goodness. We want nothing from you but your absence.”
With a flash of anger, the Virtue’s face was transformed. No longer was he an sickly old man, pale and spotted, but a creature of rage, loosely held together by skin as thin as mayfly husks, and pressing from behind where his bones ought to be there were instead the jagged corners of trembling anger. The red silks, the golden crown, the simpering cardinals, they were players on a traveling stage, pieces of an act performed to convince this sickly, pathetic, crumbling wreck of a man that he was still powerful.
“You will beg for me to return,” said the Virtue. “You do not know how great you can be. You will plead for my help. You are mere savages and—”
“Be quiet,” Pareetha said. The shock on his face gave her a perverse pleasure. “You are not here to bore us with your delusions. You are here to listen.”
The Virtue’s scowl was mulish, like that of a child called before his mother to tell-tale of his own misdeeds. “I have heard the treaty a hundred times, woman. The dirt shall swallow me, my skin shall rot, an ugly crone will make my cock shrivel and drop off. Get on with it and let me be on my way.”
It was what Pareetha had wanted for years. The Virtue before her, and a chance to speak. She could not make him hear the screams of those who had died on battlefields or the wails of orphaned children. She could not make him hear the wet wheeze of a last breath. The thump of a body falling to the ground, and another, and another, so many they became a drumbeat of horror in her nightmares. She did not have that power, but she had her voice, and she had intended to tell him of the wise women his soldiers had murdered, her mother and eight others, and the knowledge that had been lost. She had meant to rail at him, to thunder, to rage. She had imagined holding a knife to his throat, or a spear to his heart, until fear came into his weak, watery eyes. She would demand he acknowledge all he had destroyed. He would shrink into his robes, shamed and defeated.
Those intentions had been a daydream born of summer storms, when every new term laid upon the Virtue by other villages and clans had been a thrill, but the thrill had grown hollow as the days had passed. Pareetha could not know what her mother and the wise women would have chosen, had they lived. She could not remember her mother’s voice, and she was tired. She was tired of this man, tired of his silks, tired of his stench, tired of his petulance. She had been tired for twenty years. There was a knotty core in her center that had not slept since the first time the Gates of Ice had trembled beneath the boots of the Virtue’s army and she had fled into the woods with blood on her face and screams in her ears. The ash of her burning village had never cleared from her eyes. She did not want to endure his presence one moment longer.
Pareetha stood. “You will leave now.”
“Will I?” the Virtue said, surprised but smiling. “You have drawn an old man from his warm carriage to be insulted and abused, and you do not even have your own terms to add to the treaty? Will you not threaten me with a witch-weaving of your own?”
“Your terms are this,” Pareetha said, speaking slowly to hide her cold rage. He had no right to speak of the magic he had taken from them. He had no right to breathe even a suggestion of her mother’s great, lost power across his vile tongue. “Your army may camp in the forest tonight, because your soldiers are weary and need rest. You have until midday tomorrow to cross the summit of the southern pass and leave the Gates of Ice and the lands of Sufa forever.”
“And if I do not?”
She had no threat for him, and he knew it. She wanted to claw the smile from his face.
“You will,” Pareetha said.
She turned and strode from the longhouse, Sevi right behind her.
When they were several paces away, another set of footsteps followed. It was Ona. Both the Virtue’s soldiers and Pareetha’s guards watched warily as the women faced each other.
Ona said, “You need not our presence endure much longer.”
“Midday tomorrow,” Pareetha said.
But what she wanted to do was grab the other woman’s shoulders and shake her until she rattled and ask: Was it worth it? Is this what you expected when you left your home to follow a liar and a thief? Have you glory enough to fill your belly and bring your friends back from the dead? So many among the Virtue’s army had offered their fealty to him willingly, even as he conquered their lands, even as he slaughtered their families and neighbors. It was said their belief in his righteousness was fueled by madness and magic and a desolate fear of defeat that was stronger than both. So many had believed his promises of riches and safety, basked in his praise, reveled in the scraps of glory he offered like a butcher leaving entrails for street dogs. They were of an age, she and Ona, and she wanted know: Why? Why do you serve him? Why did so many have to suffer?
These were not questions on Pareetha’s tongue but rust, brittle and bitter.
Ona was looking at her, waiting.
“Is it your home too, the city of golden towers?” Pareetha asked.
A long pause, then Ona said, “It will be our home. This the good one has promised.”
The yearning in her voice was simple and painful. Even now, she believed the name he had given himself. Even now, she clung to the tapestries of triumph he wove and blinded herself to the lies rotten him from within. What would it take to make them see, Pareetha wondered, but it was not a question so much as a sigh. They had nothing but their belief in him. He had destroyed everything else.
Pareetha turned away. She walked with Sevi toward the village. The air smelled of roasting meat and woodsmoke and, for a moment, her stomach turned. She did not watch the Virtue’s pantomime of ceremony as he returned to his carriage.
• • •
She rose from her pallet and dressed quietly in boots and furs. Sevi was a tangle of curly brown hair peeking from beneath the thick quilted blanket. Pareetha reached for her but did not touch. She let her daughter sleep and slipped outside. The village was quiet. The animals had been brought in for the night, the fires banked, the doors and shutters latched. A fire still glowed in the longhouse by the road. The guards emerged to see who was passing, then nodded and returned to the warmth.
Specks of light dotted the valley below. The campfires of the Virtue’s army were made hazy and soft by the falling snow, winding through the forest like a snake made of stars.
When the Virtue first came to the Gates, Pareetha had been a woman of twenty-three, with a good man for a husband, strong and respected parents, one child clinging to her otter-skin boots, another growing in her womb. By the time the army had crossed the northern pass and roiled into Sufa, she had nothing. Her father and husband and child were slaughtered. Her mother and the other wise women had been dragged to their deaths behind stomping, frenzied steeds. The packed dirt pathways of White Bear had been churned into a bloody quagmire. Pareetha’s bare feet, when she fled, had tracked blood all the way down the hillside and into the ancestor forest below.
She followed that same path now. Her mouth filled with the metallic taste of fear, never forgotten. The sky had been black with smoke that day, and arrows and flames had chased at her back as she tumbled and tripped down the rocky mountainside. Her chest ached from ragged breaths drawn and released decades ago. She remembered, briefly, the flutter in her womb: the final kicks of a child who would be stillborn before the next day dawned.
The ground leveled. The creek calmed. Beneath the dusting of snow, tufts of moss replaced the tumbling stones beneath her feet, and the echoes of the long-ago massacre faded. A thick mist rose from the ground, twisting through the trees, meeting the snow as it fell. In the heart of the forest was the grove where the wise woman of the Gates had been buried for centuries. The trees were smaller but older, gnarled twisted and so close together their branches formed a canopy of braids.
At the grove’s eastern edge were nine wise women in nine trees, and the last was her mother.
Pareetha’s knees cracked as she sank to the ground. She remembered the scent of flesh boiling from bones, mingled with the acrid smoke of the smoldering village and the cruel, taunting promise of early spring. The rite should have taken days, but there had been so many to bury and so few left to bury them, and they had hurried. The tree’s rugged black bark was pale with frost. In the crevice that split its trunk, her mother’s skull was collecting soft snow in its eye sockets.
“I named her for you,” she said finally. “I haven’t told her yet, but I think she knows.”
Be careful how you speak to the ancestors, her mother used to say, because they hear what you mean more than the words you choose. It had been a long time since Pareetha had believed the ancestors were listening.
“She’s going to be as tall as you were,” Pareetha went on. “She’s thirteen now.”
Pareetha felt exhaustion in every limb, down to her bones. She felt herself sinking closer to the ground, her shoulders slumped, her head hanging. The skull’s empty eyes were watching her.
“I don’t know what promise you would have laid upon him,” she said softly. “I don’t know if you would have chosen mercy or pain. If you would have made his blood turn to ice if he did not leave, or his heart turn to stone—as though it isn’t already. You might have asked the winter wind to scour the skin from his bones. I have imagined so many punishments, but I have no way to weave them. I cannot protect us. I cannot even make a threat that he won’t dismiss with laughter.”
The only answer was a whirl of mist and whisper of wind, and in it Pareetha heard not a promise of vengeance, but the gentlest scold. It was the scold of a mother, not a wise woman. A reminder that the Virtue may sneer at Pareetha’s mountain home, he may revel in all he had taken from her and so many others, but he had not taken everything. She had a daughter who grew stronger and wiser every day. She had outlived the war that had taken parents, husbands, lovers, friends, children. She had food to fill her belly, furs to keep her warm, and strong walls to stop the wind. The people of Sufa had, in the end, triumphed. The invaders were leaving.
She did not understand the balance of loss and gain over the course of a woman’s life, and she had no wise women to whom she could direct her questions. She still could not remember her mother’s voice. She had, in this moment, only the quiet of the ancestor grove and winter’s first snowfall, and in that quiet, in that peace, she breathed, and she listened.
Her mother’s skull was wholly hidden by snow now. The tree could have been any tree.
With a sigh, Pareetha rose to her feet, knees cracking once again. She brushed snow from her coat and from her gloves. She turned away. She was not going to enjoy the long climb back to White Bear. She would take the road rather than the creekside trail.
When she came to the edge of the camp, she walked along the road until she found the Virtue’s carriage. She only wanted to look upon it one more time, she told herself, but it was a feeble child’s excuse behind a woman’s dark impulse. Smoke still rose from the chimney. Snow dusted the pelts of its buffalo, resting in their harnesses, and the driver slept wrapped in a blanket on the bench. The only sign of motion was Ona, mounted upon her gray horse, plodding a quiet circuit around the carriage, down the line, back again.
Pareetha watched the woman make two full circuits. As she began the third, the horse balked suddenly, snorting and stomping at the frozen ground. The horse shied away from the edge of the road, and Pareetha’s heart thumped. She stepped back, deeper into the shadows, then again. The mist had thickened while she was walking, but she had not noticed before now how densely it surrounded her, obscuring the trunks of the trees and wrapping the lowest branches in drifting, shifting shrouds. The wind had stopped. The snow fell lazily, without hurry. But the mist was restless with motion.
From the corner of her eyes, Pareetha saw a figure form to her left, a silhouette in the mist that dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. She stopped breathing and her heart stuttered. Another figure swirled to her right, and another. She turned, and they both vanished.
The fog stilled, and began to sink. On the road Ona’s horse steadied.
Pareetha faced forward again. Her heart thumped so powerfully she felt it in her ears, her neck, her fingertips. Her eyes burned from the cold and her refusal to blink. She did not let herself look to the left or the right. Her neck ached with the effort of holding still. Snow gathered on the ground. A soldier coughed. A log settled on a campfire.
And finally, silently, the faceless figures returned. She did not look this time. She felt them as motion at the edge of her vision, as cold breaths of air at her back, featureless but for hints of what they had once been, always just out of sight. They crowded behind her. She was a line they would not cross.
She extended her hand to the side—slowly, slowly, as she might reach for a fox caught in a snare. A cold touch caressed her fingers. She dare not look at it directly. She would never know if it was gnarled from years of spinning wool or calloused from chopping wood. It might have been chubby and soft and small and yearning for comfort she could not provide. It might have been any hand. It might have been a trick of the air and light.
Be careful what you ask of the ancestors, her mother used to say. In Pareetha’s thoughts her words were a whisper of pine needles trembling before a coming storm. Be careful, she had said, because they might answer.
There was a pain in the center of Pareetha’s chest that tasted of laughter and tears. The cold slipped from her fingers. She closed her hand into a fist and pressed her knuckles to her mouth. A single sob escaped—a gasp, nothing more—and it was immediately echoed by a loud crack. It was the sound of wood breaking, loud enough to carry.
By the campfires, soldiers woke, startled by the noise. The buffalo snorted and stamped their hooves, waking their driver from his slumber. Heads turned; voices murmured. Nobody wanted to leave the warmth of the fire. They would have been telling stories of this wood as they made camp, if they had the strength for it. Ona’s horse pranced and snorted. She soothed the startled beast, dismounted, and peered warily into the trees.
Pareetha held her breath, but Ona did not see her. She saw trees and mist, darkness and snow. She saw a forest like any forest, thick with fog, filling with snow, its ancient history hidden from her eyes. She did not belong here. She would not see anything else.
And because her attention was on the forest, she did not see what was behind her.
On the side of the red carriage was the Virtue’s seal, a white heart wreathed in a golden sun. Pareetha had watched it rumble down the road all afternoon. She had watched it blot out the sky for twenty years. But now, through the gently falling snow, the Virtue’s seal was no longer an unbroken circle of paint.
It had been sliced through by long dark lines that reached and splayed like the branches of a tree.
No. A fresh well of laughter filled Pareetha’s throat. No, those dark lines were the branches of a tree. They had split the side of the carriage; firelight shone through small cracks. In that scant yellow light, Pareentha could see that the branches were dotted with small fresh leaves, so delicate and pale they trembled in the restless air.
The door of the carriage slammed open. One of the cardinals stuck his head out and barked an order at Ona. The words were frantic, the language ugly, but Pareetha understood enough.
Send for the camp physician, he said.
The Virtue was ill, he said.
He breathes, he said, but he won’t wake.
Before Ona had even finished nodding, the cardinal vanished into the carriage and pulled the door shut. Ona pointed, and a young soldier raced to obey.
Pareetha pressed her fist to her lips again. She would cry. She would wail. She would yelp with joy. So many times she had imagined spilling the Virtue’s blood. She had imagined wounds in his flesh, fear in his eyes, ice in his blood. She had imagined his skin turning waxy and pale with frostbite. If only she had her mother’s power, she had told herself. If only the wise women had lived. If only their knowledge had not been lost. Twenty years of occupation and war, and Pareetha had never been able to imagine their power as anything but violence, its goals as anything but fear. She had been so certain, and so wrong. The laughter Pareetha had swallowed before threatened to burble up now, as hot and bitter as a mountain spring. She was a child again, giddy with all she did not know. The nine wise women were dead, their words lost, their voices silenced. But their blood had nourished this wood, and there was nothing, no army, no emperor, no violence, no invasion that could wash it away. The ancestors had been here all along, waiting for her to find a new way to hear them.
The camp physician hurried into the carriage. The guards were roused. It would not do to be caught lurking. Pareetha drew back into the shadows of the forest.
The Virtue still lived, but he would not wake. He was an old man. He had no successor or heir. He was defeated. He was ill. The knot of his power would fray with every mile the army marched. By the time they reached the golden city in its green hills—if there was such a place—his empire would be in shambles.
Pareetha could see it all as though it had already happened and her memories were fresh. She walked through the forest until the trees thinned and the canopy parted, and the wind stung her face, and the mountains loomed above her. A bank of clouds clung to the hanging valley where White Bear stood. The road, crooked and cold, would take her home. She began to climb.
The ancestors had chosen. Whether it was punishment or mercy was not for Pareetha to judge. Do not, her mother had once said, try to argue with them.
For the first time in years, her mother’s voice was clear as starlight in Pareetha’s memory.