The earth shakes around them, a marching-shrugging beat like the recruiters' drums, and there's screaming as the River moves and breaks, high wailing from the tents, deep shouting terror from the throats of those falling, falling, falling. Hern's mouth opens but only to gasp out soundlessly (or at least he can't hear himself), he hooks his hands deep into the soil, gripping a stray tree root, holding on and thinking between beats a terrified Kankredin! — and then that Tanaqui did it — and then oh, mother, he's going to defeat the bastard by destroying all of us and he shuts his mouth and he closes his eyes.
With one of the leaps he's thrown into the air, and he tightens his grip on the root, air whoomping out of him as he falls back to the ground. The rocks dig into his elbows and he grimaces, gasping for air and coughing on the soil particulates he breathes in. "Grandfather," he chokes out, "why are you killing us?" and it's nothing like a prayer.
When the shaking stops, it does it in starts—the tremors get farther and farther apart. So Hern doesn't notice, at first, when it is done for good. A few minutes pass in silence, and then he hears someone talking in a soft worried voice to someone else, who responds with reassurance and a hacking cough. Hern opens his eyes, and sits up.
The land is flat, the falls gone. South of him are mountains, stranger and more spread than the ones that were there before. He doesn't see the River.
He stops at that thought, and looks again. His whole life has been lived on the River's edge but, while the ground is muddy and there are puddles of water, the River itself is gone. She's dead, again. Hern blinks, and shakes his head, cleaning the worst of the muck off of his face. There are things he needs to see to.
Soon Hern realizes a problem, looking across the flatland of figures gathering to what's left of the tents. Everyone—everything—is the same muddy brown, hair and skin and clothes and all over, and it's been a pain trying to find anyone.
So he stops trying and finds a crate instead, dragging it into the rough center of the circle. He tests it, carefully, nodding to anyone giving him curious looks, before standing on it. It sinks slightly to the left, in the mud, but he keeps his balance. "Our Grand Father has been released, and defeated Kankredin!" Hern projects, and the people turn to him. He's not sure if that's true, but he doesn't see the wrongness that Kankredin brought with him and he thinks it's a fair guess until he has time to confirm with Tanamil. "I am the Adon," he adds, sudden and embarrassed as he remembers his hair and skin and clothes are the same muddy color as everyone else. "We need to assemble teams to find the injured, and set up an infirmary tent. The able-bodied should gather here." He waves decisively to his right, and is relieved to see the people moving with a new purpose.
If they think they can do this, they can; but first he needs to think it for them. The King should set an example.
At the end of the day Hern looks over the rough camp, shoving the heels of his hands against his eyes and rolling his shoulders back. Almost everyone's been found, and those dead appear to be almost exclusively from the fighting with the Heathen magicians. The animals, unfortunately, have been all but completely lost. There are many injured from both events (broken bones and gashes seem to be the staple) but most are still walking; Robin with her new-found vitality is aiding them with Tanamil and Duck, though even he can see that Duck is almost translucent from exhaustion. Which Hern realizes, suddenly, is strange — Duck not whining, for once, about being tired.
He turns from the infirmary tents and his two siblings, to look back at the rest of the camp. Over the fires the fish that were found in scores in the mud are being cleaned as best anyone can with as little water as they have (and Tanamil complained and made excuses, but cleaned the muck out of one good-size patch so they could boil it). The mothers and the youngest children, and the elderly who aren't able-bodied enough to be helping, are gathered around the fires. They had been the furthest back from the falls, and their section of earth had slid almost smoothly forward and down. Hern's heart burned with relief when he found out, though he hadn't been worried because he hadn't thought to worry about them especially until he found out they were well. He has younger siblings; he knows how fragile babies are.
At the thought he frowns, and looks back around the camp again. He puts his hands back up to his face, pressing his eyes again as if it will stop them from watering. Almost everyone has been found, but not two of the soldiers and not Tanaqui. Robin and Duck haven't asked him; he thinks they don't know.
Wren approaches him, and Hern bends his neck to listen to the headman instead of starting a search for his kid sister. Tanaqui will understand; she's always been the pragmatic one.
They go to the king's tent, makeshift and tilted because one of the old stakes snapped in two. Hern asks Wren for a map, and they find one in a chest that was half-buried during the trembling but too heavy to move far.
Hern spreads it out on the top of the chest, tracing the edges, hand trembling. He doesn't know how much of it is still accurate.
"We'll have to make for the coast," he says, looking up to Wren, who nods at him.
"I'll set up teams to collect the remaining fish and anything else we find," the headman says, "and the smoking fires. You need sleep, Adon."
Hern thinks of protesting, and of all the things that need to be done. But they need to be done tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and on in a trudge of days that don't seem to him like they'll ever end. (He'll wake up in the middle of the night with a nightmare that they won't ever end, that he will be like Tanamil—but he doesn't think that yet.) His lips pull flat and he nods to Wren, thanking him briskly as the headman leaves.
He pulls off his clothes, squeezing them once they're off to crinkle out the worst of the dried mud, and coughs in the dust cloud that comes off of them. He brushes himself off, too, and looks at the filthy thin rug that had travelled with the tent and once had Kars Adon's lineage written on it (though it is older than Kars Adon was when he died, and he doesn't know the last man of his lineage who was on it) kneeling to finger it and pulling another face. It's just a rug. He pulls a blanket from the chest, and puts his face in its comparatively clean warmth.
He takes one careful breath, and then another, before pulling the blanket over him and the rug and sleeping in the dim twilight.
When he wakes up from his dream, breath caught in his throat, Duck's sharing the blanket with him. Duck never learned how to share well, and all of Hern's lower legs are exposed. The air is cold.
He tries to pry it out of his little brother's hands, but he's even worse than usual and just moves farther away.
"Duck," Hern hisses at him, grabbing his shoulder and shaking him. Duck starts awake with a yelp. "Shh!"
"What?" Duck asks him, belligerent, wrapped in the blanket.
Hern calls a quiet reassurance to the guard who asks "Adon…?" and glares at his little brother. He's pretty certain he's turning blue.
"What?" Duck's voice takes on an even whinier quality.
Hern rolls his eyes upwards, before closing them hard. "If you want to use my blanket, you have to share it with me, you little—"
"You can't say that," Duck tells him, "I'm your brother."
"You'd let me freeze to death!" Hern accuses, voice squeaking a little.
Duck pauses, thoughtfully. "Not to de—" before Hern grabs the edge of the blanket and forcefully unrolls him. "Hern!"
Hern wraps himself comfortably with the blanket while Duck makes horrid faces at him, clutching his knees and shivering. Once Hern is certain it's tucked snugly around him so theft later in the night is impossible, he offers the other half to Duck. "There, sharing. Idiot."
"Your half's bigger," Duck complains, though he squeezes in and wraps himself haphazardly with the rest. He yawns.
"I'm bigger," Hern tells him, yawning as well.
In the silence, before Hern is quite asleep, Duck says "Hern?"
"Yes?" he asks, hearing the change in tone and knowing it means he should pay attention. He begrudges it, everyone is asking for his attention when he just wants to sleep, but Duck's already talking again.
"Do you think we're ever going to see Tanaqui again? She said I could go south with her and find Gull after all of this."
Hern breaths carefully, even though he was half-expecting the question. He begrudges it even more, now. How is he supposed to know what to say? What is he supposed to do? Why isn't Gull here now? Why isn't Closti or Kars Adon? He bites his lip, hard.
"Hern?" Duck asks again, concerned.
"I think she's dead," Hern confesses, because he can't think of anything better to say. "She went to the source of the River of the dead, and she never came back. She's gone, Duck."
Duck shakes his head, violently. "No," he says, in the most stubborn brat voice he has. "She's just gone south, with Gull. He wouldn't kill her, Mother wouldn't let him."
But they both know Mother's dead, and Hern thinks in his heart that Gull is too.
He doesn't say anything, after that.
Before they're ready to leave, Robin and Tanamil come to say their good-byes. Tanamil looks restless, and eager, and Robin keeps laughing at him even as she clutches at Duck and tells him the many ways in which she's going to miss him. Her sentences are cut off, now and then, as if she means to say you and Tanaqui, and when Duck tells her that they'll both miss her she sets her hand in his hair and tells him in a kind voice to tell Tanaqui that she loves her. Duck wrinkles his nose, but nods. She comes to Hern after that and tilts her head at him, putting a hand to the side of his face for a moment before lowering it.
"You'll be fine, Hern," she says, some of the old wan expression creeping back into her face.
He lays a hand on her shoulder, kisses her cheek, and marvels how she doesn't seem like she's his sister. She's happier, yes, but older and more distant. Has he lost three siblings, now?
"Where're you going?" he asks, eyes lifting to Tanamil.
"There're islands," the Undying responds, hands flickering as he weaves the last spells he said he'd cast for them, before he left. "Almost due east."
"And will you come back?" he asks, hand tightening on Robin's shoulder.
"Of course we will, now and then," Robin says, hand going to his. "Hern."
Tanamil looks to their hands, and then to Hern and raises his eyebrows. Hern flushes; he knows that he has no ability to keep the wife of an Undying with him, but this is his sister. He doesn't like the idea of her just being spirited away. He holds eye contact, and Tanamil seems to shrug without actually moving.
"If you're on the coast we'll find you, brother," Tanamil says, finishing the last knot and handing the string to Duck. His tone is friendly, but Hern takes his meaning and scowls.
Robin smiles at him, though, and Hern smiles back after a moment, letting go of her hand.
They leave and Duck looks up at him, strings hanging from his hands. "I guess we'd better make it to the coast."
When the fish is smoked through a week later, and those who will recover enough to walk have, they leave across the muddy flats. It is slow going, and they find small pockets of people here and there on the way, who for the most part join them. None of the landmarks are the same, but the sun still rises in the east. That's what Hern tells people, when asked—it usually makes at least a few of them smile. They all know the walk to the ocean can be done; they are just worried about the new mountains and rivers (smaller than the River, for which he is nothing but grateful) crossing their way.
"Why can't we just go over them?" Duck complains one evening, while they're trying to find a ford for the rivers.
"You would need wings," Hern says, with a laugh, "we're men, not birds, even with our names."
During the twilight resting hours, he and Wren carefully keep a map of where they've been. When Hern looks at it, the smell of the ocean getting stronger every day (and by now he's sure he's not just imagining it), he can see where there will be towns, and farms, and villages—and overtop of it all, some day, there will be roads.