Cassian walks for an hour or more, moving steadily and barely aware of doing so.
He comes through the last of the trees, out into the edge of the forest, and there’s moonlight falling all around him, pale on the bare twigs and brambles, and the frosted grass at his feet. The bank of woodland behind him is all silver and shadow, meaninglessly beautiful, like fine lace made of light, spun across the desperate world. His gaze slides off it. He keeps moving.
The path meanders, skirting the border of the woods, sometimes slipping back into the shade, sometimes coming right out onto open ground. Eventually it swings away from the edge of the trees altogether. The air smells different, there’s a harder frost here, and it has a tang that perhaps his wolf senses will identify. There’s a distant sound, steady, like someone breathing, but vast and rough; it’s familiar but he can’t place a name to it. His hurt mind slides away from the task and he goes on walking. Walks towards the sound, the giant breathing.
The path climbs, becomes rough underfoot. He doesn’t miss his footing. Walks, climbs, onwards, hopeless.
He finds himself on the ridge of moorland, above the great marsh.
The estuary stretches out beneath him, glittering with flecks of moonlight as it catches on water, on ice, on the distant river channel and the countless webbed pools and trickles of the delta. Far above, the stars and the waning crescent moon are brilliant in a freezing sky. The air is clear up here, and motionless, no hint of a breeze, and the frost is thick on the high ground, reflecting back the light. The grass feels hard as broken glass under his boots.
Away to the south there are lights, few and faint, hugging the foot of the escarpment.
Cassian is faintly conscious that he should be glad of that sight. The village has rebuilt, at least partially; its people aren’t tramping homeless through the winter but sitting under some kind of cover, with lamps at some kind of windows, once again. Yarrow and Sania, even angry Yanis maybe, are safe.
But he can’t go down that way; too risky, to throw himself on their hospitality, and risk being known, come morning.
In the opposite direction, northwards, the open grassy land rises and levels off, and is cut, sharp as a knife-wound, against the sky. Only a narrow band of silver lies caught between heaven and earth; the sea, moonlit, empty.
Empty as his entire world.
He has to keep moving. He turns north mindlessly and walks towards the sea.
The one time Cassian saw the ocean as a child was at the Spring Festival, at the great fair in Chiluc, the year before his father died. The Copper Mountains Mining Guild always brought a big group, to trade and set up deals for the coming year; bartering ore and ingots and worked metal, for undyed wool and salt and foods of the coast and lowlands. Families would bring their children, make a celebration of it. His six-year-old self, thrilling at every new sight and smell and sound.
Mama in her best shawl took him down to the harbour to see the big Trader ships unloading, and the little smugglers, and the fishing boats. And out away there, across the seamless blue, he’d seen islands like ridges of amethyst against the sky.
He remembers asking their names and hearing her tell him, pointing as she spoke, a name to each little distant gemstone. “Chandrilha, Scarife, Ead’hu, Sant Corou.”
That southern sea had breathed too, a vast gentle giant lying asleep against the quay. Sighing, whispering, little waves in the sun.
He sits down when he gets to the edge of the cliff. Wonders if any of the Black Isles are visible from here, by daylight. If he’ll ever see them again. It seems unlikely, as unlikely as ever returning to Chiluc or Feste. Home is long gone, all possible homes, gone.
The moon’s path over the waves is long and hard and alone, and the ground is frozen.
Should he have seen this coming? It’s hard to believe that anything will ever be the same again, or that anything will ever be well. The world is a place made strange again. All his trust had been built on a single rock and it has crumbled, as surely and as wholly as the rocks of Red Crag.
I had no inkling that she would leave me. Ask me to leave her. She has been left so many times and I would have stayed with her to the end. I had no wish ever to leave.
I do have things to strive for still. I do. I have to think of them, have to look to the future now. Find Melshi, find Kay, find my Princess. And save them, or die beside them.
But I had thought to find them, and save them, beside Jyn.
How could she insist on this right to decide for him? He’s not without skill; he could have worked with her, fought by her, could have been her hidden weapon. One wolf could feel as terrifying as ten, attacking from nowhere. But no, Jyn would have none of it, had to go off and face this fight on her own. Because she doesn’t want to be responsible for him.
She’s pushed him away, turned him out. Left him. And if he goes back, she’ll turn him away once again. Will say Go, find your freedom, find your curse-breaker. Because somehow she’s convinced herself there is someone out there selfless enough to give up their true love for his sake.
I cannot bear to lose you too. Her voice had been cold as the night air, and as hard. I will not lead you to your death.
She doesn’t expect to survive.
The sea is very calm, under the vast unveiled sky. As the heat of walking fades he’s becoming steadily more conscious of the cold; sapping, withering cold, curling in under the wool of the poncho, seeping into the backs of his thighs and the palms of his hands on the bare ground. Biting cold, yes; wolf-cold.
It will be a long time yet before the moon sets. Cassian realises it with no great care and no great surprise at that. He can sit here and work out innumerable plans and choices, but in the end, this dark night is a pain he has to suffer. Alone again, cast off again, a monster again. I know I am not; but I have been cast out as surely as if I were one; and so, I am.
He huddles in on himself inside the poncho, pulling its folds close around, tucking his hands into his armpits. Slowly curls up into a foetal ball, bowing his head into darkness. The only warmth now is the heat of his own breath , funnelled inward by the open necked garment, coming and going against his breast.
Somewhere out there, across that wide mirror sea, are the people I must try to reach now, and the hopes I must try to believe in. Somewhere behind, Rue and the rest.
God help us, we are more scattered than ever.
And Jyn. Who I must not think on at all, ever again.
It is wrong, that this has happened, it’s a wrong and a torment and a tearing-out of his heart on every breath; and it will go on being so. But what else, what more, he could have done, he doesn’t know.
He’s starting to shiver hard now. Earlier his eyes were hot too, but now there are slow claws of ice trickling down his cheeks, the tracks of tears close to freezing. He’d barely noticed shedding them.
Only one night ago, he’d fought to stay awake and alive; now it hardly seems worth the bother. He knows he should head back into the forest, seek shelter; hide in a hollow tree or find some nook among the roots. But out here on the cliffs, sitting in silence as the moon passes along its course, for a painful hopeless time, he doesn’t want to. It will be so much effort, to gather himself up and go on living once again.
And yet I must. Rue is yet living, who was my friend once and now is again. Kay, somewhere out there. The Princess. My honour with her.
This is war, this is rebellion, this is the one hope all the conquered peoples have, to stay alive long enough to defeat this enemy, and win our freedom again. I am a soldier, I have a duty still, even if my heart is torn out I must carry on.
He raises his head to take one last look at the moon’s track over the sea. The cold way that leads across the void. It looks like something seen in dreams; he imagines it will come back to him that way, maybe for years to come, and in those dreams it will be the road home. But it’s a path he cannot take. Cassian hauls himself wearily to his feet once more.
I have a duty. I must go on.
Daylight comes. It hurts even more than usual. Every toe, every hair, feels stiff with frost, and waking is as slow as the night hours had been, passing under the moon, lighting him back to this rough scrape among the bracken, watching with him as he stripped and shivered and finally dropped into unconsciousness.
He pulls his front paws slowly up to his nose, trying to breathe warmth onto them. It must have snowed in the night, he is never this cold on waking, not even after a blizzard, but it’s as if his coat has been shaved from him and nothing left but bare, goose-pimpled, desperate skin.
Nothing left but skin.
He opens his eyes.
There are rainbows in his lashes, the winter sunlight catching and shivering, gleaming, sparkling, freezing. Up against his face, twisted round strangely so he feels they must have been wrenched, sprained, surely they should be in agony, are they completely numb with the cold? – are his front feet. Bare, pink, reddish from cold and hairless and –
These are hands.
Cassian sits upright in a single jerk of shock and stares. The poncho and shirt fall from where he’d wrapped them around himself, and the day’s chill air slaps its cold hands on his; and on his arms, his shoulders, his back and chest. His heart is pounding so hard he feels nauseous for a moment. Hands, arms, shoulders. He pushes the blanket back, kicks free of it. Naked. Man. Not wolf, man, he’s a man again and it’s daylight –
A little shriek comes out of his mouth, of something almost like fear, and he clamps his jaw on it wildly. Human again, human again, human by day, how did this happen? The curse, broken, gone, is it possible? It cannot be possible! He raises a shaking hand to his face. Hair, yes, but no muzzle under it, and his fingers find human lips, it isn’t the wolf’s hair at all but his own ordinary moustache and the scruffy uneven beard he’d been meaning to shave off.
Human. By daylight. Human human human it cannot be possible it cannot be –
God’s mercy it’s cold. Surely a dream would not be so cold.
But how? How, how, how can this be possible? –
Fumbling clumsy hands drag the shirt over his head again, haul on the drawers and tie them, and the breeches, the lumpy socks. Hs stomach growls with hunger. He finds himself muttering swear words as he struggles to get the boots on.
At last he staggers upright. A man, standing upright, by daylight, a man again, a man. Pulling the poncho over his head he stumbles towards the light.
There are birds calling around him; seagulls in the distance, and nearer, daws in the trees squawking chack-chack-chack at one another. Dry leaves and dead branches crack underfoot, he pushes through a tangle of dead foliage, sees the frost glittering ahead, the open ground as he comes out through the edge of the wood and there is sun
Sun. Sun and bitter-cold wintry air, on his face and his human eyes, sun on his skin. He raises his hands up and looks at them, and they are still human.
He used to be tanned; three years without a touch of sunlight have left him ghost pale under the reddening of cold. He turns the red and white hands about in the daylight; palms, backs, palms again. These are my hands.
The curse is broken. What happened last night? The curse, the curse is broken!
I cannot bear to lose you too , she said. You know I want you with me.
A huge shudder runs through him.
What a fool I’ve been, not to hear what you were saying. You know I want you with me.
I heard you say that and still walked away when you bade me go.
Jyn, Jyn, am I the greater fool or are you? You bade me go. You did that.
And when you did that, you did this.
He’s panting for air; he stares at the sky, the grass, the brightness, dazzling his human eyes. The day still seems unreal, but it is as solid and concrete as the ground beneath his boots. A day with the colours of human sight.
There’s hardly even a whiff of the smells which must surely still be here, of the woods, the moors, the frost, the salt-scent sea away over that ridge. He knows that cold makes smells carry, but this is a human world again and almost without scent.
The sun is well above the horizon. He can at least still orientate himself by that, even if he can’t smell his way home any longer.
Cassian starts to run.
When he crashes through the trees, back into the clearing at last, there’s one smell at least in the air. Woodsmoke. He raises his eyes, praying, and God be thanked, yes, there’s smoke still rising from the chimney. She hasn’t left yet.
He’s swaying with tiredness after that run, blood thumping and breath tearing in his throat. His own panting sounds like the roar of a storm. He flings out one arm, to grab the nearest tree trunk and hold on to it. He’s here. This is where he crouched, right here on the edge of the forest, when Jyn opened that door to him for the first time. She stood just there, silhouetted against the lamplight, and said I know you’re out there.
Does she know now? His wolf-senses are gone, he can’t smell her at all, neither the ever-present sweet musk of her skin nor the soft scent of her emotions. Anger and hope, concern and courage, everything that makes Jyn, Jyn, all alike hidden from him.
Jyn, please, sense me. Come to the window, look out. I am here.
I am here, because you sent me away.
The paradox would make him laugh aloud if he weren’t so out of breath. What a pair of fools they have been.
All through yesterday, when she was holding her spirit back from him, he could still smell her; and she had smelled of hurt, of fear, of regret and determination. She’d smelled of lost hope and the knowledge of last chances let go. But not the smallest note of cunning or planning or deception. She can truly never have guessed this could happen.
“Jyn,” he says. It comes out a whisper. He’s still panting from the long run through the woods. He draws another raw breath, to shout her name.
The door opens, and she’s there. She stands frozen, staring, one hand resting on the doorframe while the other hesitates towards him and draws back, and then reaches out again, plucking at the air between them like a harp-string. Her lips part and close, and slowly part again. Her whole face is wide open, absolute shock and then an overwhelming desperate hope.
He allows himself to smile; feels as uncertain as a child, as if he did not now know. But he does know, because surely, surely, the curse is broken and this can only mean one thing –
Jyn’s mouth is working. He hears her gasp and it’s the sound of someone struggling not to cry. She lets go of the door jamb and takes two clumsy steps towards him, and he pulls himself out of the shadow of the trees and runs to her.