i. though it's not always easy, the loving, the lonely
Fairpoint Hold is a happy place.
It's not happy by virtue of the cold, forbidding stone that makes it up, and its fields and forests could be any fields and forests. It's happy because Phi's family lives there or nearby, and they've made it happy, through force of will and hope, when it was a prison at best when they were young. Most days, its halls ring with laughter, its orchards and gardens welcome wanderers and provide a snack for those who visit, and it's a refuge in a way Valira hasn't known for a long time.
Valira is happy. She's alive, and safe, and so are her friends, the family of her heart. Trilli, her cousin by blood, has chosen Valira over her clan, and Valira doesn't see her every day, but she receives letters and Sendings as time passes, and it's more of her blood family than she thought she would have again. Tyne is safe and rebuilding, a sweet and sharp finance minister of Seath's whose idealism he hadn't managed to beat out of her before his death now on the throne, though it was offered to each of them in turn and all of them recoiled from it.
Her obligations have been met, the debts she built up on her journey paid. The herd of sheep, shepherded by Kalon Bel and his companion, have a deal with some of the fisherfolk in Norene's harbor for food, and in return, they guard the gate of the underdark in case any of the desperate of Mezzon or Lolth's cult try to surface. Haoti Ewhoza lives again, by her hand, though he seems little more than a ghost walking through the hold's halls. Quil's sister is returned to her as she once knew her, and making a name for herself with Trilli.
Valira is happy, but the days are growing crisper, seasons have passed since Seath met his end and Lolth left the Prime Material Plane, and she's restless, without a purpose to pin her down. Kithri's purpose is to spend all the time with her lady that she can and to load the counters of the hold down with pie on all her visits. Phi has taken up the quiet of the life she was building before the journey again, guarding Gari at the keep and practicing her art when she's not with her husband or her siblings—or Quil. Fairpoint Hold has welcomed Quil with open arms and she's blossoming with the force of so much affection and trust directed at her, but there's something extra between her and Phi and Terry now that they're not on the road, and it seems to have made them all even happier.
The gardens and orchards at the hold thrive under Valira's care, but they hardly need it, with Iain there too. Her companions love her, but they don't need her, either.
Valira thinks she's happy, but maybe she's wrong.
Quil, in the midst of scratching the cat under the chin, frowns at her, worried. “About what?”
“Not about anything. What to do next, I should say.” They exchange a look, and Valira tries to marshal her words together. Some days, she envies Haoti Ewhoza his habitual silence. “I wandered for years without a purpose before Seath found me. It shouldn't bother me to stay in one place without a purpose, when it's a place I'm so happy, but it does.”
“I don't have a purpose,” Quil says, frowning, testing the words. “Not for anything but tending the bees and clearing brush and getting us somewhere we need to go when we have to leave.”
Those are purpose enough, though Valira thinks Quil's true purpose here is to love and be loved, though none of them might say it quite like that. Maybe that's what a home is, and Valira just isn't good at having a home. “I'm being silly, I think.”
“You're not,” Terry says instantly. “I don't think we understand yet, but that doesn't mean it's silly.”
“I need something to do. I don't know how else to say it.”
Quil buries her face in the cat's fur. “Are you saying you have to leave?” she asks, muffled, like she can't look at Valira while she asks it. “You've done enough for the world. Anyone would say so.”
“I'm not saying I have to leave, or that if I do I have to leave forever. But I can't just sit here for the rest of my life, wandering the woods and enriching the crops. Not yet, anyway.” She picks up the poker to prod the fire, mostly to keep her hands busy. “I just don't know what else there is for me.”
“We'll think about it,” Terry promises. “But you're always welcome here, purpose or no. And if Phi and I do manage to build our own house come spring, you're welcome there, or you're welcome to build next door. We have a nice plot picked out not too far from the woods.”
It sounds like a beautiful life, but she doesn't know how to live it. “Maybe,” she says, and tries out a smile.
Quil's seen her lie too many times to believe her, but she lets Terry change the subject anyway, so the three of them are laughing when Phi comes back, rolling her eyes fondly with a tale to tell.
“You're unhappy,” Haoti says, when even the weak autumn sunlight has driven them to the shade for a little while to keep from burning, and she looks over at him, startled. “Lately. I've noticed,” he adds, each word like a battle to get out.
“I'm happy,” Valira insists, though it sounds wrong when she says it out loud. It might be the kind of sentiment that always sounds wrong when someone has to insist on it. “Why do you say so?”
“Why” is a cruel question to ask him, probably. He was quiet even in his first life, once he got over his tendency to sneer. Now, in his second, words seem to desert him entirely more often than not, and Valira doesn't know whether it's by choice or whether something went wrong in the return of his soul, if she made a mistake. Still, the question is out, so she waits for his answer. “You're bored, or lonely, or both,” he finally says. “You seem restless, and anyone could do this. I could.” The more he says, the smoother it seems to come out, like a cart picking up speed down a hill. “But you do it anyway.”
“The work isn't beneath me.”
“No. But you haven't gone seeking other work, and I don't think you want to sit idle, or do this forever.” He looks down at his hands. “You don't have to tell me anything. You don't owe me that. Phi and Quil and Kithri will understand more of it, whatever it is. But I'll listen.”
Valira isn't at all sure that they will understand more, when some of this must be the legacy of the demon's poison, the voice in her head telling her she can never be content, can never be truly at rest. She tells them what she can, when she can, but she doesn't like to bother them, when Phi and Quil seem happy, and Kithri content if sad at the end of her lady's life. “I don't know how to say it in words,” she says, which is the other half of the problem.
“Maybe you need to leave,” he says, and she can't help drawing back, stung. He shakes his head right away. “You have the right to stay and rest. But maybe there's something out there you need, still.” He leans back against the tree they're sitting under. “I've been thinking of it.”
Valira blinks, thrown. “You have? Where would you go?”
“That's the question,” he says, and she might have sworn that he has no sense of humor, but there's something almost wry in that. “I want redemption. You told me I could be a noble soul, a true one. I don't think I can heal more without at least trying to be so. And for that, I have to go somewhere. My journey isn't finished yet.”
“Mine ought to be. What else am I supposed to do?”
“I wish I knew,” he says, and it sounds as though he really does. “But tell me if you ever find out. It may be my answer as well as yours.” The breeze blows a bank of clouds over the autumn sun, and Haoti lifts his face, breathes in the sudden chill in the air. “I've always liked winter. I was dead through it last year.”
Sometimes he speaks of his death so frankly that it unnerves her. Valira calls herself a coward for seizing on his mention of winter rather than his mention of death. “At least you had the snow on Shulva's mountain at the end. But I like it too. Not more or less than summer, but it's a part of the cycle, and a comforting one. The Boreal Valley was no less cold than it would have been here, but there was magic. It was out of cycle.”
His mouth tugs up at one corner. “My reasons aren't as grand as that. It was always a happy time in my childhood. Some of the children from my father's estate would let me go sledding with them, or throw snowballs, or build forts or sculptures, and my mother made sure to have chocolate or tea waiting for me inside, and my father was usually—away.”
Valira turns in her surprise to find him still looking up at the covered sun. His shoulders are tight, like he knows that's the most anyone knows about his life before Seath—before them. She doesn't know what kind of response he wants, though. “You'll have a winter this year,” she says. “Though I don't know how much you'll enjoy wading through snowbanks as you find whatever redemption you're seeking. You might wait till spring, for that.”
“Are you planning to wait until spring to fix whatever is wrong?” he parries, and looks back at her as the clouds blow past the sun. He was handsome once, the same way he was cruel once, but as the succubus took his soul she took his vigor as well, until his cheeks were hollow and he was dulled down and too exhausted for his looks to matter. It's only recently that his color has started returning, and any of his animation. In the crisp air, in the sun, he almost looks like his old self, but a kinder version.
It's good to see him healing, and Valira stands, offers him her hand to pull him to his feet. “No. Come on, the bed still needs weeding, and those clouds make me think it might rain tonight.”
They've been working for ten minutes before he speaks again, and his voice, coming again after that unexpected flood of words, is enough to startle her. “You—the four of you, you never say much about the Boreal Valley. I'm not so delicate that I don't want you to mention the time I was dead. You could tell me, if you like.”
Valira hums, considering that. “We don't talk about it,” she finally says, “because it was mostly a very bad time.” She was grieving him and her future self all at once, with the demon laughing through her thoughts the whole time. They were all chafing at the delay of a long sea journey and a month's mining, taking on quests for no good reason and shivering with the unnatural cold. But Haoti just keeps watching, unflinching. He doesn't talk about his death, and if he has memories of it. If he does, they must be worse than that. “I'll tell you about a man,” she says, “who couldn't seem to find the sun.”
Haoti listens until the bed is all weeded, and then, when Allan comes out of the keep calling her name, saying she has a letter from Trilli, he waves her off and settles back under a tree. When she looks back over her shoulder, he's looking up at the gathering clouds.
“You were quiet tonight,” Phi observes when her family has been drifting off in ones and twos and Quil and Terry have gone to the kitchen for some bread and cheese to toast as a late-night snack for those of them remaining. “And Quil says something is wrong.”
Valira learned, over the course of a long, terrible year, to trust Phi and Quil and Kithri with the worst thoughts in her head, even when she feared it would make them unhappy. She won't start telling them lies now. “I think I have to leave.”
Phi sits and watches the fire. “You feel welcomed,” she says eventually. It's not a question, and that's a relief. “If there were something you thought we could do to help, you would ask it.”
“Of course. It's just that my journey isn't done, I suppose.” She leans her head against the back of the chair she's sitting on. “I want it to be, but it isn't.”
“Do you know what still needs doing? Any of us would go with you in a second, if you ask, whether we feel settled and happy here or not.”
Of course Phi, with her heart the size of an ocean, would say so, but Valira can't pull her away from her family and her husband when she's so happy with them now, and she can't pull Kithri away from her careful watch over her lover, and she can't pull Quil from the happiness and care she's just learning to accept. “I know,” she assures her. “But I won't ask it of you. Especially when I don't know what I need to do to feel like all of this is over. There were some things left undone, but they're taking care of themselves, for the most part. At least I think so.”
“It does seem so. But you can check. Or you can do as Trilli and the girls are doing and try to undo some of the damage that Seath and Lolth did in the end.”
That appeals. She's done her best to enrich land flattened and harmed by the tarrasque, but doing more, healing some greater harm, could be the balm she needs. “I'll think about it,” she says, and they sit in silence for another minute. Quil and Terry are lingering, it seems, which probably means Phi was planning to talk to her, if there was an opening. “Haoti is thinking of leaving too, so you know. He wants redemption.”
There's something wry in the tilt of Phi's smile, shorthand for the redemption he turned down and was right to, since it doesn't matter when it's forced. “Maybe you should go together then.”
“I might ask, but he might want to be free of us.”
“I doubt he wants to be free of you, but it's your choice. All of it is. But if you go, at least promise you'll visit sometimes?”
Valira shakes her head, startled. “I'm coming back. I want to come back, I want this to feel like home. I just can't rest quite yet, that's all.”
Phi nods slowly, and then shifts enough to pick up the poker and prod at a log that's tipped away from the fire and will only smolder instead of burning. “I understand that. And I didn't just mean us as in the four of us. Lanra, Tyler, some of the others. I'll ask around if you want.”
“No. If I decide I need company, I'll ask myself. You don't need to be responsible for it. But thank you. It means a lot that you offered.” Valira frowns, and looks at the door to the room. No sign of Quil and Terry, but no reason to think they're far away, either. “I might go with Haoti, if he goes. Not forever, I think he needs something we can't give him, but for a while, anyway.”
“He shouldn't travel alone either. Especially if he's going out seeking more than closure.”
Valira's been alone more than she hasn't since she was fifteen, and even now sometimes forgets that she has people to rely on, to confide in, to consider when she makes her choices. She has no idea if Haoti is the same, and wonders if she has any right to ask. “I'll be careful. And I'll make sure he is too.”
Quil's laugh floats down the hallway, and then Terry's, and Phi lifts her head, smiling in that direction automatically, ready to light up the moment she sees them.
When they come back, Valira is swept up in their laughter too, and none of them ever make her feel like she's on the outside, but she still feels a twist somewhere in her chest, not quite as ugly as envy but something close. She's happy, but she doesn't have what they're building, and she doesn't know how to get it whether she goes or stays.
Quil and Phi both watch her sometimes, a jarring note of worry amid everything else, but Valira looks away and brings up the house Terry and Phi are planning that is just a little bigger than necessary for two people alone and makes sure she's smiling as much as she can.
“Visit a friend, then,” says Kithri, more than a little impatient, when she arrives on a visit and Valira tells her about her worries over biscuit dough. “We have plenty. Any of them would be glad to see you. Arfil and Idilus, those sheep of yours, Lauren and Keene, I can Send to any of them and they'd have you to see them in a second. You might get what you need.”
“That's just more of what I'm doing here. It's not just a change of scenery I want.” A friend might be a place to start, though. Arfil might know something that's too dangerous for Trilli and the girls to do, or Lauren and Keene might have seen Vesta, who swore she'd keep an eye on the Temple Beneath the Waves, in case something stirs down there.
“Still. A place to start,” says Kithri, like she can read Valira's thoughts.
Valira does think about it, about all the people she loves and all the ones she never wants to see again, and all the ones she can't see because they're dead. More than a few she's brought back, granted a power most couldn't imagine—friends and dragons and the victims of the tarrasque that she could, the ones whose families asked, because she knew it would throw the world out of balance to undo it all. The only ally she didn't return to life, she thinks, is the mammoth who fell in the fight against Seath and Lolth, the one Vangold was riding, which came terrifyingly close to crushing him when she fell. The warriors from the mountain wanted to go home quickly, and Valira was in too much shock to think to make the offer.
The wind whistles at the stones of the keep, pushing the last of summer's warmth out of the stones, and Valira thinks about Shulva's mountain, a place of constant danger, an offer she can make.
“It might work,” she says, and Kithri gives her a sharp look, but she doesn't ask Valira to elaborate. She and Kithri have never confided in each other as much as they've confided in the other two, but that doesn't mean they don't know each other well.
“Get these biscuits in the oven,” Kithri says, bypassing all questions. “And then help me with these dishes, we still need to make sure there's pie for dessert.”
It takes some asking around before Kal, bemused at the question, says that last he saw, Haoti was up on the wall watching the scenery, so Valira climbs it and finds him. It's not a surprise that he's still there, though Kal cautioned her it had been hours ago that he caught sight of him. Haoti can stay still and quiet for a day at a time, and is fetched to dinner baffled at how hungry he is, like he forgets he can move. A morning is nothing.
“Valira,” he says when she stands next to him for a few minutes. “What can I do for you?”
“You and I talked about leaving. I think I know where I need to go, at least to start. And if you want to go, I'd happily bring you for company, but I don't think you'll want to go on this particular journey.”
Haoti frowns. “I'm not such a coward that—”
“I don't think you're a coward. But I take your point. I want to go to Norene, and Shulva's mountain. All our other allies who died for us, I used the staff—well, you know. But one of the mammoths died in that last battle and I never had the chance to offer. And then I might stay a few weeks, or even the winter. I'm not sure.”
His brows pull together, and she lets him think it through. “You'd travel to the circle in Solomon's house,” he finally says, sounding wary.
Valira blinks and turns to face him fully. His jaw is tight, and he's holding on white-knuckled to the stone of the wall. “Yes. I thought you would object to the mountain, since it's ...” He mentions his own death often enough. She can say it too. “Since it's where you died.”
“That makes me nervous, but I don't have a demon this time. I won't be fighting distracted. And I shouldn't let the mountain win anyway. But Solomon … we've written, but I don't know if I want to see him.”
Solomon was an ally to them, and fought beside them in the battle against Seath, but he hasn't been much of a kinsman to Haoti, putting him in a shock collar, shrugging and giving him up as dead when Valira held the power right in her hands. “I'd forgotten,” she says, and feels small and guilty for it. “If you want to come, I can call on Keene and Lauren—”
“You don't need to. I wouldn't want to stay a week with him, if you had that in mind, but a few hours won't do me any harm.”
He sounds dubious, but Valira will trust what he says. She has no reason not to, when he seems determined. Instead, she nods. “You want to come, then? I don't want to drag you on my adventures when you may want some of your own.”
“You aren't dragging me. Just offering. And I could stay here forever, wanting to do something and not knowing what to do. If you give me a beginning, maybe I can figure the rest out for myself.” He smiles a little, wry. “And it seems fitting to begin my journey in the same place my last one ended. I'm surprised you want to bring me rather than one of your companions, though. They're fond of the mammoths and the people up there, aren't they?”
“They are, and any of them would be happy to come, but they don't need to. Not like I think I do, and like you maybe do.” And Kithri has Sora to stay with, and Valira won't pull Phi and Quil away from what they're building together to drag them up a cold mountain. “I've traveled with you before, and you hunt your fair share of game and build a decent fire. I could do worse, on that mountain.”
“And ...” He looks carefully away from her, out over the land around the hold and the forests beyond it. “Forgive me. You don't want to travel alone up there, do you? There was that man … if you're going up there to see him and don't really want company or only want help on the journey, I'll understand that, but I'd like to know, if you can tell me.”
Vangold. Valira has never met a man so honest about his interest and so cheerful about her refusal, but he's as warm as his mountain isn't, it seems. But despite his offer, there isn't anything between them, not when Valira could barely hold on to her sanity, let alone try anything more. “This isn't about that. It's about the dead mammoth. Vangold is my friend, but there's nothing more to it than that.”
“If you're sure.”
“Then I'll come. Happily. I don't know how long our paths will stay together, but I'll see you up and down the mountain, even if it means seeing Solomon on both sides of that.”
“You don't owe him anything,” says Valira. “And if you ever want to see any other family—I know you wouldn't want to see your father, but anyone else, I'm happy to take you to them, too.”
Haoti shakes his head. “It's a new life.” He glances at her, and she tries not to look as pained as she feels, thinking of her own family, and the miracle of Trilli, and how they wouldn't be proud of her adventures, even if she went back to tell them she kept the world from ending. She and Haoti have more in common than just their demons, she thinks, but she doesn't know if she'll ever know for sure, because neither of them talk about it. “When do you want to leave?” he finally asks.
Valira looks out at the view, at the riot of colors in the trees. Less color than three days before, as the autumn leaves start falling. “Soon. As soon as I can get everything together and convince everyone it's a good idea,” she says. “Less than a week.”
“I'll be ready,” he replies, and it sounds like a promise.
This time, though, it means that she has to seek them out, tell them she wants to speak to just the three of them first, before anyone else, and it means that when they all collect in the room in the keep she's claimed for herself, they look sober and concerned, braced for bad news. She gives it to them almost as soon as the door shuts behind them. “I'm leaving. For a while. Not forever. Maybe the season, but maybe not even that.”
“Have you decided where?” Phi asks. “And if you want company? Lanra claims he deserves another year to sit by the fire and tell stories about his exploits, but some of the others could be convinced.”
“Haoti is coming with me, and the two of us should be fine.” She takes a breath. “Shulva's mountain. The warriors left after the battle faster than I could offer to bring their mammoth back. I can offer that, and see what I can find up there. And I think Haoti wants another chance to survive what killed him once.”
There's a silence while they all digest that. “There are worse ideas,” Kithri finally says. “You can check in on Shulva, too. I know the dragons were thinking of having a conference. You can see if they have, and what they've decided about what's to come for them.”
Valira smiles at her. “I will. I'd like to see him again, and ask for news about Lordren and Eleum Loyce and Amana.”
“Do you want me to send the two of you to Solomon?” Quil asks. She's biting her lip, upset, and Valira might apologize to her later for leaving, when Quil loves to have them all together. She respects Cordelia's choice to adventure, and her mother's to stay in her city (though Valira thinks the latter will be convinced to move her business within a year, to somewhere kinder and quieter and close to this place her daughters both love), but she likes them all where she can see them. She's seen too many people disappear into portals, in her time. She'll understand this, but she'll hate it too.
“We'd be grateful. Haoti is nervous about seeing Solomon, after everything with the collar and some family troubles I haven't asked about, but it's faster than going to the coast and waiting for Keene and Lauren to come fetch us and sail us across an ocean.”
“Winter on the mountain could be more dangerous than other times of year,” says Phi, frowning. “You're powerful, but even so, do you think two alone can make it up the mountain? And down again?”
“I think so. Two traveling alone attract less attention, for one thing, and going down, we can take the longer path, if we're worried something worse might find us on the steep one.” Valira looks between them. “I know you hate to let me go, but—”
“All we want is for you to be happy,” Phi says firmly. “Of course we'll miss you, but if you need to go, you need to go. I'll help however I can, and so will my family.”
Quil nods, apparently shored up by Phi's surety. “And I'm happy to send you where you need to go, and Solomon will send you home, of course. He's always happy to do a favor for one of us. And probably for Haoti, family difficulties or no.”
Valira frowns. “I don't know if he's coming back when I do. Probably not. But Solomon will still send him back if it comes to that, or if he ends up in Erelest for some reason we can ask Idilus to send him home. If he decides this is home after everything.” Kithri snorts, and Valira turns to her. “And you? Do you think I should go?”
“I told you that looking up one of our friends would be a good idea. Though I'm not so sure about you going to that mammoth man.”
“Vangold is our friend,” says Valira, exasperated, as Quil hides a smile and Phi rolls her eyes at the familiar refrain. “Just as well to tell Haoti that.”
“Don't think I won't,” says Kithri, but her face softens a little. “Fairpoint Hold isn't going anywhere. Do what you need to. Come back when you can. Just make sure you let that cousin of yours know where you're going, or she'll be banging down the hold doors looking for you.”
“I'm not going to disappear on her or any of you. I'll be back in the spring, if not before it. You'll all be so busy you'll hardly miss me.”
“You know that's not true,” says Quil, gentle, and puts her arm around Valira's shoulders.
Valira swallows. “I know,” she promises. “And I'll be back as soon as I can.”
Everyone, it seems, has turned out to watch them go, and Valira trades clasps of the hand and hugs as they're offered, lingering longest with Kithri and Quil and Phi when she gets to them, promising that she'll answer whenever Kithri tries a Sending, and will tell them if there's even a hint that she might need them. Haoti is more skittish, but he shakes hands and takes well-wishes with a surprised smile behind her, and she hopes that it reminds him he has a home base, and that whenever he finishes whatever journey it is he has to make, he thinks about coming back to them.
She comes to Terry last, and responds to his hearty hug in kind. “Take care of them,” she orders him in a whisper, and steps back in time to catch his nod. It's a silly thing to entrust him with, when Quil and Phi are more than able to take care of themselves, but he'd do anything for either of them. He'll be the best comfort for them if they miss her too much.
When she turns away from him, Quil is just letting go of Haoti after giving him a hug, which seems to have frozen Haoti with shock, judging by his expression. Valira clears her throat and raises her eyebrows when he looks at her. “I'm ready,” he says, anticipating the question, and comes to stand next to her. Quil has already chalked out the marks for Solomon's circle.
Valira centers herself in the circle and gives Quil a nod, keeping her eyes on her friends as Quil says the words of the spell and the courtyard of Fairpoint Hold fades around them, holding in nothingness for a bare instant before reforming as the walls of Solomon's home.
Solomon, warned of their arrival by Kithri's Sending, is next to them in seconds, hovering at Haoti's side like he wants to reach out and check that he's real. Haoti steps back obviously enough to make Valira wince, but she can't blame him for that. “Thank you for welcoming us,” she says to cover up the moment. “I hope you're well, Solomon.”
“And I hope you are,” he says, though he's looking at Haoti. “Kithri says the two of you are going up the mountain? I hope there's no trouble.”
“No. Only a journey to see our friends.” Haoti frowns like he'd like to dispute the “our,” but confronted with Solomon, he's gone back to his habitual silence. “We won't even be staying the night, that's why we're here so early. I hope we didn't wake you up early to greet us.”
He waves a hand. “Not to worry about that. I'm an old man, I don't need much sleep. Won't you two stay for breakfast, though? A cup of coffee?”
Valira looks at Haoti, and can't care that she's obvious about it. It's his choice if they stay or go, and she won't blame him for either. After a moment, Haoti nods. “Breakfast and coffee, but not much longer than that,” he finally says. “We want plenty of daylight to start climbing the mountain.”
Solomon winces, and Valira tenses, ready for some kind of an argument, or a family conversation she shouldn't be there for, but after a second, his shoulders drop. “I've got everything for flapjacks,” he finally says. “And some of the honey Quil sent me from her new beehives. Coffee's already on. And I have something for you, Haoti. A few things, actually.”
Haoti lifts his chin. “You don't need to give me presents,” he says, standing there in his borrowed armor, his secondhand sword at his side, and he even sounds like he means it.
“I know. But you might want these ones.” Solomon starts walking. “After breakfast, though.”
They already ate toast and jam and sausage at Fairpoint Hold, but Valira won't object to another hot meal not roasted over a campfire before the slog up the mountain, and Haoti doesn't object either, so the three of them eat flapjacks mostly in awkward silence. “I'll wait outside,” she says when they're all finished and the men seem frozen with indecision or worry. Haoti lifts his hand, lightning-fast when he usually moves slow and dreamy that she can tell, and stops just short of putting his hand on her arm. She shakes her head and stands up, doing her best to smile. “Right outside, I promise. But I think I'd be intruding to stay.”
“You're never intruding,” says Haoti, but she nods to Solomon, who looks uncomfortable, and after a moment, he drops his hand.
Outside, Valira waits. Nobody comes too near Solomon's cottage, so she's free to do what she likes, and today what she likes is to watch a hawk wheeling far above, flying for the joy of it as much as to look for prey. For a moment, she thinks about jumping into the sky after it, flying to see the coast and the rebuilding city, but Haoti can't fly as she can, so she keeps her feet on the ground.
It's ten minutes before Haoti comes outside. He's wearing his cloak again, but Terry's armor is gone from beneath it, replaced by some chain mail with a gleam of magic about it. There's a new sword strapped to his side, too, though Lanra's remains as well, and he looks familiar in a way that's almost jarring, so close to how she first saw him. “And where'd he get all that?” Valira asks, making her voice as light as she can.
“It just happened to be lying around, he says,” says Haoti, with a roll of his eyes.
“Things do just seem to stumble into his possession,” says Valira, and shuts her mouth when the door to the cottage creaks out and Solomon comes out, a bag in his hands. “You've given us more than enough,” she says, shaking her head.
“Rations,” says Solomon, which might be the only thing Valira would have accepted. “And then you can be on your way. I hope you'll stop in and see me on your way down the mountain, though.”
“You'll see me again,” Valira promises, and does her best to make no promises for Haoti. If they take the fast way down the mountain, it's just possible to avoid Solomon's cottage, and if he wants to, she won't try to convince him otherwise. “Thank you for your help.”
“Travel safe, the two of you.”
“We will,” says Haoti, and starts walking, taking his leave while Solomon waves after him. Valira, after a moment's hesitation, follows. She owes Solomon, but Haoti doesn't, and she doesn't blame Haoti for his coldness.
It's fifteen minutes' walk to get to the path that will lead them up the mountain, and they walk it in silence. “You can still turn around,” Valira says when they reach it and he stops. “You can return Solomon's gifts, too. I should have said that when we were still closer to him.”
Haoti shakes his head. “I have my troubles with him, but I'm not spiteful enough to turn down something that will help keep me alive. It's nothing fancy, any of it.” He hesitates. “And one piece of it is a gift from my mother.”
Valira bites her lip, and then decides she might as well ask. “The armor? Or the sword?”
In answer, he pulls an amulet out from under his armor, a Green Man carved from a single piece of wood, emeralds embedded as the eyes. “The last symbol I had of my god crumbled when I died. He's returning to me, bit by bit, but I didn't have a symbol yet. Having hers is an honor I'll try to live up to.”
“You can.” She looks up the path of the mountain she's climbed a few times now, the one that always leaves her winded and exhausted. This time, there's no demon whispering in her ear. That alone is enough to make her straighten her shoulders and take the first step forward. “Let's start now.”
Haoti lets her choose when to fight and when to try to negotiate or share out some of Solomon's rations in hopes of appeasing whatever is coming for them. When they get up to the snow line, sometime in the early afternoon, he encourages her to transform into something large enough to break through the banks, and she obliges him with a direwolf and feels the relief of not having to make conversation, of just being able to bite what attacks them and wade through the snow.
He's the one who finds them shelter for the night, a cluster of rocks that make a little room, putting them in the lee of the wind that's starting to whistle. Valira shakes off the animal form she's been wearing for hours now and starts a fire while he makes a canvas canopy over them and around them to hold in the heat.
“I always wondered why you didn't do that more,” he finally says.
Valira considers the question. “Partly it's that my mentor didn't, much, and she's the only other druid I really knew until I started traveling. Partly it's that sometimes it's a little too easy to fall into the habit, and I didn't want to risk that. These days, sometimes I'll turn into a deer and go running in the woods when I'm told no one is really out hunting, though usually I put a marker on myself anyway. Or I'll turn into a bird and go flying.”
“I could see where the temptation could get dangerous,” he admits, looking at the canvas above them, or through the hole where the smoke for their campfire is showing only the clouds above. They're silent for long enough that Valira thinks it may be the end of conversation for the night before he speaks again. “Does this mountain always give you something different?”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes the creatures are more dangerous, sometimes less. I wonder if there's a god of this mountain, that's all, that is trying to warn people away, or to give them a challenge that will prove them worthy.”
Valira frowns as she thinks about that, about their first journey up the mountain, terrifying at the time but in retrospect nowhere near as bad as the second, when the mountain threw everything it had at them. This time is somewhere in between, the fights less frequent than either time but anywhere from easy to worrying. “Maybe,” she finally says. “I wondered if it was some magic of Shulva's, keeping people away or testing their worthiness. I don't know if a god would put up with a dragon sleeping on their mountain for centuries on centuries.”
“I never met Shulva last time. You didn't trust me around him.”
Valira wants to wince, but she also can't apologize for that. He knows just how trustworthy he made himself seem in those weeks he traveled with them. “I think he'll be interested to meet you this time. And the villagers will like getting to know you as well. It doesn't seem like they often get variety in their community. It's a lot like—like where I grew up.”
“You don't talk about that much,” he says, hesitant. “Where you grew up, I mean.”
She could tell him. She knows him well enough now, has had enough hints about his past, to know that he'll react much like Phi and Quil and Kithri did to the pieces of her past she's shared with them, with horror and anger on her behalf that she's never been able to feel herself. “These people are much kinder,” she says at length. It's just as true, and he's smart enough to draw his own conclusions.
“I look forward to knowing them better, then,” he says, and that's the end of the conversation for the night.
Haoti is quiet, letting her lead, but he's less grim than he sometimes is, even when they have to fight a giant eagle looking for easy pickings on the mountain who won't listen to Valira's desperate attempts to talk that silences her for hours. He doesn't seem to mind the constant falling of snow even though it's only the middle of autumn at the bottom of the mountain, and he trudges along behind her without complaint, even though his chain mail must be cold and heavy, more so than her leather.
“You really do like the winter,” she says when they stop to eat some lunch, sheltering behind another set of rocks but not bothering to start a fire, just eating jerky and dried fruit cold. Valira has had worse meals, but the cold makes the food even tougher to chew, and she's already thinking about vegetables and fruit and fresh meat. The villagers at the top of the mountain eat well enough, with as many druids as there are among them, but she'll still miss the summer bounty of Fairpoint Hold.
“I told you I do,” he says, easy enough. “I get sick of it eventually, but the beginning of it like this I don't mind at all.”
“Then you can forge the path this afternoon,” she says, and he flashes her something that's almost a smile.
The going is a little slower, with him ahead, but the path is wider and much easier, and Valira is glad for the break, and makes sure she watches their backs as they go.
Valira grins at him. “That means we're going in the right direction.” He can't hear her, judging from the confusion on what she can see of his face, so she jogs a few steps to catch up and pulls him in close enough that despite wind and layers of cloth he can hear her. “You know the trick, you've done this before. Take us in the wrong direction.”
“Easy enough, I've been doing it for an hour,” he says, sounding snappish about it, but he keeps trudging through the snow, and this time even though it's stupid and at least one of them should be able to walk easily, she trudges next to him, making a double-width path.
Both times she's climbed this mountain, someone came out of the village to meet her, and Kithri says she told Toth in a Sending that Valira is on her way, so she's half-expecting a rider out to find her, probably Vangold, but instead, she sees light in the distance when her stomach is grumbling at the lack of dinner, and when they walk at an angle that should make them just miss it, they end up at the fence of the paddock where the mammoth herd is, and Valira laughs with relief and reaches out for the nearest questing, friendly trunk. Within a moment, there are a dozen of the beasts jostling for permission, and she's talking to all of them at once without even bothering to cast Speak With Animals, happy to just give them her greetings and tell them all how well they look, with their even thicker winter coats.
It's Haoti who clears his throat behind her and says “People approaching” a few minutes later, since she's too distracted by the mammoths to be looking out.
“Well met,” Vangold calls as soon as she turns around. It looks like Toth with him, and one of the other mammoth riders from the battle, a woman named Brita who took over leading their contingent when Vangold's mount was killed out from underneath him. “That's Valira, isn't it? Who'd you bring with you?”
Valira strides through the snow to offer her hand, and Vangold uses it to pull her in for a brief, hard embrace. His clothes are still warm, making him so, so they must have come right from inside. “Yes, it's me,” she says belatedly when he releases her, and offers her hand again to Toth and Brita, both of whom clasp her forearm briefly in greeting. She looks over at her shoulder and finds Haoti still standing by the paddock, standing stiff and still with a mammoth trunk prodding at his back. “Haoti, come over here,” she calls, and after a few seconds, he starts walking. She turns to their welcome party. “I thought Kithri would have said. This is Haoti Ewhoza. He was here with us the second time, you might remember him.”
“So it is! I remember him,” says Vangold, and offers his hand when Haoti gets close enough. Haoti shakes it, awkward, but Vangold never seems shaken by awkwardness. “Though last I heard of you, my mountain had killed you. What brings you back here, dead man?”
Valira opens her mouth, horrified and ready to scold Vangold, but Haoti gives her the slightest shake of his head and, to her surprise, answers for himself. “Valira wanted company, and I wanted occupation. It lined up well.”
“Well, you're welcome, Haoti Ewhoza,” says Toth, and he's buried in his layers of hide and wool, but Valira thinks he's frowning at Vangold. “It speaks well of you that even after death, you want to chance your strength against our mountain again. And you're doubly welcome, and an honored guest, Valira Wayfinder, no matter how informal my son is.”
“Come, both of you,” says Brita. “It's dark, and you must be cold and hungry. Whatever brings you back to the mountain and any more formalities can wait for morning. We've warm mead and food laid out, since it seemed most likely you'd arrive tonight. We thought about sending someone out when dark fell and you weren't here yet, but we didn't know if you would camp nearby and come in the morning.”
Brita starts walking, and they fall in behind her, walking towards the lights of the village. “We decided to push on,” says Valira, though there was no discussion of it, and now she feels some guilt for not asking Haoti if he wanted to stop. “I knew from how lost we felt that we had to be close.”
“You've arrived at an interesting time for the mountain,” says Toth, with enough significance to make Valira give him a sharp look. “That's a discussion for tomorrow. I know Shulva will want to see you, now that you're here. He was thinking of asking for you, though he may go out for a conference with the other remaining dragons soon as well.”
“I was hoping to see him,” says Valira, but from the looks Haoti and Vangold both give her as they fall easily into step on either side of her, she sounds as troubled as she feels. She thought they were done with summonses and tasks from dragons. “Maybe tomorrow, or maybe the day after.”
“It's too cold for business,” says Vangold, trying for his usual cheer and missing it by a mile, only managing to sound worried. A second later, he looks across her to Haoti. “Do you agree, dead man? Winter on the mountain comes a little earlier than it does everywhere else.”
“He has a name,” Valira starts, but Haoti shakes his head at her again, and she subsides.
“I don't know whether it's too cold or not,” Haoti says after a few moments, “though my hands and feet feel like blocks of ice. Either way, though, it's too soon. Tonight's not for business because it's for welcome, I'd say.”
Vangold nods like he's pleased. “Agreed. The business can wait a night, or even three. Come, Valira, we don't get too much news up here. Tell me about your friends. Glad as I am to have you here, I'm sorry to be missing them.”
Valira can talk about her friends all night. Talking until they get to the warmth of Toth's home, Brita leaving them at the door, is easy enough, with that subject.
“We'll put you two in your own shelter after tonight,” says Toth, “but we didn't want to leave a fire untended, so there's none for you yet.”
“There's space enough here,” Valira assures him, already sighing with relief at the warmth inside the walls, lined with hide for insulation, keeping the heat in well and warming her almost to the point of pain within seconds. She starts stripping off layers without much care for where they land, following Vangold's well-practiced example, and Haoti takes his off slower and neater, folding them or laying them out over the provided racks depending on how much snow is off them.
“You need to get warm,” Vangold tells him, suddenly serious, pushing him bodily towards the fire. “Just look at your hands. You need better mittens in the long-term, but in the short, a warm mug of mead and some roast will do you endless good.”
Valira looks closer and sees what Vangold did that she missed, how white Haoti's fingers are and how he walks like his feet may as well be blocks of wood. “You should have told me you needed to stop,” she scolds, horrified, and puts a hand on his shoulder to heal him, watching him wince as the blood starts flowing more freely. “I wasn't so desperate to get here that we couldn't have stopped to build a fire.”
Haoti shakes his head. “I trusted you that we're close, and I know that between the two of us, there's healing magic enough to make sure the frostbite wasn't too bad.”
Valira scowls. “You shouldn't have it in the first place. I'd rather not heal what could be easily prevented by you telling me you need to get warm.” He sits down on one of the rugs near the fire and accepts a mug from Toth, who's watching them, silent and thoughtful. Haoti hisses a little at the heat of the ceramic against his fingers, but he cradles it close to his chest.
“I know you know this mountain is dangerous,” says Vangold, dishing something that smells mouth-watering out of a pot near the fire, “but it's not just because of the creatures who can smell the Underdark nearby, and the dragon.”
“I'll be more careful,” says Haoti. “I won't give the mountain a chance to kill me twice.”
“Good.” Vangold looks at Valira. “You sit too, don't think I don't recognize how chilled you are.”
Valira does, and he gives her roast goat meat and potatoes and her own mug of mead, before he sits down with his own and starts telling her everything that's happened on top of the mountain in these last few months, a dizzying series of updates about people she doesn't know, births and deaths among mammoths and humans alike, and handfastings among the latter. Toth asks her how Tyne does, under its new ruler, and how the world is rebuilding itself, several months on, and she tells him, and then talks about Quil and her bees, Phi and her brothers, Kithri serving pie and truth to kings and queens.
Haoti starts drooping first, yawning and apologizing, half his dinner uneaten. Valira debates telling him to stay awake and get something warm in his belly, but he's finished his mead, which will do a good enough job of warming, so she leaves him in peace, and lets Toth lead him stumbling over to a pile of furs much like the ones they've slept in every time they've come to stay. Haoti disappears into it with a murmur of thanks, and Valira frowns at him, making sure he's resting easy, before she goes back to exchanging stories.
“I have to be up early for the hunt,” Toth says around a yawn after a while. “Vangold, put the place to bed, will you?”
“Of course,” says Vangold, with a little frown on his face, and Toth goes to his own pile of furs.
Valira groans herself upright when Vangold gets up, even though he objects, and helps him put the remaining food in their cold room and bank the fire so they won't have to get up all night to feed it. It's light work, with two of them, but she's not quite ready to settle down to sleep, so she sits by the fire again, and watches him waver, debating whether she wants his company or not. “Sit,” she finally says. “Unless you're tired.”
“Only a little. Other than hunting expeditions, winter is quiet here. We've laid in as much food as we can, and we're too snowed in to explore far, so we do our crafts.” He smiles at her. “We've left a few things out, telling about these past few months, so you can see them tomorrow and be impressed. It's all good, though.”
“Good. I worried a little when you talked about Shulva earlier.”
“That's … maybe good as well, though he hasn't confided much in us. When Kithri said you were coming, I wondered if it might be because he asked. If it isn't, why is it?”
It seems like the wrong time to mention her staff, the dear companion he lost to Seath's acid. “I'm not good at living in peace and contentment,” she says eventually. It's just as true. “I felt useless, and I don't want another hard journey, but I wanted something, so I came here.”
It's easy to think of Vangold as a simple man, all cheer and warrior courage, but there's a tight sympathy in his face that says he understands more than she might have thought. “We'll give you what we can,” he says. “And Ewhoza? He was almost an enemy before he died.”
“Now he's almost a friend,” she says, and feels immediately disloyal for the “almost.” Even the last week alone, he's done and said enough for her to consider him a true friend. “His journey ended badly, or didn't end. I'm seeking a way to be peaceful with something still ahead of me, but he's seeking … something else. It's his to say.”
“May you both find what you need here,” says Vangold, and they sit in silence watching the fire burn down until Valira gives in to her yawns and retires to her own pile of furs, comfortingly warm and smelling comfortingly animal in the close air. It's almost as comfortable as wearing the form of a deer or wolf and sleeping with the complications of the world filtered out, and she relaxes into it, listening to Toth's gentle snores, Haoti's deep, even breaths, and Vangold's too, over by the fire, until she can just hear him move to his own pile of furs just as she slips away to sleep.
ii. we will walk in good company
Vangold wakes to find that he's the last one but Valira still resting. Toth let him sleep when he went out to the hunt, it seems, having mercy when Vangold is recovering from chasing off the few mephits who dared try to return to the cave nearby only a few days ago. And Haoti Ewhoza is somewhere, but he doesn't know where yet.
There's leftover meat and potatoes warm by the fire, and Vangold eats them quietly, keeping one eye on Valira in case she stirs. A few seasons on, she looks less hollowed-out and worn than she did when he saw her in battle, but there are still cares on her shoulders he wishes he could ease. In sleep, she has the peace she says she doesn't know how to live in, all of her softer and more relaxed than he's used to her being, and he wishes her good rest as he dresses to go out and make sure his other guest hasn't gone astray.
The village is stirring, though it's always sluggish at best in the winter. Like bears, they stay in their own homes unless they absolutely must leave, to hunt or to make sure the mammoths still have plenty of feed. A few times a winter, the whole village turns out to move the massive logs that make up the rough paddock that the mammoths stay in more from habit than because the fence is strong, but that time is far away still. For now, it's just people scuttling to and from the laundry and the bathhouse, the two buildings that attach to the mountain's hot springs, and a few others moving around on errands.
Osla, one of the elders in town, not batting an eyelash at the heavy weight of a steaming bag of laundry on her back, hails him. “That man is with the mammoths, if you're after him,” she says, lips pursed, obviously waiting to say something else if he gives her the slightest excuse.
Vangold kisses her on the cheek instead. “You know what I need before I even ask, auntie. I'll make sure they and he are getting along like the good friends they ought to be. Any friend of Valira Wayfinder's is a friend of ours, as I'd judge it.”
“I'm sure you would,” she mutters, but it's indulgent. If she's ready to scold him for being too accepting of outsiders, especially ones demon-possessed and resurrected, she'll hold off on it a while. “Go on, then. He has no more mountain sense than my great-grandson, he'll walk off the edge of it if we leave him too long.”
Vangold gives her a deep bow that makes her laugh and swat at the back of his head, and then he turns to trot out towards the paddock. Last night's storm, now that the strangers have made it to the most secret parts of the mountain, has spent itself. Toth will be telling Shulva who's come, on his way to the hunt, and the weather will be as kind as the weather ever is, up so high, and the summons will come too soon, when Vangold thinks Valira and Haoti Ewhoza both need rest and healing more than anything else.
Some of the mammoths, when he reaches the paddock, have noticed there's a stranger nearby, and are getting in close to peer at Haoti, who's a few wary steps away from them, cloak pulled tight around him. It's a warm cloak for anywhere else, likely made out of the wool of the wondrous sheep Valira has befriended, but for the mountain, it's not quite warm enough. He was awake early enough for Toth to give him an extra pair of mittens, at least.
“Good morning, dead man,” he calls across the space between them when he gets close enough for the call to be worth it, and Haoti turns around to frown at him for the last few steps of his walk. “The dawn hasn't made your disposition any sunnier, has it?”
“Valira doesn't like it when you call me that,” Haoti says, in such a rush that the words trip and tangle his tongue. “She resurrected me. It cheapens her work, or makes her feel like she did it wrong. I know there are sects that think it's an abomination—”
“If it were, the gods wouldn't allow it, and that staff would be smoldering ash somewhere,” says Vangold, waving that aside, assessing Haoti's scowl. He's serious, all his anger for Valira's sake and not his own. Considering Vangold's memories of his first life are all of him staring at walls and fires and banks of snow, too lost in his own head to think about anyone else, it's a startling improvement. “You're not dead.”
“I know that.”
“But you act like you are. Do you think Valira feels she did something wrong when you walk around like a ghost whose only mission is to atone? You have to live, too. What good is the gift she gave you otherwise?”
Any other man might knock Vangold down for that, and he'd almost welcome it from Haoti, if he showed signs of living for it. “She gave me a gift so I could redeem myself, prove myself the noble soul her gods told her I am when my own never bothered. Isn't atoning living?”
Vangold thinks about his reply for a few minutes, and is almost pleased to see Haoti's rising impatience. It's better than the same blankness he showed when he was all but dead on his first visit. The succubus killed him long before he crumbled into dust. “Tell me. You know her better than I do. Did she attach a price to the lives of the dragons she brought back? The mermaid? Tell them that they could only have their cut-short lives back if they lived them as she wishes?”
“It's not the same. None of them ...” Deserved it. That's the end of his sentence, and it makes Vangold sick to even think the words. He'll never understand what horrors Haoti and Valira have lived, with demons whispering in their ears. “I want to be better than I was. I want to finish my journey. I climbed this mountain. That's living, to me.”
“Then you need a better definition, dead man.” Vangold walks over to the fence and offers his hand to one of the mammoths. Clever Eyes, he thinks, one of the old matrons of the herd like Osla is of the village. Her prodding against his hand seems a little more forceful than usual. “I won't call you that around her, if you think it hurts her. That's the last thing I want. But you still need reminding to live, and that living isn't just doing your duty.”
“I can live with that.” Haoti steps up beside him at the fence. “What's this one's name?”
It's a peace offering, and a handsome one, when Vangold has been needling him. Vangold grins, claps him on the shoulder, and starts introducing him to the herd.
“Did you eat?” Haoti asks, immediately solicitous in a way that surprises Vangold a little.
She smiles at him, and Vangold wonders if perhaps he's misjudged them, and missed his chance besides. “I did. Followed my nose easily enough, and scrubbed the pot out too. Vangold's introducing you to the herd?”
“Calving season was good this year,” says Vangold, as proud of the herd as any midwife of their babies has a right to be. “You have a few new members to meet yourself. Things are changing around here.”
There's a flash of something on her face before it resolves into a smile, and Haoti gives her a sharp look like he knows what she's thinking. “Tell me about the changes, and the calves,” she requests, hands out to greet the mammoths, always so gentle and kind with them, easier with the beasts than she is with any people besides her companions and maybe Haoti.
The calves are easier. They're too young to have proper names, all just affectionately called Little One and Baby and Sweetheart, or close enough to them in the mammoths' language that the humans don't bother with anything else either. As Valira coos over each in turn, never once mistaking one for another, Vangold thinks about everything else that's changed on the mountain. “We're thinking of trading a little more,” he finally says. “Rejoining the world. Shulva is likely to do the same, in different ways, so we don't have to protect his hiding place. If he goes, the magic protecting this place will too, and we can accept visitors, or leave more easily. We can trade what we make up here, and visit Norene for what we need. The wizard Solomon already said at the battle that he can get us most anything we need.”
“As long as you don't ask him where he got it,” Valira says, and her voice is cheery enough, but her eyes are troubled, and Haoti is turned away from them both, shoulders hunched.
“He's my cousin,” Haoti says, which solves that mystery at least, even if it brings up a few more. “Shulva is thinking of leaving?”
“That's for him to talk about, not me,” says Vangold, firmer than he means to. “I'm more than happy to talk about Norene. They're letting some of those sheep and the men in charge of them come up out of the Underdark sometimes, to trade wool for spinning. It's warm. Is it what your cloaks are made of?”
“It is,” says Valira. “I'm glad that trade is opening up, particularly with them. Do you think anyone will travel far? The mammoths like the cold, don't they?”
That is the question, but he's not sure he wants to say yet how important a question it is for him. “They do, but there are plenty of shaggy dogs down there in the lowlands that patiently put up with summer. If there's a lake, or some other source of cool, they might suffer wider travels.”
“What do you think of that?” Valira asks the mammoths like she might ask a cat yowling at her, and slips easily into Speak With Animals, murmuring so they can't understand her, though Vangold could easily cast the spell and listen in. He lets her have her privacy instead, and looks over to Haoti Ewhoza.
He's watching Valira, quiet and intent and a little pained, and Vangold thinks perhaps he's living after all, but that it could take another world-ending battle to make him admit it. Not that Vangold blames him.
After a few minutes, Haoti looks over at him, and Vangold shrugs, a little wry, an acknowledgment that they're the same in this, in their ways, even if he'll freely admit that Haoti knows Valira better and might feel deeper. To his surprise, Haoti smiles and shrugs back, the two of them in perfect accord.
“You don't owe me anything, none of you. Your people came and fought just as bravely as I did against Seath and Lolth,” says Valira, though the people are whistling and stamping their feet for her.
“Still, you won't deny us the pleasure of giving you a gift,” says Toth, and offers it without fanfare or even a cloth to wrap it in, though the lack of ceremony must pain him.
Valira's fretful expression softens when she sees what it is: a warm and lined mammoth-hide jacket and boots, just like the ones all of them wear, thick and cozy and fit for the mountain, and on each shoulder, embedded with embroidery, is one of the smallest and most delicate scales they could find from Shulva's shedding, a shot of bright blue that makes her smile. “It's beautiful, and sure to keep me warm.”
“You can take the lining out, when you're in warmer places, but Shulva says you'll always have a little protection from storms and from weapons, with his scales protecting you.”
Vangold elbows Haoti, sitting next to him, stiff like he's trying not to shiver. “We'd have something warm for you too, only we didn't really know you were coming.”
“I didn't save the world, I don't mind the lack of a gift,” says Haoti, under the sound of Valira offering kind thanks to Toth, Shulva, and the village, everyone giving a rousing round of applause.
Brita has stepped forward with a chest of gifts for Phi and Quil and Kithri, the other saviors of the world, all made with Shulva's scales, and Valira accepts that too, with much warmer thanks. “Still, I don't want you to freeze up here,” says Vangold. “I have an old jacket or two, and I'm broader in the shoulders, so you might even be able to fit one over your armor.”
Haoti frowns his surprise, and Vangold keeps a smile on. It's a simple offer he'd make to any friend, and it's up to Haoti whether or not to trust it. “That's kind of you,” he finally says. “If we're going to be up here for a while, I'd be glad of the loan.”
“Good. I'll mend one tonight and have it for you tomorrow before we go to see Shulva.” Valira is sitting down at the front of the room, and one of the children has started singing a song they all learn when they're young about Shulva and how he came to the mountain, and the rest of the village is joining in voice by voice, glad of a chance for celebration. “You didn't meet him before?”
“No, but I killed two of his siblings, so I don't think he'll have much fondness for me.” Haoti frowns at the floor. “I can mend it myself, you don't need to go to the trouble.”
Vangold waves him off, sings his way enthusiastically if tunelessly through a chorus of the song, and turns back to him when he's done. “I'm a fair hand with a needle, and you and Valira will be in your own place tonight, no use coming to me for the coat and supplies when I can do it all and hand you a finished product in the morning.”
“Thank you, then.”
“Good. Now come on, there's at least ten more verses, you're getting treated to the whole thing. I'm sure you can figure out the refrain by the end.”
Haoti can, it seems, even if he mumbles it more than sings it by the time he gives it a try. Valira, still in the center of the room, is singing along too, one of the children crawling into her lap as she smiles down at him. A moment later, she looks around, sees Vangold and Haoti, and smiles even wider. It's the happiest he's ever seen her, beyond a doubt, and Vangold beams back and turns to Haoti to share that joy and finds him with his eyes closed, forgetting to sing along, just listening and smiling a little.
“Look,” he says quietly, because it's good to see Haoti at peace, but it's even better for Haoti to get to see how happy Valira is, and he's rewarded with an even wider smile.
“The paladin has hesitations about the paladin,” says Vangold, but his father just frowns at him, so he makes a few stitches and thinks about it a little more. “He would stay behind if we asked, or leave if Shulva asked, but I don't think Valira would be happy about that. She's given him all her trust.”
“And you? Do you think Valira is being hopeful, or do you think he really deserves that trust?”
Haoti is clearly so in love with Valira he's aching with it, even if he himself wouldn't say it quite that way. He'd do anything she asked, and wouldn't do anything to hurt her now. Either before he died or after she brought him back, she won his trust and loyalty. He hopes it happened before Haoti died, for Valira's sake, but it doesn't matter for Toth's question. “He wants to do good. I believe that.”
“Then I'll trust in you, and we will hope that Shulva does the same. Do you like him?”
A very different question, and Vangold considers it while he finishes patching the coat. “I think I do. It might be a little easier if he liked himself more, but once he gets past the self-pity and starts truly living again, I think we'll get along. It seems he's going to start out on a journey, when he leaves here. I respect that.”
Toth gives him a look that says just how likely he finds it that respect is the only thing on his mind, especially after mentioning a journey, but he doesn't bring it up. He's never been one to try to influence Vangold's decisions. “Has either of them said why they decided to come so suddenly, without Shulva asking?”
Vangold frowns. “No. I don't like that. But I'll see if I can get it out of Valira tomorrow, in between the all-important conference with Shulva, since I get the impression it's nothing really to do with him.”
“She can tell it in her own time. I just thought I'd ask if you knew.”
“She has said that she doesn't know how to live in peace, after all the traveling and fighting, but I don't think that's all of it.”
Toth clears his throat, always a little uncomfortable with expressing his emotions, though they've both tried more since Venla left the mountain ten years back. “You're a good man, giving him the benefit of the doubt, and her time to confide. Many men wouldn't have the kindness or the patience.”
Vangold smiles and shakes his head. “They both just need a little careful handling. I'm happy to give it.”
“That's what I mean,” says Toth, and changes the subject to the day's hunt, and the hunting grounds they'll be using next.
“I thought Shulva might like to see that I don't have any armor or weapons on me,” Haoti says, a little too serious the way he always seems to be. “And Valira tells me that other than some mephits, I'm unlikely to run into much I'd want my armor for at the top of the mountain.”
“I told him Shulva wouldn't mind the armor,” Valira says, warm and happy in her own coat and boats. “Kithri passes on her regards, by the way. She checked in on us last night.”
Kithri is a wonderful and terrifying woman, and he doubts that she passed on anything so polite as regards, given she seems to think he's some kind of seducer. “Well, the next time the inestimable Kithri checks in, you can tell her that I pine for her company.”
Valira gives him a dubious look, and Haoti shakes his head, eyes wide. Perhaps Kithri doesn't only scold Vangold, then. “Is it just the three of us going to Shulva today?” she asks, looking around the village like she's expecting a whole party of them to ride out.
“He requested privacy. It should properly be Toth or Brita going with you, but I claimed the right of friendship and no one objected too much.” Valira frowns at him, and he can almost hear the question she wants to ask, but the village isn't the right place to ask it, so he starts them all walking, and notes that he'll have to find Haoti a good pair of mountain boots too, or at least a pair of lowland boots big enough that he can stuff some furs inside them.
It's more than an hour's trek to Shulva's resting place in the deeper snow, and Valira lets only enough yards pass to muffle the sound of their conversation before she speaks again. “I always got the impression you would lead the village when Toth was ready to pass it on. And now it seems that it's Brita. I like her, but I'm curious. Is it … something you mind?”
Mind. That's not a question he's thought of. It's a necessary sacrifice, and one he has regrets about because he feels like he's failing, but the change has opened a new world of possibility ahead of him. “Brita wants to spend her whole life on this mountain,” he says at last. “I'm not sure that I do. Toth would have liked me to follow him, but he'll be happy enough no matter what I do, as long as I do it well.”
“Where would you go?” Haoti asks. When Vangold looks over his shoulder to see him, he's intent, perhaps a little confused, and Valira's brows are knit as well.
“Anywhere. Everywhere.” It could be they're confused that he doesn't want to stay, that they aren't the only ones looking for a new way to live in the new world Valira and her friends built. If so, they'll have a shock coming when Shulva talks to them. “Maybe I should ask to go with you when you leave the mountain.”
“You're always welcome,” says Valira, and then shakes her head. “Though I'm hoping after I've been here, I'll be able to go happily back to Fairpoint Hold.”
“Well, then.” He raises his eyebrows at Haoti. “Do you want company on your journey, dead man?” Haoti's eyes flicker to Valira, who does wince, so maybe he really should leave off with the nickname. “Two travel easier than one, and three even easier than that, since I'll probably have a mammoth for company. They can carry two, so I wouldn't even make you run to keep up with her.”
He thinks he knows Haoti well enough by now to know that the easiest response for him would be to demur, say Vangold can surely find another companion to travel with, that Haoti would do best on his own. But he looks to Valira, showing only relief at the idea, and he looks at Vangold, who tries to look as sincere as he can, when he's known better for joking. “I'll think about it,” he says, and it's a better response than Vangold was hoping for, so he leaves the subject.
Now, though, Shulva has been awake for the better part of two years, itching in his confinement to the mountain, wanting company as often as they can spare it, and Vangold has seen him many more times than he'd ever seen him in his life before. He greets Vangold, too, like the irascible old relative Vangold is used to thinking of him as. “Of course you bring the strangers,” he says, flying up to inspect the three of them, head snaked down so he can observe them first with one massive eye, and then with the other. With the children he makes a game of the inspection, but he likes to intimidate the adults a bit. Vangold doesn't mind. He's lived long enough to earn his little games. “How's the training going with your mount, Tothson?”
“Well enough. She's clever and determined and stubborn.”
“Just fit for you, then.” Shulva turns his eye to Valira and Haoti. “Valira. I see you were given my gift.”
“I'm grateful. And honored. And I know Phi and Quil and Kithri will be as well, when I see them again, though I may be on the mountain for the season.”
“Winter is a cold time to visit.”
“I have a garden to plant in the spring. Everyone sends you their greetings, and hopes you're well.”
“I am.” His eye shifts, and Haoti backs up a step. “You brought a guest.”
Vangold puts a bracing hand on Haoti's shoulder, and Valira steps in front of them. “One who wants to redeem himself, yes. Haoti Ewhoza. A paladin of Obad-Hai. And my friend.”
Shulva keeps staring, and Haoti is as still as an ermine who knows that an owl is considering having it for dinner. “I came to apologize,” he finally says, stiff. “For letting myself be duped, and taking part in the destruction of your family. I plan to do the same for Amana and Lordren someday, even if they're alive again now, and I'll lay down my life again if you all decide that's the price.”
Valira makes a protesting noise, and Vangold rocks forward, ready to join her standing between Haoti and Shulva. Shulva won't attack one of the children of the mountain. “Valira brought you back just as she brought them back,” says Shulva. “Why's that?”
“Because he deserves—”
“From him, please. I think his answer would be different from yours, and I'm interested in it.” He turns enough to look at Vangold. “Take your hand off your spear, Tothson. I'm not going to eat him.”
Vangold looks at Haoti, and then Valira, before he obeys. Neither of them are relaxed, but they're not preparing for an immediate attack, and Vangold has never known Shulva to be violent before, so he lets his weapon go. That doesn't mean he's happy, though, because Haoti's honest answer is going to hurt Valira, if it's the same as he told Vangold next to the mammoths.
“My life was cut short by forces out of my control,” Haoti finally says. “I think Valira thinks there's injustice in that, when there might be chances for me to redeem myself. She has faith that I can do that. Even a god has told her so.”
“And do you have faith?”
“I try. I plan to finish my journey—including apologizing to your fellow dragons who I killed, and making reparations where I can.”
Shulva gives a considering hum that rattles Vangold's teeth. “You may have the chance to do us all a service. It's why I'm glad to see you too, Valira, and you, Vangold, since you're thinking of leaving the mountain.”
“They've said you're thinking of leaving the mountain to speak to the other dragons,” says Valira. “Is that what it's about?”
“It is.” Shulva pulls his head back far enough that he can look at all three of them at once. “When we all decided to exile ourselves to our different remote places, it was to make sure dragons lived on. Now, though, I think it's time for us to go back out in the world. Get to know people. Reassure them we aren't monsters like Seath. Help rebuild from the damage he caused. And raise the next generation.”
“The next ...” Vangold forgets worrying about Haoti, forgets about worrying that Shulva will disapprove of him leaving the mountain. The first story the children on the mountain learn is Shulva's. They learn that there was a sect of druids who liked the cold who he was particularly fond of, and that he offered them a haven, protected by storms and creatures, if they protected him in turn, and kept him company with their herds. They learn the other dragons, of the five left in the whole wide world, weren't so lucky, that all of them were sleeping and lonely in their own exiles. It was a lie, of course, if a pretty one. Even if Shulva didn't know it was a lie. But maybe Seath joining them in retiring from the world wasn't the only falsehood. “The next generation?”
“Dragon eggs take a long, long time to hatch, especially when no one is watching over them. In those last days, when we were dying in battles that were ripping the world apart, those of us who were left found all the eggs we could and hid them away, knowing that if a time ever came when dragons could come back, we'd have the means to do it.”
“How many?” breathes Valira, face alight.
“If they all still live? Fifty or sixty. It's been a long time and it's hard to remember. But the five of us sealed them away behind magics that no other dragon can touch. If, at our conference, we decide it's time, we'll need others to go after them, and a place for them to go, as well. Neutral ground.”
Most people, those who have spent the most time off the mountain say, have forgotten what it was like when a dragon flying overhead was almost as commonplace as seeing a hawk. But Shulva tells them all stories. Vangold loved them, as a child, and now, they could begin a new age of dragons. “I'll go,” he says. He doesn't need to think more than that. “Just tell me where to go, I'll bring them to whatever home you choose.”
“Patience. We're not sure we trust now to be the time,” says Shulva. “That's why we need a conference about it.”
“If it comes to that, then.”
Haoti, at his side, nods. “If you all trust me, I would be honored to help as well. I owe you all something, like I said. Finding your eggs and bringing them safely somewhere is the least of it.”
Shulva nods his massive head, thoughtful. “I'll pass your offer on. We'll see what they think. And you, Valira? Would you go on this journey?”
“If you asked,” she says, faltering a little. “Of course I would. Any of us would. And I'd be so happy to see the dragons brought back. But I don't know if it's my journey to make.”
“You have earned your rest.”
But she doesn't want it, that Vangold has seen in these past few days. She's restless and seeking a purpose, and there's no nobler purpose than this. Her shoulders are stiff, though, and she's looking down at the snow now, so Vangold doesn't say it. He can ask all the questions he wants to later, even if she won't answer them. “Even so—if you need my help, I'm happy to give it.”
“I leave at dawn tomorrow, and we're traveling to Eleum Loyce's home. When I return, if you're still here, I'll send for you. All of you.”
“It's our honor,” says Vangold, with his most formal bow.
“Just like that?” Haoti asks, and Vangold turns to him to find him frowning, staring up at Shulva like he's waiting for something. “One apology from me and you entertain the idea of trusting me with something like this?”
Shulva lowers his head again, moves his eye until Haoti must be the only thing filling his vision. “We all have things to atone for. If you don't drown yourself in self-pity, I think maybe you can pay your debts. Lordren and Amana will see the justice in that.” He backs away again. “Now, Valira. Tell me how your companions are. I've been hoping for news for a while.”
Valira's face lights up, and Vangold settles in to listen as she talks about Fairpoint Hold, which sounds like the castle at the end of a children's story, where all the heroes get to live in harmony. He keeps an eye on Haoti too, and mostly finds him staring into the distance, past the mountain and to the range of them beyond, lands that even Vangold's people haven't explored.
It seems, after their talk with Shulva, that she's ready to talk about what brought her to the mountain, beyond her restlessness. Judging from how sober she looks, Vangold isn't sure he wants to hear it, but he owes it to her to listen. “Want to talk once we've had a little ride? My mount needs exercise, and you can take out Crusher as well. He's a venerable fellow, but he can still give you a good ride.”
“I'll be glad to take him out. Where are we going?”
“Just a patrol around the lands, to see how winter's settling on the mountain. It's more to keep anyone, me or the mammoths, from getting restless.” He whistles Crusher over and points her to the mounting block. Crusher can bend, but it's still a leap, especially for someone not used to it. Vangold mounts Careful Step easily, prodding her to step out of the paddock, and a moment later, Valira and Crusher fall in next to them. “Our chat with Shulva was interesting yesterday,” he says, just loud enough for her to hear. “I thought you would jump at the idea of bringing dragons back to the world, but you didn't seem to want to go.”
“I told Shulva—I'm trying to find a life, not an endless series of journeys. At least for a while.” Vangold nods and starts Careful Step on the paths they always travel. “Besides,” she says after they've found a rhythm together, close enough that he can hear her and far enough that the mammoths won't get their limbs tangled, “you and Haoti will do a good job, if you choose to go together. And if you think you'll need more help, I can talk to my cousin Trilli and her friends. They're not as powerful as you or Haoti yet, but there are five of them, and I'd trust either of you to keep them safe.”
“They sound like interesting young women, what little you've said about them. Do you approve of your cousin adventuring? Or would you rather have her safe at home? Do you have winters like this there?”
“There was snow, but the trees sheltered us,” she says, just barely loud enough for him to hear. “And what Trilli does isn't for me to approve or disapprove of, but I'm glad she's doing it. I would never have seen her again otherwise.”
None of them talked about their families when they came to the mountain. Vangold wants to know why, but for now he knows enough to know that he's pushing his luck, and that any answers will be for him, not for her. “Come on, I'm going to take you to my favorite place on the mountain,” he says, and urges Careful Step to go a little faster.
It takes most of an hour to get there, twisting around the treacherous mountain paths to a large flat area next to a sheer drop. It's a clear day, and when Valira and Crusher come up next to him, he points away. “You can see the ocean, out past Norene. You can see the city itself, but I always loved looking at the ocean. My mother, Venla, she was from the lowlands, and came up because she loved Toth, but she loved the sea too, and she would bring me here, to tell me about the world beyond the mountain.”
“I haven't met her, have I?”
“No, no. She left ten years ago. She wasn't meant for the mountain, and I hope she's happier now. She told me she would go to sea. I hope she's there.”
“Aren't you angry?”
Vangold dismounts, unwilling to risk Careful Step any closer to the edge of the ledge, and after a moment he hears the sound that means Valira is following his example, joining him to look out at the ocean, the vast blue expanse of it that, when the light is right, blends perfectly into the sky. “I was,” he says. “And sad, and everything else a child is when he loses his mother. But I wanted to stay, and there was no easy way for us to still be a part of each other's lives, given that. Maybe I'll look for her, if I go traveling. I think she'd be glad to hear from me. To know I grew up well.”
Valira hugs herself like she's cold, and when he sneaks a glance at her, her eyes are glistening. “She missed out on a lot, leaving you.”
“Sometimes people have to be apart, even when they love each other.” He stops bothering to pretend that he's not looking at her. “I'm not going to ask.”
“Thank you. I'll … it's not a pretty story, that's all. I'm not welcome where I grew up, so I'll never know if they're happy, and they'll never know if I am. But it's not what I wanted to talk to you about today.”
Vangold frowns. “We're in no hurry. You've said you might stay the season.”
“Yes. But you might leave next week to find a clutch of dragon eggs, and I want you to have the opportunity ...” She looks back at the mammoths and then back at him, intent, blinking the tears away from her eyes. “My staff. You know I brought back Haoti, and Lordren and Amana and Vesta. The only ally I lost who I haven't brought back is your mount, and it's because I don't know her name.”
“Valira,” he begins, and his words fail him that all he can add, in the end, is “No.”
Valira flinches. “It won't hurt me, won't cost me. I owe it to her, and to you. Wouldn't you want to make your travels with her?”
She climbed a mountain for this, to offer it to him. She's hung her peace on it, her hopes that she can wrap everything up tight and neat and call herself content. Vangold isn't equal to this task, of telling her no. It should be Toth, or Brita, or anyone else, but it's him she's come to, so he owes her honesty. “I wouldn't have brought her. She lived a good life. Three healthy, strong calves—Careful Step here is one. A journey off the mountain, and a heroic end she chose. We asked them all, and she agreed.”
“And now she can have her life back.”
“She wouldn't understand it. She's happy with the herds beyond, and she'll greet her herdmates and her children when they die in their time, but coming back here, she wouldn't understand it. Animals don't. They live the lives they live, and die the deaths that come to them, and they're not like us. They don't leave unfinished business behind them.”
Valira looks miserable, still hugging herself, chin high. “She sacrificed herself for us. For me. I owe her a debt for that.”
“I'm telling you she chose it. Not for you, but for the world. Your staff is wondrous almost beyond imagining, but some deaths have to be permanent.” He takes a deep breath, wonders how to make her understand. “If I'd died in that battle, I wouldn't have wanted resurrection. Or I might have wanted it, but it would have felt wrong, so I wouldn't have accepted it.”
She shakes her head. “So I shouldn't use the power that's been given to me?”
“It's for lives senselessly cut short, or I think so. Lives ended for nothing, for brutality. Haoti's second life is justice, as far as I'm concerned, and the dragons, and the victims of the tarrasque you've been able to save so far. But lives given in willing sacrifice for a cause, who saw it coming and didn't flinch? They're satisfied and happy in the afterlife, and you'll see them again someday, and they'll greet you as a friend. Sun Heart will greet us as friends, someday. That's all she'd ask from us.”
Valira looks away, out to the ocean, and it's a long time before she answers, long enough that Crusher and Careful Step seem restless behind them, wondering why they're silent. Vangold lets Valira have her quiet to think. He's said all he knows how to say, his mess of thoughts, and now it's her choice what to do with them. “I hate killing,” she finally says, and he turns back to her, waiting. “Hunting, for food, that I don't mind, or eating livestock. But even when someone or something deserves it, or is attacking me, I hate killing it. The staff, it feels like undoing some of the harm I've done.”
“Well, that's silly,” says Vangold, and winces at his own frankness, though it startles her into looking at him. He searches for words again. “I think if you liked killing, you'd be worse than Seath. No one likes to kill something that's desperate, or just following its nature. Even someone or something that's evil, truly evil, it's not like it's a pleasure. But most people, those of us without the power of lives and deaths, we have to count lives saved, not ones brought back from the death. Sometimes the ones saved are our own, over and over again. Sometimes, as with you, it's the lives of the whole world. It balances out.”
“I know death is part of the cycle. I still hate that she—you called her Sun Heart? I hate that she died in a fight that we could have won, in the end, without putting her in danger. Or you, for that matter.”
“We chose our danger. I mourn her, but Careful Step and I are getting along well.” She still looks tense and unhappy, and she's still blinking away tears, and Vangold dares to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder, draw her in until she's tucked under his chin. She doesn't hold him back, but she sighs a little, some of the tension leaving her shoulders. “Sun Heart has her peace. You won't find yours this way.”
“How will I, then?” Vangold can't answer that, and Valira seems to know it, because a second later, she brings her arms up to hold on for a moment before she steps away. He lets her go, even if all his instincts say she could be held for an hour and still need more. “I know. I just have to live my life. But I have all this power and nothing to do with it.”
“Now that's not true. You've used it plenty. But doing things of great power every day doesn't seem a way to find a peaceful life to me. Is Quil bringing down meteors every day, or Phi going out in search of krakens to slice into bits?”
“No.” Her mouth tugs up at one corner. “Mostly what those two are doing is being in love.”
Vangold raises his eyebrows. “Oh? After all Phi's talk about her husband, and Kithri's admonitions?”
“We're not in the middle of the fight of our lives, now, so Kithri isn't making too much fuss about it.” Her smile grows a little wider. “And Phi's husband doesn't seem to mind his wife bringing someone she loves home. You'd like Terry, I think.”
“Would I, now?” She's still upset, that's clear enough, but he's not going to push. If she wants to talk about her friends, who always make her smile even when they're across an ocean, he's not going to object. Her solutions are up to her.
“They're all happy.” Her smile falls a little, but it's not as bad as it was even half a minute before. “I'm trying to learn to be.”
“Well, I'm more than willing to help,” says Vangold. “Why else would I bring you to my favorite place on the mountain?”
This time, her smile isn't for her absent friends, wistful and barely real. It's all directed at him, still small but bright. “I don't know, but I'm grateful that you did. I've flown as a bird before, but this is a whole new way of looking at the world.”
“If you want to go flying up here on the mountain, just let someone know what form you're going in so no one aims an arrow at you,” says Vangold. “And if you want company, some of us can do it as well. I can, especially after that fight against Seath.”
Valira squints up at the sky, clear despite the clouds gathering in the distance over the ocean. The air smells like snow. “I've never flown with company before,” she finally says. “I think I'd like it. But for now, maybe we should finish this ride and go let Haoti know that everything is fine. He worries.”
Vangold wants to ask if Valira and Haoti have been falling in love with each other like it seems Quil and Phi have. He wants to ask if Haoti is understanding and loving like it seems Phi's husband is. “Think you can mount up on your own?” he asks instead.
“I think I can before you can,” says Valira, and starts running for Crusher without warning.
Vangold wins the race, since he's the one the mammoths are used to, but it doesn't matter. By the time they're both mounted up and moving away from the view of the ocean, she's flushed and laughing, some of the weight she's carried on her shoulders starting to lift. It might not last, with so much on her mind, but he'll appreciate a battle won, at least for the moment.
“It was a good ride. Vangold showed me a very beautiful view,” says Valira, and she's smiling at Vangold, maybe thanking him for the help he offered, so she misses the way Haoti is looking at her, relief and longing and affection all at once, so nakedly glad that she's doing even a little better that it hurts to look at him.
“I'll take you sometime, dead man. You'd like it too.” He watches Haoti, watches him wait for Valira's flinch and break out into a real, honest smile when it doesn't come. “Now, do you want some help with the washing, or should we just keep you company?”
“The company is welcome,” says Haoti. “Come in, sit down. Tell me how your ride went.”
“We'll bring you next time,” Valira promises, sitting down not far from him. “I think you'll like mammoth riding.”
“I probably will.” Vangold thinks about making an excuse and leaving, wonders if it's cowardly or mannerly to do, but before he can decide, Haoti looks up at him, brows pulling together. “Are you sitting down? Or do you have something to do?”
Vangold smiles and takes another step into the laundry. “I was just thinking I have some socks that could use a wash, but they can wait a few days. Of course I'm sitting down.”
This time, he all but lives in the guest quarters that have been given to Valira and Haoti, though the useful work comes with him. Toth sees his restlessness the first night and sends him away to where Valira and Haoti are huddling around their fire, talking quietly about a forest of walking trees and the goblins who lived there, for a while. They invite him to listen, and Vangold stays the night, and the next, and the one after, keeping them entertained with all the long stories of his village. They give him stories back, too—not about their journey, but stories they knew as children. Valira's are all green trees and the things that live in them. Haoti's are long too, not because they were meant for winter storms but because elvish stories are always drawn out, and apparently his mother's an elf.
When the snow stops, they dig out with the scoops everyone keeps in their homes for the purpose, taking it in turns, Valira and Vangold both guiltily using a little fire magic to melt the pile right in front of their door. “Should we check on the mammoths?” Valira asks when they're done, all of them sweaty with the exertion and the usual rise in temperature that comes after a storm.
“The bathhouse,” says Vangold. “All the children need a run, after a storm like this, so they'll go make sure the mammoths still have plenty of feed, and the rest of us will go out later to clear what snow we need to and do the heavy work the children can't.” He peers at the sky, the faintest hint of grey dawn. All three of them are early risers. “And if we go now, we should have it to ourselves for most of a good soak.”
“A bath sounds perfect,” says Haoti, which might be the first time Vangold has ever seen him excited about anything, so the three of them ford through the banks of snow to the bathhouse, which takes more scooping out before they can go in.
Inside, it's steaming, and Vangold sighs at the warmth and starts stripping off his clothes. Valira is only seconds behind him, easing into the big pool of water once her clothes are all in a pile. Vangold, a little neater with his through virtue of experience, is only a few seconds behind her, and turns to find Haoti frozen in the doorway of the bathhouse, watching the ceiling with his cheeks red. Lowlanders. “Should we close our eyes?” Vangold asks.
“I didn't realize we'd all be bathing together,” says Haoti, and he peeks at them and relaxes when he sees they're both under the water, though he doesn't step any closer.
“It's a hot spring, hard for everyone to have a private room for it, and we're a whole village. We can't be shy.” He looks at Valira. “You don't mind?”
She shrugs. “I grew up bathing in cold brooks with half my family. Haoti, if you want to wait, we can guard the door for you.”
“No. I was just surprised.” He turns to the wall to start getting his clothes off, and Vangold catches Valira's eye, partly because she seems just as bemused as he does and partly because if he's looking at her, he won't end up watching when Haoti clearly doesn't want to be watched. “My father is rich,” he finally adds. “Was rich. We had our own baths, the family.”
“Here, it's a community. No one will mind that you're naked,” says Vangold, and hopes it's the right reassurance.
After a moment, there's a splash, and he dares look away from Valira to find Haoti far enough into the steaming water that his modesty is intact. “This is amazing,” Haoti says a moment later, sounding startled. “I can't believe a hot spring comes up this high.”
“It's a very strange mountain,” says Vangold. “Shulva made storm magic here, yes, but there were legends about this place even before that. The Underdark touches it, and it's the highest above sea level that it comes anywhere in the world, that we know of.”
“Ugh, the Underdark,” says Valira, with all the casual distaste she might use when talking about eating something she doesn't like. “You can tell me all you like about the history of the mountain, but I know more than I want to about that.”
Haoti, to Vangold's surprise, snorts. “You should be telling him about it. It's all of Phi's brothers' favorite story about your travels together.”
That's too tempting an opening for Vangold to leave, so he raises his eyes at Valira and waits for her to speak, and she gently splashes the both of them and then starts talking, until the three of them are laughing at the scale of the disasters they kept walking into and are interrupted by a few of the elders coming in to take their own baths.
Haoti is shy getting out of the bath, in front of the near-strangers, but he seems a little looser as he dries off, all three of them getting their hair dry enough that it won't freeze when they go outside while the elders gossip about Shulva and when he'll be back with news of the eggs, Kreson calling over to Vangold asking if it's true that he's volunteering for the quest if Shulva asks it.
“I am,” says Vangold. “It's probably too much quest just for me, but I'll be glad for help from anyone.” He slings an arm around Haoti's shoulder, ruffling his damp hair. “Haoti here has offered to come if the dragons allow it, and he'll be more than enough help. He's fought more than a few terrifying demons, he's qualified for certain. Maybe more than me.”
There's some murmuring, but none of the elders disagree, and the three of them wrap up and head back to Valira and Haoti's shelter, sitting down in front of the fire to finish drying. Careful Step and the rest of the mammoths will be restless and wanting company, but they can wait a little while.
“You didn't have to say that,” Haoti says when Vangold starts roasting some meat over the fire for breakfast. “Any of it.”
“I wasn't lying,” says Vangold. “I know how you died. Fighting a demon? That's worthy of some trust.”
Vangold looks at Valira, finds her watching the two of them, a small smile on her face. When she catches his eye, it grows. He'd defend Haoti for his own sake, but it's all the better knowing that it makes Valira happy too.
The mammoths, used to a dragon but not a flying one, shy a little at the shape of a massive predator in the sky, but Vangold gets Careful Step to stop, and a moment later, Valira casts Speak With Animals and convinces Red Tusk that there's no danger.
Haoti, behind Vangold and out of his line of vision, shifts, his arm tightening around Vangold's waist when he's been holding on so loosely that Vangold has been worried that if he slips he'll end up on his head in the snow, not braced against Vangold's surer seat. “That was a fast conference, to decide the fate of a whole species,” he says, and there's strain in his voice again when he's been unbending bit by bit, smiling a little more every time Vangold thinks of another funny story to tell.
Vangold is feeling the strain as well, and looks over his shoulder even though Shulva is far out of sight by now. “I imagine we'll hear from him very soon,” he says. “Do you still want to go?”
“I do. I'm just not sure they'll let me.”
Valira is watching them, keenly interested and a little stricken, but Vangold twists and lowers his voice so only Haoti can hear. Sometimes private reassurance is best. “Shulva admits that the four of them feel guilty for assuming Seath would hold to their agreement and letting the world get so close to annihilation. They understand atonement.”
“I killed two of them. Struck the deathblow for one.”
“And now all three of you are alive again.” Vangold raises his voice. “We can keep going, Valira. Shulva may want us soon, but I want to show Haoti my view.”
She frowns, but she sets Red Tusk to leading, and Vangold lets Haoti stew over his guilt and their words as they ride.
When they get to the outlook, Haoti slides off Careful Step, ungraceful but safe enough, and goes to the edge, looking out to sea. It's a beautiful, clear day, and Vangold suspects they could even see boats, if they squinted hard enough. He stays where he is, though, because Valira isn't dismounting either, just watching the horizon with her mouth a tight, unhappy line.
“Can I help?” he asks. It's the best he can do.
“I don't know. I don't want to go on this journey, but I'll—is it silly to say I'll miss the two of you? I would miss Phi and Quil and Kithri and all the others if I left, and I'll miss you two since I'm staying.”
“We'll come back.”
“To the mountain?”
“Maybe, maybe not. You talk so fondly about Fairpoint Hold, I'd at least like to see it. I've never been anywhere so green.”
Valira frowns at him, more puzzled than annoyed. “This is your home.”
“It's been my home. Doesn't mean it always will be.” He'll always want to come back to the mountain, but maybe, if the right things wait for him in the lowlands, he can come back as a visit and not to stay. He'll miss it, but eventually it might become the easier kind of missing, the wistful hope for its presence rather than the pain of its absence. He's beginning to wonder if missing Valira and Haoti might go in the other direction. “I don't know what my future is going to look like any more than you do.” He tips his head at Haoti, still staring out to sea. “Or he does.”
“I know. That's comforting, even if it looks like our immediate futures won't be together. I hope you and Haoti can travel together, though.”
“Are we moving on right away?” Haoti calls, turning like maybe he heard his name. “Should I not have dismounted? I'm not sure I can get back up on my own.”
In answer, Vangold dismounts, and Valira is only a second behind him. “No,” he says. “We were just fretting about the future. No use in that when there's a view to look at, though.”
Haoti turns away from the ocean. “Shulva will let us make this journey, or he won't.” He looks at Valira. “I know that's not what you want.”
“It doesn't matter. I'm happy to see you two figuring your futures out. I'll find something for myself someday.”
Vangold might be busy, coming up, if Shulva sends him out to bring dragons back to the world, but he's not going to let Valira flounder and wonder and worry if he can help it. He'll just have to think and help her think.
Judging by the way Haoti is looking at her, Vangold won't be the only one.
He's awake, watching them all from above, not getting down close to intimidate or inspect them today. “I'm glad you came so quickly,” he says. It's the closest to thanks a dragon ever gets.
“We're all curious,” says Valira. “It's not every day we get to hear about the fate of the most legendary creatures in this world.”
“We don't want to be the last. So, it seems, someone must collect the eggs for us. They all trust my vouching for you, Vangold Tothson.” He turns his head in Haoti's direction while Vangold is still frozen where he stands. “And they have their concerns, but they also think it's … fitting, for you. And Eleum met you, and you were part of the group that brought Ava back to him, so he'd trust you to the ends of the earth and beyond, which is good, as it's where you're going, the two of you.”
“Just two of them?” Valira asks. Her voice is a little unsteady, but Vangold doesn't think it's unhappiness, just the immensity of the news. It's impossible to be truly unhappy at the thought of dragons coming back to the world, even if it will be centuries before they're a common sight in the skies. Even if it means they walk away from Valira at the bottom of this mountain. “Will it be safe, with whatever traps Seath set up?”
“I think the two of them have enough experience to do it admirably, but if they find someone else along the way, they aren't forbidden from asking for the help they need. If they still want to go.”
“Of course I do,” says Haoti, and his voice is stronger than Vangold has ever heard it. For a moment, he gets a flash of who he used to be, a leader, a warrior. “When do we need to leave?”
“There's no true hurry. The eggs won't hatch any time soon, and we're still in a debate about where they should go and who should have care of the young ones. Stay warm and safe for the winter, make your plans, and when the world warms again, we have the beginnings of some directions for you, and some equipment that might help.”
It's barely winter, and winter clings for a long time on the mountain. Vangold is already restless, ready to be leaving, but he sees the wisdom in it. No use getting the eggs only to have to lug them across half the world while the dragons debate which of them should do most of the taking care of them. Vangold would be all too happy to volunteer the mountain, but the mammoths might not like an influx of a few dozen small carnivores all too happy to gnaw on them if not controlled properly.
“It's time to train,” Haoti notes. “I'm a little rusty, since I died, with magic and my sword both.”
“I'm happy to train as well,” says Vangold. “I'm good with a spear, and decent with a staff, but whatever tasks you set us, I'll want to be at my best.” He inclines his head at Valira. “And I'm nowhere near connected enough to the earth for your level of magic yet, but perhaps you can teach me a few tricks.”
“I'll do my best,” says Valira, and for once, her smile seems honest and real, nothing hiding behind it.
Shulva tells them about the conference in only a few minutes, a sketch of words more than anything filled in, but Vangold can't concentrate. There's all winter to hear about the fine details of agreements and negotiations. Now, he's only thinking of the adventures he can have, he and Haoti together.
“We'll be heroes as much as you,” he tells Valira on their way back to the village, grinning back at her over his shoulder. Away from Shulva, she's lapsed into being pensive again, but her smile seems real when she responds. “Hope you don't mind sharing the adoration.”
“Bringing dragons back to the world? They'll forget me in weeks, in comparison,” she says, and seems honestly pleased about it. She's not much of one for public admiration.
Haoti shakes his head. “They won't. You four are the greatest heroes there have been in generations.”
“And you two are going to build something new and amazing.”
Vangold looks between them, both of them smiling and serious all at once, giddy just as he is with the changing of the world, even if they all know the question of what could change between all of them is looming, waiting to be examined. “I think,” he says, “that we can agree we're all going to be remembered.”
iii. you love the best of me
Once, as a child, Haoti and his mother went for a walk, and she put her finger to her lips and led him to a cave, pointing at the dark shapes inside: a mother bear and her two cubs, all denned together and sleeping, dreaming the winter away.
Vangold's village feels like that, and Haoti thinks of Aredhel more than he has in years from the way days go by where he and Valira just stay wrapped up in their furs by the fire, only leaving to take from the community's communal piles of fuel and food and to follow Vangold out to the mammoths. Judging by how often Vangold is in their shelter, whittling away with his knife or just dozing by the fire, it's not that they're “delicate lowlanders,” as Vangold calls them affectionately and some of the others say with a little less amusement at the sight of Haoti huddling not just in Vangold's old coat but a fur worn as a cloak when the days get even more bitterly cold. No one has much to do in winter besides make sure they survive.
Haoti mends every rip in every piece of clothing in his pack and Valira's, even though she tells him, a little bemused, that she could just cast Mending to fix them, and then he forces his fingers into remembering some of the decorative stitching Aredhel taught him before his father told him to stay away from her solar.
He's not the only one who uses the time to keep his hands busy. Vangold carves a small mammoth, a wooden spoon for stirring soup, a little box with a closely fitted cover that he gives to Haoti, a series of wooden tops that will spin forever that lead to the three of them arguing and betting over which ones will do best on a given spin. Valira finds an extra store of yarn and knits, going from fumbling and barely remembering to knitting Haoti a plain but warm shawl for cold evenings when he's inside but needs more than the fire.
A few times a week, when the weather is clear, Vangold drags them out to the mammoth pasture and they go for a ride to the overlook that lets them see the ocean. Valira rides a succession of mammoths, though she has her favorites, but Haoti and Vangold always ride Careful Step. “I can probably figure the riding out on my own now,” Haoti says the third or fourth time, feeling a bit silly riding behind Vangold like a child.
He feels Vangold's shrug more than sees it, he's pressed so close. “I know you can, though your mount-ups could still use some work, but if we're going to be traveling together with Careful Step, we need to get used to riding together.”
Haoti blinks at his back. “We're taking her? You'd take her into that kind of danger?”
“She'd take herself, and of course I am. We'll get everywhere faster.”
“Unless we have to convince someone that she can safely sail on a boat. She wouldn't fit on the one Valira was always riding around in.” Haoti looks over to Valira, who's riding along pretending she can't hear their voices just too low to hear. They all try to be good about respecting each other's privacy in close quarters. He raises his voice. “He wants to bring the mammoth with us. How are we supposed to take her to sea?”
Valira considers that for a good minute. “Pick a big ship, Polymorph her into a cat, and make sure she stays that way until you're too far from shore to turn around,” she says, and starts laughing like she can't help it, Vangold joining barely a second later.
It's not a joke she would have told a year ago, when her cheer and bravado was mostly a cover for trying to ignore the demon. It's not a joke Haoti would have laughed at, either, when his demon left him much worse off, but he laughs now, and says “You can cast Water Breathing, can't you, Vangold? We can just ride wherever we need to go.”
Vangold twists around until he can meet Haoti's eyes and beam at him. “Look at you, making jokes! Maybe you're ready to join us among the living after all. Though I'd say we could certainly strike fear into the hearts of our enemies by walking casually out of the sea to meet them.”
Valira says something, with a roll of her eyes, about how impressive they'll be trying to recover from the pressure shock that comes rising from the bottom of the ocean, calling on Haoti to remember that they needed Vesta's magic to do it safely, trusting him not to spend an hour frozen by the memory of his former companions with the mermaid's blood on their blades.
He forces himself to do it, and if they know it's forcing, they're kind enough not to mention it. Valira has to force her own levity often enough, and he doesn't think Vangold does, but he understands more of them than Haoti thought anyone who's never had someone else's voice in their head could.
“I am,” he says when they dismount at the overlook, quiet enough that Valira will ignore it. “Ready to join the living, I mean.”
Vangold puts his arm around Haoti's shoulders, pulls him in for a tight sideways hug. “That's good to hear, dead—no, I suppose I can't call you that anymore. And 'living man' doesn't quite have the same rhythm to it.”
“You could just use my name.” He makes a face. “Or call me Yahootie like they did sometimes.”
Vangold laughs. “No, don't give me permission for that, or I'll abuse it. I think your name will be fine. Now, I think we have some weapons practice to do. Want to take a bet on how long it takes Valira to beat each of us today? If you win, I'll let you ride forward on Careful Step with me behind on the way back.”
“No bet. Sooner than either of us would like, I'm sure.”
“Coward,” Vangold accuses without venom, and takes out a spear, already seeing Valira with her staff out, waiting for the two of them with a smile. As much magic as she can cast, terrifying spells, she always comes back to her staff.
It's not real training, or even real sparring, just something to pass the time and keep their skills sharp, keep them all moving. Haoti feels faster, more in tune with his body, than he did before he climbed the mountain, than he has since he was brought back from the dead, or even than he has since the succubus ripped out the first piece of his soul. Every practice brings him more back to himself, or to a new self. The Haoti Ewhoza who took Seath's orders is a different man than the one who lives today.
Valira dumps them both on their behinds, and then they attack together, working in concert like they'll have to when they journey together, and within a minute she's surrendered, taking their offered hands to pull her to her feet with a grin.
“For that sword swipe at the end there, you deserve to ride up front,” Vangold declares when they go back to the mammoths, who are used to patiently waiting for them to finish their strange human rituals by now.
“You're sure?” Haoti asks, staring up at Careful Step, who eyes him just as dubiously.
“You'll have to eventually. May as well be now. Now get moving, I worked up a sweat and the bathhouse is calling my name.”
Haoti mounts, though he still needs the help of a rock to do it, and watches Vangold and Valira both nimbly mount up, tries not to tense too much against Vangold's solid weight against his back. He's been touched more since he climbed this mountain than he has in the five years before it, but the more he gets used to it, the less he minds.
With Vangold's gentle direction, he moves his legs to get Careful Step moving, and after a moment's consideration, she agrees to do what he asks, and Haoti smiles foolishly between her ears, proud of the small accomplishment.
When he glances to the side at Valira, she's smiling at him, easy and honest, and Haoti relaxes into the moment of happiness.
It's also hard not to think about the fact that they're naked. He hasn't thought much about sex since coming back to life, not with so much else on his mind, but sitting there in a tub of hot water with the two of them splashing each other and talking about the particulars of spells he doesn't know or the mammoth herds, it's hard not to, and he ends up with his ears red more often than not, ducking under the water and scrubbing at them so he has some kind of excuse.
It's only worse when someone else is there. Vangold and sometimes Toth are the only ones on the mountain who seem to have more than wariness to offer Haoti, so when, after a vigorous bout of training, he finds himself climbing into the bath with Osla, one of the community elders, he gives serious thought to putting on his clothes and going to heat up a pitcher of water in their home. Judging by the smirk she gives him, she knows it.
“So, lowlander, you're going on this quest to bring the dragons back with Vangold, are you?” she asks. It seems she's just finishing up, because she stands up as she asks, and snorts when Haoti averts his eyes.
“Shulva and the others are allowing me to go, yes,” he says. Someone's foot finds his in the water, just a touch to ground him. Probably Vangold, who seems to understand without ever saying it that sometimes Haoti feels better with someone touching him, but when he peeks, Valira's watching him too, a little anxious. “We've met with him a few times, and discussed where we need to go first. The first few keys to finding the eggs will require spring, so for now, all we're doing is training.”
“I suppose,” she says. When he dares a look, she's frowning at him as she steps out of the tub. “They tell me you're a paladin. You don't seem much like one.”
Haoti winces, but he waves Vangold silent when he opens his mouth. Vangold and Valira both leap to his defense more often than they really need to, but he tries to speak for himself, when he can. “The first time I was alive, I tried to be the kind of paladin everyone talks about. It went wrong too easily. This time I'm trying to be more thoughtful about it.”
“Hmm.” She turns her sharp eyes on Valira. “You're still not going?”
“Still not going,” Valira affirms, and while she still seems restless and unhappy more often than Haoti would like, she's always sounded sure about that.
“Foolishness,” Osla pronounces, in a way that reminds Haoti so strongly of Kithri that he's abruptly homesick for her, and leaves with a towel still wrapped around her hair, where it hopefully won't freeze in the bitter air of the mountain.
Haoti can't stop his mouth twitching with a smile in the silence that follows her departure, and after a moment, Vangold snorts and flicks some water at him. “You know she likes you when she starts talking like she's disappointed in everything you or your ancestors or your possible descendants has ever done or ever might do in the future,” he says by way of reassurance.
“Seems like she's still making up her mind,” says Haoti, moving to scrub himself with a cake of soap now that it's just the three of them. He may be modest and all too aware of their bodies, but it's still less awkward with them than with anyone else. “Not that I mind. I know it takes time to rebuild trust. Or to build it in the first place, since I wasn't trustworthy the first time I climbed the mountain.”
“She's one step away from deciding you're a poor lamb who needs feeding,” Vangold declares, and shifts until he's a little closer to Haoti, still giving him plenty of elbow space as he works on scrubbing himself but close enough for reassurance. Valira, not as naturally given to touch, is watching quietly, waiting to see if he's disconcerted enough that she needs to step in.
Haoti rolls his eyes, an easy to way to prove he's not bothered. They're both more likely to believe impatience or sarcasm than reassurance, on this kind of subject. “I think I eat plenty, so she'll have to find some other way of showing she trusts me.”
“She hasn't gone to yell at Shulva like she did ten years ago when he advised moving some of the settlement into a cave she thought was likely to collapse,” says Vangold, “so I'd say she trusts you enough not to yell again.”
Valira laughs, startled into it, and Haoti grins the way he always does when she laughs. She did it too rarely when he was in her company before, and even now, months after the greatest victory any of them will ever hear of, she's slow to smile, let alone to laugh. Even if Haoti didn't like Vangold for his own sake, he would like him for Valira's, for the way he makes her laugh more than anyone else. “You have to tell us the whole story, now,” says Haoti. “Don't leave out a thing.”
Vangold embroiders the tale while they all wash off, with his usual expansive gestures and keen eye for the detail that paints a picture of the community, the lives they've been living for generations now. He's the first out of the tub, unworried as always about his nudity as he dries himself off and keeps telling the story. “Shulva has never dared cross Osla since,” he finishes as he hops into his trousers, Valira taking it as a cue to get out of the water and start drying off herself. The bathhouse isn't much larger than the bath and a little space around it, to make sure that the steam keeps it warm, and it's easier to go one at a time. “So you see, if she wanted you not to take this journey, you wouldn't be taking it.”
“The world bends itself to Osla's will,” says Valira. “Spot of soap on your back, still, Haoti, that will itch later.”
Haoti ducks down lower in the water and scrubs as well as he can. “I know you two trust me,” he says. It's something that's needed saying for a while, most likely. “Which means I know it even when you're not leaping to my defense telling me other people do or should trust me. I understand why they don't, and I'm willing to do the work. It doesn't hurt me, really.”
After a moment, Valira sits on the edge of the tub, looking down at him solemnly. She's still mostly naked, but for once he can ignore the way it makes his blood heat. “I'm glad you know it. Maybe you can understand that it hurts us a little, to see you trying so hard and other people not notice it.”
“You know more about me. You know what I was hearing in my head, before I died, when I killed two dragons and put the world in peril of ending, so you know how much I'm trying now. They don't. It's not their fault, or mine. They'll forgive me when I've finished this journey, I hope.”
Valira lifts a hand like she might reach out for him, and then, for once, she does it, putting her hand on his bare shoulder and squeezing. “You're a good man, Haoti Ewhoza.”
“I'm a better one,” he corrects. It's truer, and it matters more to him. “Because of you, and your friends, and your cousin and hers. And you,” he says, looking to where Vangold is leaning against the wall watching them, the dim light hiding some of his expression.
Valira shakes her head. “We just gave you a chance.” She stands up and goes back to drying herself off, dressing efficiently. He looks away again, at Vangold, who's dressed and safe to look at.
Safe other than his knowing grin, at least. “Come on, Haoti, out of the tub,” he says. “You'll turn into a prune if you stay much longer.”
“She's giving birth,” says Vangold, and he's smiling. “It's a little early, and it's breech, so I'm going to midwife. I thought the two of you might come along.”
That gets Haoti sitting up all the way. “Will she be okay? I can heal her or the calf if there are worries—”
“While any new mother would appreciate that kind of tender care, I'm just here to see if you want to watch a new life come into the world, or if you'd rather get some sleep tonight.”
Haoti has seen plenty of death. His new life, with these dragon eggs, is about birth. It should start with this. “I'll get dressed.” Vangold straightens up, and Haoti starts struggling into his clothes, all the warmest things he has, piecemeal and badly, until Valira slips over wordlessly to straighten up the buttons of his coat while he puts on his mittens. “Is anyone else there?”
“No. Too cold for us to spare someone to watch the herds every night, it's pure chance that I noticed she was acting up before bed and decided to bunk down.” He inspects Haoti and frowns. “Put a hat under that hood, fool, your ears will freeze off.”
Valira hands it to him before he can go looking for it, grabbing her own as she goes, and the three of them bank the fire in haste and go out in the cold.
If days on the mountain in winter are so cold that sometimes the wind leaves Haoti gasping, the night is cold beyond anything he's ever managed. It's deep winter in Norene, now, and at the overlook they can see the drifts of snow below, the lake that gives the city its drinking water well frozen over, and on the mountain no one goes out after dark unless there's a task to do for fear of freezing to death. It's a pitiless time to be born into the world.
Even Vangold's shoulders are practically up around his ears as he hunches with the cold, and the three of them walk in a ragged line to the mammoth paddock.
The whole herd is huddled all together not far from the joke of a fence, protecting something in the center of them, but they let Haoti and Valira and Vangold through happily enough, and Haoti sighs his relief as the bulk of the mammoths pressed so close together breaks the wind and offers some kind of animal warmth and comfort. “Tell me what you need me to do,” he says when they reach the center of the knot and the mammoth who's about to give birth. She's not noisy, but she's panting, clearly in distress, and trembling too.
Vangold frowns at the scene and then turns to Haoti. “You know Speak With Animals, don't you? It's the kind of paladin you are?”
“I know it.”
“Then go up to her head and give her some comfort, tell her that Valira and I are helping back here, comfort her if she worries. She's called Bent Tail and this is her first calf.” Vangold clasps his shoulder briefly. “Be honest with your comfort. Valira and I will save them both, but it will be difficult for a while.”
“I can do it,” Haoti promises, and shoulders his way through a forest of legs and trunks, getting a firm tap on the back from Careful Step as he goes, to reach Bent Tail's head. He takes a breath and casts the spell, worrying like he always does now when he casts magic that Obad-Hai won't be with him, but this, he knows, is just what his patron would want, so the magic comes easy and powerful. “Hello there,” he tells her, and gets her attention, though she's wild with worry. “I'm Vangold's friend. The baby is a little early, isn't it?”
“He shouldn't come when it's so cold,” says Bent Tail, fretful. “And it's wrong, my sisters tell me something is wrong.”
“He's turned himself around backwards, but Vangold and Valira are both here to help you. I'd trust either of them to help me. You just let us help you, and it will all come out right, even if it hurts along the way.”
“The dragon-slayer is here too?”
Funny, when Valira and her friends have one kill to his two, that she should be the one that gets the name. He's glad to cede it to her, though. “Yes, but she's happier to heal and help than to slay, I promise.”
“You're sure they can make sure the calf is safe?”
“They've told me they can, and I trust them. Any harm that comes to either of you can be healed, if you wish it.”
Haoti doesn't know anything about midwifing for people, let alone for beasts, but he knows enough to know it isn't a pleasant sight, so he keeps his eyes on Bent Tail's, pulls her sisters and friends into telling the stories of their own first calves' first steps. Her mother, he discovers, is Vangold's Sun Heart, who Seath killed, and he tells her what he knows about that battle, all of it learned later and secondhand.
He has to cast the spell again, and then a third time, before Valira finally yells “Tell her to push hard, once more!”
“He's almost here,” says Haoti. “Give a push, and they'll help him out.”
Bent Tail concentrates, all of her tense, and then there's a series of noises, Valira and Vangold talking quickly to each other, just too far away for him to make out the words, and then Bent Tail stops, panting, and there's silence in the middle of the winter night before she bursts into motion, ignoring Haoti to turn so fast that he almost loses his balance and stumbles into one of her sisters.
“Come over and meet him,” Vangold calls after a few seconds, and Haoti doesn't have to be asked twice. It's only a few steps, as massive as the mammoths are, and then he's faced with Bent Tail nudging her calf to his feet. He's a sorry sight, slimy and wobbly, but he's alive and well and, Haoti can already tell with the spell still active, asking his mother what's happened to his world, why everything is different now.
Valira comes up next to him after a moment, leaning her shoulder against his. “He's beautiful, isn't he?”
“He is. And confused. But maybe everyone and everything is when being born. I don't remember the first time, but the second—I think I felt a lot like he feels now.”
Vangold comes up to them beaming, hands clean but probably freezing after being scrubbed with snow. It will take spellwork to get them all really clean again, no doubt. Someone in the settlement must know Prestidigitation, even if they're nearly all druids and rangers. “There's still the afterbirth to come, but blessedly, an afterbirth can't be breach, so that isn't our responsibility.”
Valira is still watching Haoti, maybe thinking over his words, and says “He's landed in a confusing world, but there are good things here, even if he'll have to deal with more winter than most.”
“You two and your metaphors.” Vangold smiles at them, small and fond. “Feel the joy for now, won't you?”
“We are,” Haoti promises. “This is reminding me that I'm very glad to be alive.”
“Well, then.” Vangold kisses Valira's forehead, and then Haoti's, gentle and cold. “I'm glad you're alive too.”
Haoti could leave it there. They're all cold and exhausted and dirty, and it's anyone's guess whether Vangold leads them home or to the bathhouse when they go back to the village.
But they're surrounded by the warm bulk of the mammoths crowding in to meet the newest member of their family, with stars bright overhead despite the bitter cold, and there's life all around them, no matter how much of it is buried beneath the snow, and Valira and Vangold are both here, triumphant and the best things about his new life. Vangold is still just close enough that Haoti can tilt his head and kiss him, a gentle press of lips before he pulls back.
It's dark, but he's still close enough to see the way Vangold's eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles. Valira's shoulder is still warm against Haoti's, and he turns to the side just enough that he can meet her eyes, trying to find the words to explain what it is he wants without sounding like he thinks he deserves it when he can't ever be sure that he deserves this kind of good fortune. She does, though, and Vangold too, if they want it.
Valira doesn't ask for his words. She kisses him instead, lingering a little before she pulls away to turn to Vangold to close the circle. It feels like a ritual, something important and solemn that they're all doing, an agreement they're sealing.
“Well, then,” Vangold says again when he and Valira part.
“Unless we're needed here,” says Haoti, “I think maybe we should go back.”
Vangold lets out a wild laugh that startles the nearest mammoth and presses a kiss to Haoti's temple. “Then let's go.”
Inside, they all take off their outer layers off, wrinkling their noses at the smell, Vangold promising in a murmur to get them all cleaned in the morning even if he has to call in a favor to do it, and Valira kneels to rebuild the fire to keep them all warm, and then the three of them are left watching each other, wondering what comes next.
Haoti feels like he's used up his day's store of bravery, but the other two are watching him. He wants to ask, for a moment, if they've been waiting for him to catch up for something they were already ready for, but Vangold's hands are shaking a little in the firelight and he knows Valira by now, knows the way she holds back sometimes when she's unsure.
After all of this, when they only have until the path down the mountain starts clearing to be all three together before Haoti and Vangold go on a journey, it would be a shame to stop, to pretend it never happened. “I don't know how to start this,” he finally says. It's best to begin with honesty.
“I don't think any of us does,” says Vangold, “but I think between the three of us we can figure it out.”
“You're well?” he asks, though he doesn't think he's seen her with less shadows in her eyes.
She smiles. “I am. Last night was a good night.”
“New life is always cause for celebration.”
“New life and new beginnings.” She rolls until she can prop herself up on her elbow, still mostly buried in the furs, and gives him a long, searching look. “I'm still not coming with you.”
The thought of leaving her was bad enough before and is worse now, but her changing her mind was never in question. “I know. Neither of us would expect it. But now I'm worried about leaving you lonely.”
Valira shakes her head. Her hair is mussed, and he's seen her in the morning plenty of times, usually grouchy and ready for battle and tea in whatever order they come. He's still getting used to seeing her mussed and sleepy, luxuriating in a stretch. “How could I be? I'll go back to Fairpoint Hold, and maybe Quil and Phi and Terry will have pulled themselves together this winter, and Kithri will visit, and there will be plenty to keep me occupied when the spring planting comes. I'm not going to ask for promises when you two are going on a journey.”
“We may be together on this journey, but you aren't ...” Haoti doesn't know how to reassure her that she's not some occasional addition, pleasant but not necessary, not in his mind and his heart. He and Vangold haven't talked about it, but he's sure they feel the same about it. “You're part of this,” he says, and he knows the words are inadequate. He can almost feel the echo of the succubus's laugh for even trying.
“I know. I just can't be part of your travels, and if it takes longer than you hope, or if … if you can't come back at all, I don't want you to feel like you're breaking a promise.”
Haoti doesn't ask if she would bring them back. It's a useless question, and a sore one. He hasn't asked her why she hasn't brought back the mammoth she climbed the mountain to resurrect, but he knows she and Vangold have talked about it, and he knows that she'll weigh what she needs to, if one or both of them is killed on their journey. “We climbed this mountain to help you find a way to go forward and we still haven't succeeded,” he says after a while. “It's helped me, but what about you? Will you just go back to being restless?”
Valira shakes her head. “I'm learning a lot this winter. I may not have any answers yet, but I'm happier than I was before, and it's not just because of you two.”
“Do your friends know about … all of it?”
“Can you imagine me telling Kithri in as few words as Sending gives us? Especially when I still wasn't sure it would happen?” She gives him an impish smile. “I suppose I'll have to tell her now.”
Haoti smiles, and then lapses into a frown again. “We have to find a way to communicate, if we're leaving you. None of us knows Sending, and we could find someone to bring with us who does, but there are things we wouldn't want an intermediary for.”
Valira bites her lip. “I know you probably don't like to ask him for favors, but—Solomon might have something we could use.”
He knows Solomon wants to reestablish ties, and knows that he never wants to do the same. There are trespasses he can forgive, and there's putting him in a shock collar and passing him off like unwanted baggage to near-strangers and saying it's for the sake of redemption. Someday, he may have the courage to look for Aredhel, tell her he's out of his father's control and trying to be nothing like him, and ask what they can be to each other, but that's all he wants of the family from his first life.
Even so, he nods. Dealing with Solomon would be worth it, to make sure Valira doesn't feel left out or alone, and having her there in some way to ground them during their travels. “We'll ask him, come spring. If he doesn't have anything for us, he might know where something could be found.”
Valira kisses him, and Haoti closes his eyes and relaxes into it. He never would have dreamed he would have this, before he climbed the mountain. He never would have guessed that he would want it, before Valira and her friends broke him out of a dungeon and wrenched him off the track he was on. Before he was called into Seath's service, he would have scoffed at the thought of staying up all night helping a mammoth give birth, and waking on a cold morning to laze a morning away with one lover, waiting for the other to come back.
“Thank you,” he says when she pulls back, and wonders if she can feel the weight of all the words he can't figure out how to say out loud.
She must, though. She always does, and she pulls him in again, pulling up the furs so they're in a dark, warm world that's all their own, only interrupted some time later when Vangold comes in and laughs at the sight of them coming up for air.
“It's snowing, and it looks like we may have to settle in for a while.” He hefts a bag off his shoulder. “Everything is clean, I brought us some breakfast, and Bent Tail and her calf are doing very well this morning, according to Brita, so I think it's time to shut ourselves in here for the duration.” Vangold grins and raises an eyebrow. “Shall I bring breakfast to bed, then?”
They don't make it out of bed until lunch, or out of their home at all until it's time to dig out of the snow.
But inside, at night and during storms, the three of them are always together, trading kisses, learning each other's bodies. When Vangold goes out on his turn to hunt, Valira and Haoti are happy for the privacy and happier to welcome him back. When Haoti insists that he still needs time to meditate and pray, still rebuilding Obad-Hai's trust in him, he usually comes back to them flushed, Vangold smug and Valira a little dazed. Valira, sick of being cooped up, spends a day soaring over the mountain as a hawk, and Haoti and Vangold spend the day together, talking as much as they do anything else.
Haoti almost doesn't notice when the winter starts to loosen its grip on the mountain.
“There was an avalanche down the steep side today,” Vangold says when he comes back from a hunt, windblown and satisfied and shaking snow out of his boots.
Haoti focuses on him instead of the shirt he's mending, startled. “Was everyone okay?”
“Oh, we know better than to go near those paths, and the mammoths are the best early warning system we have. It just means things are shifting. We usually get a good one or two by the end of the winter. It will be cold up here a while longer, but the snow will be melting down in Norene. Passes clear within two weeks, at least clear enough to hike.”
Valira, who's been meditating for the past hour but is now sitting back on her hands watching Vangold, frowns a little. “And we'll go then?”
“Depends on Shulva, but probably not too long after, unless you two think we have a reason to stay beyond wanting to stay in bed till it's summer in the lowlands.” Out of his outside clothes, Vangold sits down by the fire, rubbing the last of the cold out of his hands. “Elk tonight, by the way.”
Haoti wants to bring dragons back to the world, but he wants to stay here forever too, wrapped up in a little world made up of just the three of them. “I wish we could stay in bed longer, but we should ask Shulva when he wants us to leave, and what he's been talking about with the other dragons, in case it matters to our mission.”
“Not today,” says Vangold, and looks between them. “You two look so glum! This won't be the last time we're together. Haoti, you and I are going to go off and do great deeds so people won't ask what Valira is doing with us, and Valira, you're going to hear from us as often as we can manage, and tell us where to come home to in the end.”
That makes her smile, and Haoti exhales, relieved. The last thing he wants is for her to start looking restless and guilty like she did before she thought of climbing Shulva's mountain. “It will almost certainly be Fairpoint Hold or somewhere close to it, so you may want to stop talking about lowlanders. You may end up as one of us.”
“I'm a shame to my ancestors,” says Vangold, but his smile stays where it is. “Careful Step and I will gossip about all of you. Sure I can't convince you two to come back up here when it's all done?”
Valira shakes her head. “I'd miss green things too much, not to mention my friends. I'm always happy to come back and stay a season or so, but Tyne is home.”
Haoti loves the mountain, but in a month or two, he knows he'll be longing for clear skies, warm air, trees coming into bud. “We'll come back,” he echoes. “But I agree. The lowlands are home, and if Valira is in Tyne, that's where I want to be someday.”
“Fine, fine.” Vangold laughs a little and shakes his head. “My father says he expects visits when I can manage them, though, so I'll have to remind you about spending a season here once in a while.”
They'll come back. Life is going to move on, but Haoti is more ready to greet it than he was when the winter began, and nothing is forever. This mountain isn't going to kill him again. “We won't take much reminding,” he promises, and puts aside his mending to join Vangold by the fire.
There are drums, and dancing, and Valira shows skill with a little pipe someone puts in her hands and gets pulled into the group of musicians while Vangold hauls Haoti to his feet and insists on teaching him the dances as everyone shakes off a season of bitter cold and stillness.
Eventually, Haoti pleads exhaustion, and Vangold whirls away to dance with some of the children while he sits not far from Toth, the two of them remaining in silence, eating some root vegetables baked until they're crisp.
“You'll take care of him,” Toth finally says. It's not a question.
“I'll protect him with my life, and I don't hold my new life cheaply, when Valira gave it to me,” Haoti promises. If that's all Toth wants from him, it's an easy oath to make.
It isn't, though, from the way Toth is still watching him, assessing him. Haoti sits still and waits to see what his next question will be. There are a dozen hesitations he wouldn't blame anyone for having, and he doesn't know which ones Toth will have. “This journey will be different.” That's not a question either.
Another easy promise. “Yes. I'll do better this time. I know what the right thing is, and I don't think Vangold would stand for it if I did anything else, even if I didn't have faith in myself.”
“I trust that you'll have the right goal in mind. You didn't know the black dragon's true self, so perhaps you thought at first that your goals were noble. But the help you accepted to get those goals that could have been the right ones ...”
Seath promised him power, and warned him it was dangerous power, and Haoti let himself be tempted. Almost wanted to be tempted. He paid the price for trying to take the easy way, though. “If the road is hard, the road is hard. We have allies we can get help from. I'm not going to hurt either of us that way.”
“Good.” Toth frowns out at the middle of the tent, where Vangold is throwing one of the girls up in the air while she screams with delight. “His mother's ship often brings her to Norene for spring trade. She'd take you wherever you need to go first.”
“He's mentioned she's sailing. I didn't know you knew her routes.”
Toth shrugs. “Venla is the mother of my son, and it's not either of our faults that my home made her unhappy and hers made me unhappy. Sometimes when I come down the mountain I pay the smuggler to Send to her. She sends letters too, for me to pick up from his home, in case we need her. Last year I feared I would need to tell her Vangold died fighting a dragon.”
“I'll look forward to meeting her someday.” It's the best he can offer, a rusty lowland courtesy. Of course Solomon has always known more about the mountain druids than he let on. Solomon is full of secrets. This one, at least, Haoti knows he doesn't have the right to. “Maybe soon. Will you escort us down the mountain, see if you can see her?”
“No, I think this isn't my journey. If she's not ferrying you two around, see if she'll come in the summer and have the smuggler call me down. I can ask her about your travels.”
Toth is still watching Vangold, and he looks a little sad, behind everything else. “I'm sorry,” Haoti says, though it's all Vangold's choice, and there isn't really anything to apologize for.
“He's always had a heart too big for the mountain. Even if he doesn't come back to stay, he's still my son.” Toth turns back to Haoti and fixes him with a sharp look. “And anyone who loves my son and stays by his side is part of my family. You and Valira? You're part of my family now.”
Part of Haoti wants to demur, say it's only been a few weeks, that anything could happen, especially when they're going to be away from Valira for a long time. He's sure, though. As sure as he can be. And he's had a long time since he's had much of a family. Valira, he knows, is much the same. “Thank you,” he says, and swallows. “Valira might want to hear that from your own lips before she leaves too.”
Toth nods slowly. “I'll tell her, then.”
Brita, usually as sober and intense as the future leader of a community in such a harsh place has to be, spins out of the crowd, laughing. “Come on, old man, you've been off to the side long enough. Even the elders are dancing more than you are.”
“Duty calls,” says Toth, wry, and stands up, using Haoti's shoulder to support him before he disappears into the dancing.
It's only a minute before Vangold, one child on his shoulders and one on his hip, appears out of the crowd. “Come on, Haoti, I have too many dance partners and you're over here lazing. Take this one,” he says, dislodging the child on his hip, and drops him on Haoti's lap.
Haoti looks down at the boy, who can't be more than three, a child of one of Vangold's cousins if he's remembering right. “What do you say? Do you want to learn a lowland dance?”
That gets him an eager nod, so Haoti stands up and leads Vangold and his partner back to the floor.
As always, when they reach his home, Shulva watches them for a few moments before he bothers speaking. “The way down the mountain will be clear within two weeks,” he says. “I can fly you where you need to go, if you wish to leave earlier.”
Haoti looks around at the other two, and when neither of them seems inclined to speak, he musters his courage and does it. “That's kind, but Valira is going back to Fairpoint Hold, so we want to escort her to the bottom of the mountain, where Solomon can send her home. And there's a boat we may be able to take to wherever you want us to go when that's done. Besides, you could carry us easily, but there's a mammoth coming too.”
“You've said you'll tell us where we need to go, what we need to do, when the time came closer,” says Vangold. “Where do you want us to begin?”
“Each of us set up our own security measures. A key you need to retrieve, or a battle you need to fight. You'll need to visit each of us in turn, to learn what you need to know about that, though Eleum has said he won't make you find his castle, when neither of you has the spell power for it. He'll meet you on a neutral island—Amana will tell you where, when you reach her.”
Haoti takes a deep breath. Lordren and Amana have forgiven him enough that he's being allowed to take this journey, but that doesn't mean he likes the thought of coming face to face with them again. He also doesn't like not knowing what tests or tricks Seath set up as his own security on eggs he can't have ever wanted to see hatch. “And Seath?”
“We think his book of demons' names came to be sometime in that age.”
Of course. Vangold steps up next to Haoti, puts his arm around his shoulder, and Haoti leans into his weight gratefully. A moment later, Valira is on his other side, not quite able to hold his hand with both of them in thick mittens, but linking their arms after a fumbling moment. “If any of you learn or guess more, we'd appreciate knowing,” says Vangold. “He's a big and dangerous unknown to have in this journey, that one.”
“I know. But you've both faced him before, in your own ways. You might know as many of his tricks as we do. And Valira, you may know more.”
“There are still people searching the ruins of his old palace for his books, to see what plans he might still have in place.” She looks at them both. “I'll tell you both, or Kithri will, if any of it even has a hint of the information you need.”
“Of course you will,” says Vangold, giving her a brief smile, keeping his arm tight around Haoti's shoulders as he looks back up at Shulva. “And your key, or test? Have you called us here to tell us about it?”
“I have, but before I do, I should tell you ...” Shulva trails off, and Haoti thinks it's the first time he's seen him or any dragon seem unsure. “We're all agreed that we want the eggs brought into the world and hatched. We just aren't sure where they'll be raised. Eleum Loyce claims his castle is safest, but much as we're all working to the same purpose, we're not always happy deep in each other's territory. A neutral area would be better, and we haven't decided on one yet. So you can go hunting the eggs—it should take some time, if we did our jobs right all that time ago—but be warned that we don't know yet where they're going.”
It's a question Haoti hadn't even thought to consider. Of course they'll need a safe place to grow—they'll be babies, barely able to feed themselves, however great and powerful they'll one day be. Vangold looks just as dismayed, when Haoti glances at him.
When he looks at Valira, though, she's smiling, and it's the sure smile she only uses when she's truly happy, when she has her hands buried in the soil or a mammoth prodding her with its trunk. When she's telling stories with her friends. When she's in bed with Haoti and Vangold. “Valira?” he asks, not sure what's in her mind but sure that it can't be anything bad if it's making her so happy.
She tilts her head up and turns the smile on Shulva, who lowers his head to hear what she has to say next. “I think,” she says, “that I have an idea about that.”
“I thought the long way,” says Vangold easily, rolling an ache out of his shoulder in the hot water. “It gives us an extra day or two together, and on top of that, there's the lack of mortal peril.”
Valira ducks under the water to wet her hair and then surfaces again, watching Haoti carefully. “I like the thought of a few extra days, but do you have something to say about that?”
Now that he's begun, it's hard to find the words. Over the winter, he's been tangled up in them less, with Vangold, who never makes him feel like he's said the wrong thing, and Valira, who's always willing to wait as long as it takes him to say what he needs to, but they desert him again while he tries to phrase this. “Last time, the short way down the mountain killed me. I've come to love it up here, and I don't want to be frightened of any part of it.”
“Seath killed you by calling in a favor with a demon, it had nothing to do with the mountain,” Valira snaps, and then bites her lip, wincing. “I'm angry at him, not you,” she adds. “If you need this, we'll do it. Won't we?”
Vangold hums thoughtfully, still rolling his shoulder, and Haoti frowns and moves to touch him and give him a little bit of healing. The wrench mends under his touch, and he'll never think it's anything but a miracle again, that Obad-Hai lets him heal and cast magic again. While he's close enough to touch, Vangold reels him in for a kiss. “Whatever you like. It will be like a warm-up for all the exciting puzzles these dragons left for us, right?”
Haoti smiles at him, relieved. “I know it's more dangerous, but I think I need to finish the journey I started before I can start my next one.”
“Anyone could understand that. We'll get you down the mountain safe, as though you couldn't do it yourself now that you're rid of that demon.”
Haoti looks over at Valira the way he almost always does when demons come up. She's already looking back. “I don't think anyone wants to take on the mountain alone,” she says. “The three of us and Careful Step should be more than plenty, though, especially with no Seath around this time.”
“It's still avalanche season, so there might be a few less beasts troubling us on our way down,” Vangold offers. “They probably know to stay tucked in their caves.”
Of course it's still avalanche season, and Haoti pulls back. “If it's dangerous … several tons of snow is probably more devastating than a demon. I should have thought of that.”
“We have one of the most powerful women in the world at our side. I think she can probably manage it.” Vangold holds a cake of soap up, a silent question, and Haoti nods and turns his back to him.
Valira usually hates being reminded that she's a legend in her own time, but this time, she's smiling. Vangold can always manage that with her. Haoti is beginning to learn from him. “We're going the short way down the mountain,” she confirms.
“We'll see you to Solomon's, see if he has anything for our journey and if he can reach Vangold's mother, and then you'll see us … well, when we can manage it,” says Haoti.
She shakes her head. “We can bypass Solomon and I can see you to the harbor and ask him to do the Sending when you're safely clear.”
If Haoti weren't having his back scrubbed, he would go over to Valira. He offers a hand instead, and she crosses the pool so they can all be tucked together. “He might have something that would make our travels easier, and whatever our history is, he's still my kinsman. He deserves to know what I'm leaving to do.”
Vangold chooses that moment to dunk Haoti underwater without warning and rinse the soap off him, and Haoti comes up sputtering and a little annoyed, only to twist over his shoulder to tell Vangold so and find him grinning with a hint of something more serious in his eyes. “You're off to be a hero, and you're absolutely right that Solomon should know it. We'll make sure he does.”
“I don't deserve either of you,” Haoti blurts, a moment of awkward honesty that he already knows both of them will hate.
Valira kisses him, and doesn't try to argue him out of the thought. “I don't care,” she says.
“You're stuck with us anyway,” Vangold confirms, and hauls him up to standing. “Come on, get dried off, my father tells me that the weather report says the sunset will be beautiful tonight.”
He may not deserve them, but he's going to do everything in his power to be worthy anyway.
The night before they go, there's another party, this one under the open sky by the mammoth paddock even though it's freezing. Shulva flies over, and perches not far away to watch for a while, an honor that he hasn't bestowed in a generation, and is pleased to meet the new calves in the herd, and everyone else dances around the bonfire, treading the snow down as the sun sets far in the distance across the mountains.
Osla finds him while Vangold and Valira are in the middle of singing a fairly bawdy song they somehow have in common with help from a dozen other people, and watches him hawk-eyed until he tries to muster up something to say. “I'm going to keep an eye on him.”
“Nobody can keep an eye on that one, he's been reckless since the day he was born,” she says, but she sounds fond and doesn't even try very hard to hide it.
“Still, I'll do my best. Even if right now he's not coming back to stay, I know everyone here loves him.”
“That boy will always find people who love him, which I already know you know.” She gives him a firm tap on the chest. “I think you'll do, Haoti Ewhoza.”
It feels like a benediction, and one he didn't even think to hope for, and he thinks again of Kithri, and Valira's laughter when she relayed Kithri's reaction to hearing about the three of them, all the people with their eyes on them and hoping for the best.
The bawdy song dissolves into the beat of drums and the shouts of the crowd, and the sunset glints off Shulva's scales. Haoti offers his hand to Osla. “Would you like to dance?”
Osla laughs, and thumps him about the knees with her cane when he can't keep up with her, but she delivers him into Vangold and Valira's arms after, and that's even more of a blessing than her words.
“I think the demons didn't help as much as they pretended they did,” Valira says when he mentions it to her while Vangold butchers up a chimera, claiming that parts of it can be sold as spell components and souvenirs in the city and he's not going to pass by the chance for a little extra money.
“They did a lot,” Haoti points out.
“Big flashy things—fire and brimstone, all at once, but we might not have needed the fire and brimstone if we'd been fighting without distraction, without something pulling our energy and our focus.” She shrugs. “We'll never know. Seath took the chance to find out away from us, but I'd say that everything we accomplished, we did in spite of them, not because of them.”
“You believe that?”
“I try to.” She stands up, looking beyond him, so probably Vangold is nearly done. “Mine is still alive somewhere in the Demon Web Pits. It left when Lolth was kicked off our plane, probably to serve her. Sometimes I think about finding it, threatening it or hurting it or binding it with its name if we ever get that out of the rubble of Seath's old palace, just to ask it about that. Probably it would lie anyway.”
They're never going to be quite free. Someday, maybe on this journey, Haoti will find a way to explain to Vangold just what both of them went through, why the worst words linger even when they know they're lies. He deserves to know what Haoti can figure out how to tell him, so he can know them. For now, Haoti stands up too, slinging his pack back on his back and eyeing Careful Step, who eyes him right back. “They were always lying,” he says. “That's what I try to believe. It helps that I really do believe it of yours.”
“Then it sounds like at least we have faith in each other, if not on ourselves.” Valira finds a rock and hops on Careful Step's back, putting the conversation at an end. It can certainly wait. “Come on, you two. Long day ahead.”
Vangold, as he stows their trophies away in Careful Step's saddlebags, gives Haoti a searching look that says he probably overheard most of that. After a second he clasps Haoti's shoulder and then offers a hand to help him up, jumping up after.
There will be another fight soon, no doubt, but they're ready for it.
Haoti can't make himself be the one who knocks once they dismount, and Valira is holding his hand so tight it's almost painful. It's too dark to see her expression, whether she's seeking to comfort him or herself. Vangold is the one to knock, though Solomon must have heard Careful Step lumbering nearly up to his doorstep.
Sure enough, it's barely a second before Solomon swings his door open, and he's standing close, but the light from the candles behind him means that Haoti can't see his face. “I wasn't expecting you two,” he says, looking past Vangold, and then he looks back at him, since he's right in front of the door, after all. “And you're one of the mountain druids, aren't you? I can't remember your name.”
“Vangold, Toth's son. We meant to be down earlier, but the mud made for slow going.”
“I don't have beds made—”
“We'll camp,” says Valira, stepping forward and pulling Haoti with her. “We just wanted to let you know we're here. These two have a mission to go on, and it's time for me to go home.”
Solomon looks between them and no doubt draws his own conclusions. “I have enough for a good breakfast for four in the morning, and it shouldn't be hard to get some feed for your mammoth,” he says, and turns to Haoti. “I hope you'll tell me about this journey.”
“We will,” says Vangold. “Tonight, though, may I ask a favor? My father says that sometimes you Send to my mother Venla on his behalf. Could you see if she plans to come to Norene harbor soon? We could use a lift, if she's willing and her ship is big enough for a mammoth.”
Solomon laughs a little. “I'll see what she says. Her ship is big, but no ship is that big. I might have a solution or two, though. We'll see what I can manage.” He turns to Valira. “You aren't traveling with them?”
“No. But if there's a way for the three of us to stay in touch without intermediaries … I hesitate to ask you more favors when you've done so many.”
Solomon shakes his head. “We all owe you a debt. Don't think of it. I'll see what I have that could help. Do you three want tea or warmth before you sleep? It's still cold out there.”
“Not as cold as the top of the mountain,” says Vangold, wry. “We keep warm well enough.”
“If you're sure.” Solomon is looking at Haoti again. “I'll Send to Venla, then, Vangold, I have the spell prepared today, and tell you in the morning what she says. And there are a few things I can already think of that will come in handy for you.”
It's hard finding a spot dry enough for their tent and bedrolls, and Careful Step lingers close, a little nervous in the lowlands already, and Solomon watches from the door of his house. Maybe he notices how small the tent is, how close together all three of them set their bedrolls and furs, but he doesn't mention it, and when they're done, all he does is wave and shut the door, and it's only a few minutes before the candles go out.
Solomon opens the door almost as soon as he knocks. “Tea's on. Come on in.”
Haoti does. There's a little more clutter in the cottage than there was the last time he was in it. Solomon's been busy collecting things over the winter. “Thank you for offering to help us so quickly.”
“I know I burned my bridges with you, but you're still Aredhel's son. And I'm glad to hear you're going on another journey.”
“And one I chose myself, this time,” says Haoti, and can't bring himself to feel guilty for Solomon's flinch. “We're bringing dragons back to the world. Making up, in some way, for Seath's evil.”
Solomon raises his eyebrows. “You think people will be happy about that?”
“I think they can learn to be. Especially because Shulva and the others are talking about going out into the world and undoing some of Seath's harm themselves. That will make things easier for the eggs.”
After a moment of scrutiny, Solomon nods. “I have a few things for the two of you. Three of you, with Valira. I'm surprised she's not helping with this.”
“She has a different role. We'll see her when we're done.”
“And speak to her before then.” Solomon goes to a chest and pulls out what looks like a rough stone broken in half until he turns the halves around to show a bright blue geode. “These will let you do it once a day, like you've cast Sending, as long as you both have the stones on you.”
Haoti takes them when they're offered, and turns them over. “Thank you. Anything else is … we'd be grateful, but this is the most important thing.”
“Is it?” Solomon says, but Haoti isn't ready to confide about what he and Valira and Vangold are to each other. Solomon can make whatever assumptions he wants to make.
There's a sharp rap on the cottage door, and Haoti sighs with relief and gets up to get it. Valira and Vangold both look a little bleary, but happy to see him, and he shows them the stones first thing. “Solomon says they'll let us talk, once a day.”
Vangold beams, taking one of the halves and immediately pressing it into Valira's hands. “Don't let that out of your sight. That's good news to start the day on, certainly.” He looks over Haoti's shoulder. “Well met, Solomon. Any word from my mother?”
“Apparently Venla had a warning from a dragon that she might be wanted here soon,” he says, with his eyebrows raised. “She's happy to transport you as soon as she's here, which should be within three days—sooner, if the winds are good. She's less sure about the mammoth, but I may have a solution there.”
Haoti lets the rest of them talk their way through breakfast, with so promising a beginning to the conversation. Solomon has an amulet that will cast Enlarge or Reduce on the creature that wears it, depending on which way it faces, it seems, and Vangold is full of jokes about accidentally facing it the wrong way and sinking his mother's ship but grins at it sitting on the table because he knows it makes their journey possible, if Careful Step can be convinced it's a good idea. There are a few more wonders, but none matter more than the Sending stone, which Haoti turns over in his hands in between bites, reminding himself that it will be a way to stay close to Valira.
When they've finished breakfast, silence falls. Haoti has finally finished his journey down the mountain, and his next journey is beginning, everything so different from his first life that he might as well be a different man. Vangold keeps looking around the cottage, not used to lowland houses, maybe thinking about how different his own life is going to look soon. Valira looks restless and unhappy, though Haoti tries to brace her with a hand on her thigh once he puts his spoon down.
The silence is eventually enough to tell Solomon that he's intruding, and he stands, sweeping the dishes into a pile. “The three of you will have logistics to discuss,” he says. “Valira, I made sure to set aside a Teleport scroll for you, so you can get home whenever you like.” With that, he picks up the dishes, casts a quick Prestidigitation to clean them, and leaves them in the kitchen on his way outside to do morning chores. Hopefully Careful Step hasn't ploughed up his spring garden bed in the night.
“I can stay the three days,” says Valira, firm. “I'd like to meet your mother, Vangold, and have the extra time with the two of you.”
“I don't want to stay here,” Haoti says, quiet and a little guilty. “If we can find a different area out of town to camp in, I'd be glad to have the extra three days too.”
Valira takes his hand. “Of course. Vangold?”
“Aged cousins aren't very good to have around for extended farewells, especially aged cousins you aren't fond of,” says Vangold. “We'll find a different campsite, and spend three more days.”
Three days seems like nothing at all, now that the time has come, but they're both looking at him, and he reminds himself that they're not parting forever. Another year, maybe less, and they'll be together again, a new era of the world and their lives that they'll be beginning together. With that in mind, he can smile, and nod, and say that there are sea caves elsewhere in the cove that the tides don't touch these days, and that they might be a good sheltered place to stay, even with a mammoth.
“Three more days, then,” says Valira, and this time, she's smiling a little.
“And then the world,” says Vangold, and Haoti smiles at them both, lets their hope be his.
Valira is standing still, watching them. Somewhere in the crowd beyond, he thinks he recognizes Solomon, but it's a sea of intrigued faces, most of them brought by the mammoth, so it's hard to tell, and Haoti keeps his eyes on Valira.
Vangold comes to stand with him when they're far enough away that it's hard to make out her face, and as she recedes in the distance, they watch her pull Solomon's scroll from her pocket. One last look up at them, and she's gone.
Haoti waits a full minute, and then pulls out the Sending stone. He offers it to Vangold, but Vangold just shakes his head. “You first. I'll talk to her tomorrow.”
Perhaps he should argue, but he doesn't want to. Instead, he cradles the stone in his hands and summons the magic. Be well, he says. Tell everyone hello from me. And then, because he can't say it out loud yet, but through the magic, he thinks he can: I love you.
There's only the briefest of pauses. I love you too. There are more words to the spell, but that, it seems is all she has to say. It's certainly all he needs to hear.
They're far enough away from the docks now that he can't see individual people, just the mass of humanity going about its business, so Haoti turns around and looks across the ship to the wide sea beyond them. Vangold turns around too, taking a deep breath of the salt spring air. “Ready?” he asks.
Haoti smiles and takes his hand. “Ready.”
iv. the love and the light on the land
Valira wakes to the first hint of spring air drifting through her window just as the sun peeks over the horizon, and she's out of bed in a second, after a restless night of sleep, fishing the Sending stone out from under her pillow as she goes. In a year, she's learned to keep it close no matter what, never sure when Vangold and Haoti will have time to get in contact with her, and as soon as she's dressed it's in a pouch around her neck, safe and secure.
She might not need it today. For a week and more, since their final battles with the countermeasures Seath put in place to keep them from succeeding, their messages have been full of excitement—We're meeting with the dragons led to Venla has come to get us and we're sailing towards Tyne led to We're traveling over land as fast as we can with our cargo, and last night's message was simple, Haoti's turn with the stone: Tomorrow. We don't know what time tomorrow, but we'll be there.
The thought drives her up to the wall, where she can watch the sun rise, already promising to be warm and start melting the last of the snow into mud, and where she can watch the road and what she's spent a year building all at once.
Quil finds her when the dawn starts losing its colors, always the other one of them early to rise, and offers her a mug of tea still steaming. “Watching the road already? Kithri warned the Hold last night and Allan prepared Sending, so as soon as they're spotted, they'll let us know, unless they're coming from a surprising direction.”
“I know I can't spend the whole day waiting, but I want to. We're all prepared here, so anything else will just feel like busy work until they come. And we'll see if they beat the dragons here.” Valira touches the pouch around her neck, but it's not going to do her any good. With the roads so muddy and irregular, Vangold and Haoti might not know how long they'll be traveling any more than they did last night. “Lordren said it might be as soon as tonight, and the other three won't be far behind, and I think Trilli and the girls should be here next week, since they can't get away before that.”
Quil laughs. “If you'd told me two years ago we'd be hosting a dragon summit to open up a nursery to give them a chance to begin again ...”
Valira smiles and takes a sip of her tea. “I still can't believe we're doing it.” It's been a year of hard work, like her first journey, but this has all been more welcome. She's been building structures fit to protect and teach wyrmlings in, learning Draconic when she has little talent for book learning, asking all the dragons how they were raised, and searching the ruins of Theogonia's library and Seath's castle for texts that might help, but now, so close to the beginning of a completely different kind of work, it all feels like she might have dreamed it.
“And you're happy? I know you went looking for a purpose, but if this doesn't seem right ...”
Valira shakes her head. “This is what I want. And I think all of you are happy for the excuse too, even if you aren't going to live here like we are.”
“We are. I love having some peace, especially now that Mama's not far away, but creating something new is important too.” She joins Valira watching the forest road for a few quiet moments as the day warms just enough that their breath stops misting in the air. “Kithri was starting on breakfast when I came up here,” she finally says. “And Phi and Terry are probably up by now. Come on, we'll keep you distracted until they come.”
“You look like you're going to jump out of your skin,” Kithri says, disapproving, when they all convince her to sit down.
“Just excited. It's been almost a year since I saw them, and Sendings and the occasional letter when they can manage it aren't the same.” She smiles at Phi and Terry. “I don't know how the two of you managed it.”
They exchange a look, and then one with Quil, the three of them settled these days in a way Valira thinks she might someday manage, if not right away while all of them get used to being together again. “With difficulty,” Phi finally says, a little wry, “but we were fine in the end, and you will be too.”
“I know.” There have been times when she couldn't breathe for missing them, when she worried that the two of them would decide they were better alone, and she knows from letters, most of them in Haoti's hand, that he worries they might fall apart, without an adventure to sustain them, without a quiet winter without anyone else around. Thus far, none of them has had a worry that's lasted past their faithful daily Sendings. “But you must have been impatient.”
“Lanra or I could tell you a few stories about that,” says Terry, and launches into a few of them, neatly distracting Valira enough that she doesn't look out the window every few seconds.
When they've all finished, not to mention cleaned up the dishes, Valira decides to go out to the garden, and after a series of looks that aren't anywhere nearly as subtle as they'd like to pretend, everyone else decides that Kithri should go with her.
Kithri doesn't say much. Now that they're not traveling, in danger of their lives and sanity, she's not inclined to chase them away from romance, and while she shakes her head sometimes in theatrical annoyance that Valira picked two such troublesome men to share her life with, she's also let Valira use her as a conduit for conversations with them, the less personal ones so they can save Solomon's stones for words they don't want anyone else overhearing.
“How many eggs did they say it is again?” she asks after a while, when Valira is thoroughly muddy from digging out one of the produce beds for an early planting and thinking fondly of the bathhouse on the mountain, the plentiful hot water.
Valira remembers the dazed triumph of Vangold's voice in that Sending—they'd split their words that day that they made it through all the dragons' trials and found the pocket dimension that housed the eggs. Haoti had said We're alive, we're safe, we have them, we love you, and then Vangold had taken the stone and he'd said There must be sixty here, more than enough to begin. “Sixty-three was the official count,” she says, and the number is even more incredible said out loud. “We'll hatch them six at a time for a while, over the space of years, otherwise it's going to get very chaotic here very quickly.”
“You'd be amazed at how much chaos six younglings can cause,” Kithri warns, but she can't quite hide her smile.
“I expect you to scare them all into behaving whenever you visit,” says Valira, and sits back, looks up at the sky and imagining it filled, overshadowed with the wings of dragons.
Phi is the one who finds them out there, lit up with a smile. “We just heard from Allan. They're on their way, and even with all the eggs, it won't be more than an hour.”
By the time they're in sight, she's nearly to the woods, jogging down the path to meet them, and then there they are, the party from Fairpoint Hold riding in front, and behind, Careful Step, with saddlebags loaded down and, on her back, Vangold and Haoti, too distant still to see any details but their presence.
Impolite as it is, she walks right past Phi's brothers and goes to Careful Step instead, hugging her around the leg the second she stops walking, clinging with her face in the familiar fur, listening for the sounds of two people dismounting.
“I suppose we can wait a while if you and Careful Step need some time,” says Vangold, and it's one thing to hear his voice in her head, but another to hear it out loud, and only a few feet away, and she turns to face them.
They look different, after a year's adventures. Wearier, and stronger, not wearing armor and standing so tall that they must be relieved to be out of it. Vangold has more of a beard, now, like so many of the men on the mountain, and a wound still fading into a scar on his cheek. Haoti's gained scars too, on his hands and arms, but he also looks relieved of a burden, settled, like maybe he finally believes in his own redemption. “Valira,” he says, and then she's moving, in their arms, holding on and being held, and the year between them doesn't matter, with all of them there.
As given to gentle teasing as Phi's brothers can be, not to mention Valira's friends, they're left in peace for a long time, or what feels like a long time, all holding on and whispering over each other, none of them making sense at all, just needing to talk without limits for once.
Eventually, she pulls away when there's a loud clearing of someone's throat, probably Kithri's. Everyone else has moved on, back to the gates of the nursery, and they're being watched with no little amusement by the whole group. “I should show you what I've built, instead of just telling you about it,” she says, too happy to be embarrassed. “There's a lot to see, and an incubation chamber for the eggs.”
“Before we go on,” says Vangold, “there's someone you should meet. She was a little more impatient than all her brothers and sisters, you see, and just as soon as we got on Venla's ship, well ...”
“No,” breathes Valira, and looks up when Haoti nods up to Careful Step's saddle.
“Come on down,” Haoti calls up, as gentle as she's ever heard him, in Draconic much easier than hers. “We've told you about Valira. She wants to meet you.”
There's a moment where nothing happens, and then a little silver dragon, no larger than a deer, launches herself from the saddle and flies down to meet them. Up the road at the nursery, Valira can hear excitement, everyone realizing just what's come.
“Welcome home,” she says, in her own clumsy Draconic, offering her hand, and she means it for the wyrmling, for all the eggs still in the saddlebags waiting to hatch after centuries on centuries, for Haoti and Vangold, and even a little bit for herself.
Judging from the looks on their faces, they understand all of it.