Cord caught up with the blind man for the last time at dawn.
Or—found him, at least. It had felt like a chase, following his trail, tracking him down; except he wasn't running, not anymore. The plains Cord had crossed to reach him were wide and grassy, and among all the waving rippling stalks bending in the morning breeze, the figure of the blind man was utter stillness. Even if the dim dawn light had not been steadily brightening, even if the blind man had not stood there crisply outlined against the red-gold sky, Cord began to think he would have found the blind man—would have perceived him, would have felt him. As if even in the deepest dark of night, that tranquility would have stood out like a blazing star amid all the dim rushing motion of the world.
Cord bared his teeth, and moved closer, tightened his grip upon the hilt of his blade and felt his heart quicken in his chest. Soon.
The blind man wasn't looking at him, of course, wasn't watching him. But Cord didn't bother to move quietly through the tall grass, and he had no doubt the blind man knew he was there.
And, sure enough, as he drew nearer the blind man tilted his head a little, and then said, unhesitating, "Cord." As if there were no one else it could possibly have been; as if he perceived Cord with the same clarity.
Something about that thought was unsettling. Cord's skin prickled. His throat ached. But he didn't know why, and it didn't matter anyway. Not now.
"Are you here to kill me?"
Cord wanted to laugh, and did. What a ridiculous question it was, after all.
It was a fact like any other, as fundamental and as immutable. The sky was above him, the earth below. Mountains were tall, and rivers were wet. And he wanted to kill the blind man. Wanted to—needed to. He felt sure he had never wanted anything more, had never wanted anything else; the want consumed him, filled him, drove him mercilessly onward. It was his purpose, the only one he had ever had. There was nothing else in all the world that mattered, except to kill the blind man.
It was like being asked whether trees had leaves, whether blood was red. They both knew the answer. Everyone in all the world knew the answer.
So he laughed, and didn't reply, and leapt forward to lunge at the blind man.
The first blows of his blade were dodged without effort; but he had expected that. He knew the blind man well, knew his ways.
(—but how? How could he? Surely he had always wanted to kill the blind man, and always would; surely he would never have stopped, with the blind man in his reach, just to watch the blind man fight others. Surely he would have taken the opportunity and killed the blind man then, unless—)
He redoubled his efforts, which earned him only a quick sharp strike from the blind man's flute—a block to stop his hand, and then a powerful jab of one end into his belly, so that he couldn't help but stumble backward, the breath knocked from him.
"Cord," the blind man said, low, urgent. "Cord, listen to me—"
"What will you do?" Cord spat at him. "Play your damned flute at me again?"
He shook his head, infuriated by the very memory. He had caught up to the blind man before—again, and again, and again. The blind man had tried everything, everything. Things no man of pride or honor would try: he had hidden from Cord, and he had run from him. He had tripped Cord, tricked Cord—pleaded with him, once, so quietly and earnestly Cord had hated him all the more for it.
(—because no doubt that was the only word for the feeling that had come over him then, the intensity with which it had wracked him; the tight hot ache in his chest, the way his eyes had stung and burned. That was the only name he could give it, when it was still unassailable and necessary truth that he must, must, kill the blind man—)
"What will you do?" the blind man said.
Cord stared at him. Perhaps he was an idiot after all. He had asked his ridiculous question, and Cord hadn't answered it aloud, but had in every other way. "I will kill you," he gritted out, and darted in to swing at the blind man again.
Except the blind man was not there anymore; and Cord felt the smooth wood of the flute again along the back of his wrist, his hand. Not a blow, though of course the blind man could have broken his bones with one easily enough—almost a guiding touch, redirecting the long curving knife clutched in that hand only so far and no further, though it was far enough to give the blind man more than room enough to evade him.
"And when you have killed me," the blind man said quietly, calmly. "What then?"
As foolish a question as the rest, for this answer, too, was obvious, unquestionable fact. "I will cut off your head," Cord bit out, "and take it to her."
"Her," the blind man repeated, and Cord dreaded yet another pointless question—who was she? Her, her. What confusion could there be?
But the blind man only breathed out, slow, a long soft sigh.
"And that thought pleases you."
Cord didn't know how to answer. He didn't know what to say, almost didn't understand the words at all. Please him? What did that matter? He—he didn't know how to decide whether anything pleased him, or didn't please him. There were only things that were truths of his existence, and things that were not.
"Enough of this," he snarled instead, and threw himself at the blind man.
Who caught his hands, and twisted somehow at the same time so that abruptly Cord's own motion worked against him; within a moment he was trapped there, the wood of the flute cool where it was held—feather-light, barely a touch at all—against the skin of his throat.
"No, no," Cord cried, twisting helplessly in the blind man's grip. He could not stop himself, it was—it hurt, strange and sharp and agonizing, to think that he had lost his chance, that he would fail yet again. The blind man would choke him now, perhaps: draw the flute up tight and close Cord's throat with it. Leave him unconscious among the swaying grasses, and run again. Or kill him—why shouldn't he, after all? Why shouldn't he, when he knew what Cord was here for?
(—but he wouldn't. He wouldn't. Cord knew it, though he could not say how, could not say why. He had given the blind man cause enough and more; and it was not one of the truths that had been written in him, that the blind man would not hurt him, and yet—
—written in him? What did that mean? Why had he thought it that way? What was he—)
"I have to," Cord found himself saying. "I have to," and his voice was wild, frayed and desperate; a little like the way the blind man had sounded pleading with him, he thought, but he could not prevent it. "I must. I cannot stop trying—I will not stop trying. I will kill you, or you will kill me. Do you understand?"
He must. Surely he must. Who didn't understand this, the most fundamental rule of them all? The world was full of warriors, bandits, kings; there were people who took, and people from whom all was taken, and if you did not want to be one then you were the other.
(—but that had never been the blind man's way. The blind man had sought and found a deeper wisdom, a wisdom that created peace instead of war. And even Cord, Cord as he had once been, petty and brash and prideful, had been drawn to it—
—but if he did not kill Cord now, Cord would only try again. Again, and again, and again, until he succeeded. And Cord did not want—
—Cord did not want—)
He waited there, held fast, helpless. His heart pounded. He swallowed, and the flute pressed back against the motion for an instant. The blind man would end this. Of course he would.
And then the flute was gone. The hold on him was released.
Cord whirled round, and lifted the long curving blade that was still in his hand. And even as he did it, even as he struck, he felt with grim certainty that it must be only one more of the blind man's tricks. The blind man would stop him somehow: trap him again, break his arm; break his neck, understanding at last that there was no other way.
It could not be this easy.
But he met no resistance of any kind, and almost before he knew it, he had the edge of his blade pressed to the blind man's throat.
He stopped short. He couldn't understand it. The blind man had had skill enough to see this coming and prevent it, there could be no doubt of that. But he hadn't.
Not that it mattered. Cord took the opening, even if it had been given to him, and pressed closer; caught the blind man by the hair with his free hand, and leaned upon the blade, though not quite enough to cut. Only enough to show that he could, that he was not the blind man and this was no trick.
The blind man held still beneath his hands. He had twisted with Cord's grip on his hair, instead of pulling free of it. His throat was exposed by it, vulnerable. His unseeing eyes looked toward the red sky, the rising sun. His breath was even, steady.
Cord trembled, and did not know why.
The blind man did nothing.
"Stop me," Cord said, and then wanted to rip the words from his head, his tongue from his mouth—why had he done that? What vile power had moved him to speak so?
The blind man's brow furrowed, mild, as though he were confused, if not particularly troubled by it. "You wish to be stopped? You told me you had to kill me. You told me that you must."
Cord's eyes stung. Sweat, that was all. The exertion of the fight, and never mind that it had hardly lasted long enough to warm him. He shook, and could not stop it.
Of course he had to kill the blind man. Of course he did.
He pressed the blade down harder—hard enough now that it cut after all, and the blind man's blood welled out and dripped a little along the edge.
The blind man didn't flinch. He didn't move at all, didn't reach up to catch Cord's wrist or push him away. He could have, he was—he had dropped the flute, let it fall to the ground at his feet. His hands were free. He could have saved himself.
But he didn't.
Which meant, of course, that this was Cord's chance. This was the opportunity he had been looking for, and there was no reason to hesitate. He had the blade, he had the blind man. He would hew the blind man's head off, and take it back to her, and then—
He swallowed hard, and squeezed his eyes shut. He wasn't doing it. He must, he knew he must; and yet he wasn't, and the terrible force of that contradiction felt abruptly as though it would rip him apart.
The hurt returned, that strange sharp pain that came from everywhere and yet from nowhere, and he writhed within the grip of it, breathless, straining. He was tense, knotted up taut, and he still had a fist in the blind man's hair—it must have hurt, even if the blade seemed not to bother the blind man at all, and yet the blind man was pliant against him. Pliant, steady. And his voice was steady, too, steady and impossibly gentle, when he said quietly, "Cord."
Cord gritted his teeth against the agony that blazed in him, and blinked his blurring eyes open. And for a brief and unbearable moment, it was as though he had turned inside out, as though the world were upside down: as though the sky were beneath him and the earth above, as though truth were lies—for that was the only way it could be so, that he should have the blind man at his mercy and not drive the blade home. And yet he did not, and he did not, and he did not—
Something broke. He didn't know what or where, didn't know whether it was within him or without. And then he found that he was standing there with his fist clenched tight in the blind man's hair, with a blood-streaked knife to the blind man's throat, and he was horrified.
He cried out, wordless, revolted, and jerked the blade back—hurled it away from him into the grass, and tore his hand from the blind man's hair, and stumbled away to fall to his knees. He gasped for breath as though he had been drowning, and he couldn't—he couldn't understand it, couldn't understand himself. What had he done? What had he—
"Hush," the blind man said; and Cord was equally blind, face in his hands, but all at once there was a steady touch against Cord's shoulders, careful fingers curling soothingly round the nape of his neck. "Cord—"
"It was the witch-queen," Cord said—too loudly, too hastily, the words clumsy and awkward in his mouth now that there was no certainty etched into him to say them for him. "It was—I could not stop her—"
Because he remembered now. He remembered all of it. How strange and terrible and—and easy it had been to know none of it, to be aware only that he was Cord, and that he must kill the blind man, and that she, she, was waiting for him. He had needed no other word for her, like that; there had been no one else in all the world, no possibility of confusion.
But it was—she was the witch-queen of Imarel, and the blind man had known better than to venture too close to her black tower, but Cord had not. He had gone, too bold by half. In the night, when he had thought it would be safest. To see it, that was all, for how many men could say they had been there and yet lived?
But he had been found, and somehow she had known him. She had known who he was, and that he traveled with the blind man; and she had touched his face and smiled at him, and then reached into his heart and rewritten him—
"She has hated me for a long time," the blind man was saying, quiet. "It was not your doing, Cord."
Cord laughed a little into his palms, though none of this was funny. "You would not have done it," he said, between his fingers.
The blind man was silent, for a moment. He left one hand at the nape of Cord's neck; but with the other he caught both of Cord's where they were tangled in front of Cord's face, and drew them gently down, and then touched Cord's cheek.
"I would have done anything she willed," the blind man said, "if she had set her workings on me. I know it, because it has happened before."
Cord looked up. The blind man was smiling. Just a little, the faint wry curve that only sometimes overtook his mouth, but it was there.
"And I know what is required of any who would break free of it," the blind man added, soft and serious even though the smile had not quite gone.
And then, most startling and unexpected of all the vast and bewildering magics that had been at work upon Cord of late, he found with no small surprise that he was being kissed.
It took him a long slow moment to even understand that that was what it was, that it was the blind man's mouth against his; and he made a small uncertain sound, and as soon as that the blind man broke away.
"No, wait," Cord heard himself say, and then cursed himself for a fool. "I—but it was weakness, surely, to succumb—"
"Then it showed still greater strength to overcome in turn," the blind man mused, mild.
"Then you aren't angry with me," Cord said.
He grimaced, after he said it: as if that were improvement, to beg reassurance like a child.
But the blind man only smiled at him again, and said, "What is there that deserves my anger, on such a beautiful day?"
"But your throat," Cord said, and then could not find the words to go on. He reached out instead, to the long thin cut that still bled there, and only thought once he had moved that he shouldn't—that if the blind man flinched from his hand, it would only be as much as he had earned.
"It will heal soon enough," the blind man said, soft, and pressed into Cord's hands instead of away; touched him steadily in return, and stroked his jaw, the corner of his mouth, and kissed him again.