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It was never truly cold on the plains of Attolia. Spring was warm with the moisture of growing things, and in the summer the earth baked hard beneath the olive trees, and people slumbered when they could in the scant shadows. The air cooled as the days shortened, but warmth lingered even into winter. Snow was a thing only of travellers' tales and stories.
Hot in the summer, Althaia had longed to be part of those stories. Sweltering in the restless night, she had walked in her dreams with gods and heroes in places of blessed cool. She had longed for mountains and for lands across the sea.
She longed for wings.
Then winter brought unprecedented cold. Her father fretted about damage to house and crops, and Althaia worked until her hands were chapped and callused, and then worked some more. The end of daylight found her alone, walking away, just walking. A cloak made for warmer days was little protection against the cold, but she wrapped it as close as she could, and listened to the crunch of frosted blades of grass breaking beneath her feet.
Perhaps she would walk for ever, she thought. Her breath turned to mist in the air, and the mist turned to dreams and fancies. The skeletal trees hid a god, whose eye would alight on the wandering mortal, this maiden of the frost. The wind whispered with the sigh of a lover, who would take her hand and lead her away.
Ahead of her, the sun was setting, flooding the sky with orange and blue. And it was out of the sunset, out of the dying sun, that the stranger came.
She heard the sound of him first - a clash of steel, a cry, the whinny of a startled horse. Althaia froze, dreams vanishing like shadows at evening. Her heart beat faster; her breath caught, then resumed again, shallow and tight. She was a girl out alone on the cusp of darkness, too far away from home. She pressed her knuckles against her mouth, then lowered her hand, clasping her inadequate cloak over her breast. She took a step backwards, and then another.
Ahead of her, beyond the trees, a horse started off at a gallop. A male voice shouted, high and harsh. Sound travelled further in the cold, crisp air, didn't it? Perhaps all this was happening far away, safely far away.
She began to turn, and that was when she saw him. He came out of the sun, and afterwards she would remember how it seemed as if he was born from it. But at the time she only saw the silhouette of a dangerous stranger, who stalked towards her with measured tread. The light behind him made him thin and unearthly, limned with gold but with no expression on his face. A dark slash of a sword was in his left hand, and his shadow was long, turning the frosted grass black.
She opened her mouth; closed it again. Her throat was dry, and she had no idea what she had been about to say. But then the stranger stepped off the path of the setting sun, and became just a man. He smiled, and became just a young man, perhaps only a few years older than she was herself. It was a strange smile, she thought afterwards, with layers of meaning in it that she would never understand.
"Don't be afraid," he said, and amazingly, despite the fear that still had its claws into her throat, she laughed, because that was what the gods said when they appeared before mortals in the oldest of stories.
Perhaps he remembered that, too, because his smile changed, wry and self-deprecating, flashing for a moment before it was gone. "No-one's going to hurt you," he said. "It's over."
The claws at her throat were easing. "What's over? What happened?"
There was blood on his sword, she realised. He saw her looking, but didn't sheathe it. Sighing, he half raised his right hand as if to wipe his face, then lowered it again, his mouth tightening. "Nothing," he said. "It'll be dark soon. You should go home."
Beyond him, the sun touched the horizon and orange light bled outwards behind the trees. His shadow weakened with every breath she took. She could no longer hear the pounding of the horse's hooves.
"Go home," he said again, but quietly.
The sun sank quickly, hastening to be gone. Darkness deepened, and the cold was a living thing, without the sunlight to take away its edge. She looked at the endless night, and far behind her, the lights of home. "Are you--?"
"No need to worry about me, my dear."
She pulled her lower lip in with her teeth, and let it go. Then she walked away. After a dozen steps, she turned and saw that he was still there, standing against the smear of light left by the setting sun. He was still there the time after that, but the next time she turned he was too far away to see.
He isn't following me, she thought, and she started to run.
It is hard to hold on to the emotions of a memory when you come in out of the dark. Althaia served dinner with a dripping ladle, and watched her father soak up the sauce, jabbing at it angrily with hunks of bread. Afterwards, she washed dishes in fire-warmed water, the clashing of crockery like the punctuation in her father's grumbling tirades.
What would he say, she wondered, if she told him she had met an armed stranger barely a mile from their home?
She looked down at her hand, distorted beneath the water. Why hadn't she told him? Why didn't she tell him now?
She pressed her lips together, and shook a ribbon of water from the rim of a cracked jug. Her father had fallen silent, draining his third cup of cloudy wine. Althaia froze at another sound, a sound beyond this little room: a foot on a doorstep; knuckles at a door…?
The bolts were tight, for she had checked them herself. Before dinner, she placed a lantern in the porch window, then removed it; placed it again, then removed it a second time. Their house remained dark behind its shutters, invisible in the night.
She sat down and tried to capture dreams in the flickering flames. The side of her body facing the fire was fiercely hot, but the rest of the house was cold. Both heat and cold lulled her. She raised her head much later to find her father asleep, snoring in his chair, with wine like specks of blood spilling from his fallen cup.
There had been blood on the young man's sword.
Her throat felt dry and tight. Smoothing her skirts, she stood up and headed for the colder parts of the house, seeking well-water, cold as ice. Nikomedes was there, whittling wood by the light of a single candle. "How do you hold the knife?" Her voice cracked, rusty with sleep and dreaming. "In this cold, I mean."
"Necessity," he said with that new-found stiffness of his, "allows us to endure anything." He sheathed the knife, though, and clasped his hands together as if hungry for warmth.
You should come and sit by the fire, she almost said, but didn't. He had been hired in more prosperous times, and had only stayed in the lean years because Althaia father could no longer tend his fields alone. If necessity made Nikomedes endure, it made Althaia's father hate.
"I saw a man," she found herself saying instead. "A stranger. A traveller. I think…" She ran her finger along the back of an empty chair. I think he had been attacked by bandits. Why didn't she say that? Because at the mention of bandits, Nikomedes and her father would rush around securing the house. Because she would be forbidden from walking out alone.
Because they would make the stranger theirs.
"You think what?" he prompted.
She shook her head, a wordless 'nothing.' "We exchanged a few words, and then--" She looked down at her grasping hand, pale on the dark wood. "--he… went."
"A young man?" Nikomedes's face was unfamiliar in the candlelight, and perhaps that was what made his familiar voice seem suddenly sharp.
She nodded, watching the flame.
Snow fell overnight, like a gift from the gods, like a second making of the world. When she threw back her shutters, the familiar vistas had turned strange, as if she had indeed grown wings in the night, and had gone beyond the wildest frontiers of her dreams.
But her father was shouting for breakfast, sitting with his injured leg straight out in front of him, and shying away from the morning light. The sun was high before she could leave the house, and she feared that the snow would have melted already, the magic gone before she could live in it.
Nikomedes was up a ladder, patching the roof. "Isn't it marvellous?" she called out to him, spreading her arms wide and whirling in a circle.
"Inconvenient," he said, the edges of his voice blunted by the twine he held between his teeth. "Hope for a quick thaw."
She clenched her fist. "The trouble with you--" she began hotly, then let out a deliberate breath. His words were no more than pebbles in the fast-flowing river that was the wonder of the morning. One day… she thought. One day my whole life will be as magical as this.
Snow was a blank page on which she could write her story. She saw Nikomedes's footsteps, from house to stable and back again. She saw the paw prints of cats and the tiny arrowheads that were the feet of birds, and when she turned round, she saw her own footprints, marking every step that she had taken to get to this place.
She headed across the yard, towards the edge of the olive grove, thick with snow. At the far end of the yard, the old barn was tumbling down and empty inside, with a sagging wooden door and holes in the roof. Even the snow outside it looked more shabby than the snow elsewhere. She turned away from it, then gasped, and turned slowly back.
The air was cold, more cold than it should ever be on the plains of Attolia. Snow melted where it touched her, and was nothing more than water, after all. A bird on the rooftop fluffed its feathers, desperate for warmth. And footprints left the barn and headed out into the olive grove.
Althaia glanced back at Nikomedes, who had been looking at her, but now he turned away almost guiltily, busying himself with his work. And so alone she followed the footprints into the olive grove, and even the sound of Nikomedes's working fell away. She wouldn't go far, she told herself; she wouldn't go far. Then there was only white silence, and the dark underside of branches.
The stranger was silent when she found him. He raised his head slowly as she approached, and there was a furrow between his eyes, as if he was unsure how he had come to be here, kneeling in the snow.
"Are you…?" Her voice was just a fading whisper. The moment continued, suspended in time. Something fell from a branch, white against white.
"Even the best of thieves," he said, "leave marks in the snow. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
She frowned in puzzlement, then saw that he was looking ruefully at the footprints. In the stories, a men had once led his true love to his resting place with a trail of breadcrumbs. But in another, she remembered, the villain had done the same, using the trail as a trap.
"You're not a thief." Her voice sounded thin.
He smiled, moving his head in something that could have been a nod, or could have been a denial.
"Are you…?" She tried again; failed again.
"I could lie." Each word was clear and distinct, as if he had to fight to bring them out and to assemble them into a sentence. "I'm good at lying; people have often told me." His right hand rose, almost reaching his brow before it fell again. The fingers were stiff with cold, unmoving beneath the glove.
Althaia took a step forward. The changed angle allowed her to see what had been hidden: blood, red against the snow. "You're hurt," she gasped.
His lips curled in a faint smile. "Apparently so."
She almost touched him, then drew back, pressing her hands together. "I'll get Nikomedes. You have to come inside. Nikomedes took care of father when he broke his leg, and knows--"
"No," said the stranger.
"Or we can get a healer from the town if you've got money, and--"
"No," the stranger said quite firmly. "There's no need for you to trouble yourselves."
Althaia turned and ran. "Nik!" she shouted, "Nikomedes!" and he was down the ladder and half way across the yard by the time she entered it, and he caught her half way, grabbing her by the shoulders and saying, "Althaia? What is it? What's wrong?"
"The man I told you about," she gasped. "He's out there. He's hurt."
Nikomedes released her shoulders, but she didn't linger to look at him. The snow was nothing now, just an inconvenience that slowed her down. Grass and dirt were already showing through the deepest of the footprints.
Nikomedes tried to grab her arm, tried to slow her down. "Are you sure…?" When she tried to pull away, he held her more tightly. "Althaia, he could be dangerous. Why don't you stay back and I'll--"
She tore herself free. Already, in just that little time, the stranger had tried to leave; the snow showed the marks of someone who had struggled to their feet, walked a few steps, fallen, and risen again. Now he was leaning heavily against a tree, but his head was high and his eyes were bright. "Overwhelmed by numbers, I see," he said, and his rueful sigh turned into a soft exhalation, and then he fainted, his dark clothes spread wide on the snow.
Even when times are hard, there is all the difference in the world between a farmer's only daughter and a hired hand. Nikomedes fought, but Althaia over-ruled him, and eventually Nikomedes fell silent and carried the injured stranger inside.
They laid him in the spare bed, once made up for visitors but empty now for months. "Your father…" Nikomedes said.
"My father needs his rest," Althaia said firmly, although Nikomedes knew as well as she did that it was the aftermath of drink rather than his infirmity that had sent her father back to bed after breakfast. "I'll talk to him when he wakes up." The stranger was still unconscious. Melted snow made his hair stick to his cheek, and she fought the urge to gently push it off. "Father's never been uncharitable."
Nikomedes made no response to the lie. She spared him a glance, and saw that his lips were pursed tight.
"Don't go waking him to tell him, either," she commanded. "He needs his rest."
"Like you said."
The stranger's lips were slightly parted. She wondered where he was injured, and what she would need to do to find out.
"Can you…?" she began
"What?" Nikomedes snapped. She heard him let out a taut breath. "What?" he asked, more quietly.
She raked her fingers through her hair, then kept her hand there, briefly closing her eyes. "Help."
He hesitated only for a moment. "Of course."
She fumbled for the front of the young man's clothes, but Nikomedes's hands closed on hers and gently moved them. "It wouldn't be decent," he said, with no trace of the brightness that once filled his eyes when he talked to her, teasing her like a brother. "Take his boots off, if you want to do something, or his gloves."
The stranger moaned when Nikomedes began to open his tunic, but his eyes snapped open when Althaia touched his right arm. "No! Please, don't!" The word sounded as if it had been ripped from him. The last syllable cracked. "No," he moaned, but then he blinked, and his expression changed, like water solidifying into ice and becoming something completely different. "I prefer to keep my gloves on, if you please."
But Althaia could see his pulse racing in the hollow of his collarbone, fluttering like a caged bird. Nikomedes' strong fingers gripped the tunic, and the wound was there, still bleeding sluggishly on his side.
"Why?" she managed, perhaps not asking about the gloves at all.
"Call it affectation, if you like."
Her eyes went again to his stiff right hand, but then he lifted his head to peer at his wound, his breath hissing ostentatiously through his teeth, and she looked where he was looking. "Why is it, I wonder," he said, "that so many people feel the need to prick me like a pincushion?"
"Yes, why is it?" Nikomedes said, but his hands looked more gentle than his voice as he eased the last of the fabric from the wound. The stranger had clearly tried to bind it himself, but the bandages were bunched around his middle, sodden with blood both old and new.
Althaia frowned. "You didn't tie the knots properly."
"I did try." He sounded almost aggrieved. His right hand was hidden by bunched blankets; the other hand clasped the sheets. "I thought--" His breath caught as Nikomedes began to unwind the bandages. "--I could cope by myself," he said, as if there had been no interruption.
"Well, I'm taking care of you now," Althaia said, brushing the edge of his blanket with her fingertips, "so you won't have to."
She thought he might smile, but he said nothing at all.
"You don't have to stay," Althaia said later, when the stranger slept.
Nikomedes had dragged a chair up to the other side of the bed. "Neither do you," he said. "The man's asleep. He doesn't need to be watched all the time."
The stranger looked different when he was asleep. Later, when she closed her eyes, she would remember that sleeping face, not the constantly changing expressions of his waking self. Months later, she would remember only a silhouette, a shape in the snow, and that sleeping face against the white, embroidered pillow.
"I need to watch in case he develops a fever," she said, not looking at Nikomedes at all. "In case he has bad dreams. In case he wakes and needs something." Nikomedes said nothing. "Don't you have work to do?" she said sharply.
"We don't know who he is." Nikomedes sounded stiff and patient. "He has a sword, Althaia, and who knows what else in his pack? This isn't the first injury he's received - I saw the scars - although he isn't dressed like a soldier. Decent, law-abiding folk don't accumulate injuries like that before the age of twenty."
"Scars," she echoed, barely hearing the rest of it. She remembered how he had come walking out of the sunset, and wondered what dark paths he had walked before that moment. Perhaps he was hunted. Perhaps there was a jealous older brother, or a wicked uncle… Perhaps he was a missing heir. Perhaps he had seen something that an evil baron wanted to remain a secret. Perhaps…
"I just want to keep you safe, Althaia," Nikomedes said.
She tossed her head. "That's not what you're paid for."
He stood up, but remained where he was, his hand on the chair's back. His knuckles were white, she saw. "Leave the door open, then," she said, "so you can listen out for me while you work. Does that satisfy you?"
He nodded stiffly, but his eyes said no.
"Why don't you trust him?" The stranger was silent now; earlier his breathing had been audible, catching sometimes on snatches of dreams. "No," she realised, "it's not that. Why do you hate him?"
"I thought you would have known the answer to that, Althaia," he said, but she didn't, and she told him so, and she told him so again, shouting it after him as he turned and left.
"Actually," the stranger said quietly, "it is quite obvious."
Her head snapped round towards him. She felt fluttery inside, as if something important had gone wrong, but she didn't know what it was.
"And he is right, my dear."
"About what?" She smoothed her clothes down across her breast, then flushed, covering her sudden embarrassment by tucking her hair behind her ear. "That you're dangerous?"
"I never used to think so."
Outside, she thought, the world was still new and white and strange. "But now?" she asked. Her voice felt detached; more part of the whiteness than of herself.
"I am beginning to realise just how dangerous," he said. "It took a matter of falling roof tiles to educate me."
She moistened her lips, but her mouth remained dry. It wasn't a threat; surely it wasn't a threat, not offered so softly as this, so regretful. "How did you get hurt?" she asked, stumbling over the first word.
Nikomedes appeared in the doorway, his bulk blocking it. She let out a breath, tight shoulders easing.
"An ambush. You heard it." It wasn't phrased as a question. "The malefactors are dealt with." He looked at her, his eyes suddenly intense. "They've… gone. If I thought otherwise, I'd be a dozen miles from here by now."
"You couldn't walk a dozen steps," she reminded him.
The muscles around his eyes tightened, as if he wanted to argue the point, but was forced to admit that he could not. "Be that as it may," he said, "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was…"
"What?" Nikomedes asked, sharp from the doorway.
The stranger subsided into the pillow, and Althaia had lived with her father long enough to know the signs of a man eclipsed by pain. His eyes, though, were clear, and his voice level. "I'll be gone by morning, I promise you that."
"Why?" Althaia demanded, wanting to shout it, but forced to stay quiet. "Why are you driving him away?"
"I'm not," Nikomedes said, looking down at her fists as she hammered them against his chest, "but if I was, you know the reason why."
"But I don't," she said, tears starting in her eyes, because she didn't know Nikomedes any more, and she didn't know why she was feeling like this, and the snow was melting outside, and there was a whole world of stories out there but she would never get to see it, except in fragments, brought to her door by strangers.
"Althaia…" Nikomedes began, but then her father woke up.
"My father isn't a bad man." Althaia was standing at the window, looking out at the dying light. "He broke his leg two years ago, and it didn't heal right. He hates being crippled."
"Really hates it," she said, "and that makes him hate everyone else for being well."
She heard the stranger shift on the bed. She hadn't asked him his name at the start, she realised, and now she found herself unable to do so. On a day of snow and wonder, a nameless stranger had been washed up on her door. You could say things to strangers. They could change things.
"And times are hard, of course," she said.
"Are they?" His voice sounded carefully neutral.
She turned away from the window, and reached for a candle, meaning to light it from the lantern in the hall. "Best close the shutters," he said, "before you do that."
She did so, and for a moment the room was entirely dark, before her eyes adapted and light seeped in from the hallway outside. He lay completely still as she went for the lantern, and she was suddenly sure that he was doing so for her sake, not wanting to scare her by moving in the dark.
But candlelight made him look more sick, with sweat standing out on his brow, his hair matted with it. "Tell me more about these hard times," he said, when she opened her mouth to say something else entirely.
"It's the same everywhere." She settled down on the chair beside his bed. "Everyone has to pay the extra taxes."
"The ones the new king's ordered, of course." She frowned, suddenly almost as angry with him for his ignorance as she would have been had it been his fault. "The baron's tax collector came around at harvest as normal, and then came again a month later, and took almost everything we have. It wouldn't have hit us so hard, but we had much less in store than we should have had, on account of father's injury."
"Ah," the stranger said slowly. It was probably the dancing candlelight, but she thought that he almost smiled..
"But I shouldn't talk about such things," she said bitterly. The hilt of his sword gleamed on the bedside table. He had moved it, she noticed, from where Nikomedes had placed it earlier. A cold shiver ran down her spine, but she felt more alive in the wake of it.
The stranger's left hand grasped a handful of the blanket. "Would it help," he asked, "if I paid for my food and care, or would that offend him?"
She shook her head. Her father's moods were like a prison, impossible to break away from, impossible to love. "He wants you gone," she said, "but he's not a bad man deep down. He can see your need."
The stranger had been trapped in a nightmare when her father had stormed in to his room. "No," he begged in the prison of mind, "no, please, no." As the man on the bed had moaned and cried, her father had stood very still, his hands clenching and unclenching at his side. He had nightmares, too.
And because of her father's nightmares, Althaia knew not to mention what she had seen.
She woke in the night to a sense that something was wrong. It felt like a shout interrupted - as if a noise had woken her, but now there was only the silent aftermath. "Nik?" she whispered. "Father?" She could not call the stranger by name, because she did not know it.
Perhaps her stranger had called out in a nightmare. It was shockingly cold outside the blankets, but she groped in the darkness for her cloak and wrapped it around her body. The floorboards were cold, but her steps were silent. When she raised the latch on her bedroom door, the click made her gasp and hold her breath. Nikomedes had wanted her to turn the key and lock herself in, but she had refused.
When she reached the landing at the top of the stairs, she knew suddenly that she was not alone. She brought her hand up, her empty hand, but someone grabbed her. An arm snaked around her throat, drawing her close. She felt someone breathing hot against her cheek, and a knife pricked her beneath her chin.
She struggled, but her captor was too strong. Something trickled down her neck, and she realised that it was blood.
"No," she begged, as the stranger had begged in his dark dreams, "no, please, no."
Her captor smelled of outside and the night. Someone else moved beyond him, trying doors. The door to the stranger's room opened, and faint light issued from within, from the guttering candle he had asked her to leave by the bed. She saw a long knife, a bearded face, a sword. "No," she begged, but the arm tightened round her throat and crushed her words. "Please…"
The light went out. She heard the sound of someone falling, heavy, like a sack. Something pattered, feet as light as a cat's. The arm was ripped from her throat. The knife fell to the floor, the sound like a crack. A thud followed it, and the quietest of moans.
"Althaia!" Nikomedes screamed, far away downstairs, from his bed in the kitchen.
She sank to her knees, one hand at her throat. The other brushed something that she knew was a body, and she recoiled; slipped and fell down. She drew her knees up to her chest; realised that she had been crying, that tears were pouring down her cheeks.
Downstairs, Nikomedes lit a lantern. She heard him grab a knife from the kitchen, as quietly as he was capable, but not quietly enough. Looking up, she saw the stranger - a faint silhouette this time, because the light was still faint. He held his sword in his left hand, and something sharp and curved was in his right. As Nikomedes reached the bottom step, she saw the blood drip from its tip, each drop shining before it fell.
"And all I wanted at first," said the stranger quietly, "was a few weeks alone."
She was shaking by the morning. The mirror showed no bruises on her throat, but the knife had left a thin line of blood. It throbbed and hurt horribly, and as she lay awake, weeping silent tears into her pillow, she thought of the size of the stranger's wound, and wondered how he bore it.
He had disarmed Nikomedes with a single apologetic blow, and then had returned to his room, leaving Althaia to explain. "You idiot!" she had shouted, pounding Nikomedes's chest, and then collapsing onto it. "He saved my life. He saved me."
Nikomedes had continued to hold her, but she had felt how stiff he became.
In the morning, the snow had melted. Long before morning, Nikomedes had carried the bodies of both intruders to the small barn and had left them there. "The cold will preserve them until the report is made," he said, and Althaia suddenly thought to wonder if there was another body in the olive grove, killed just before sunset the day before yesterday.
Throughout it all, her father remained asleep.
Morning found her looking out at the dull and familiar yard, where only the smallest patches of snow remained as a reminder of the magic. She turned away to wipe her eyes, and thus it was that she almost missed the moment of his leaving.
"No!" she gasped. "No!" She tore her door open and hurtled down the stairs. The front door was still locked, and her fingers fumbled on them, and then she was outside, the ground cold and rough against her bare feet. "You're going," she said, when she reached him. He was saddling the pony, their one remaining mount.
He smiled. "And no footprints for you to follow this time."
"You can't," she said, but why not? Because he had saved her? Because he had saved her life, when the others had slept through the danger? Because he had cried in his sleep? Because he was a little piece of sunset and snow and wonder, brought into her quiet, dull life?
"They were after me, Althaia," he said, "and there may well be others. I was a fool. I thought I could…" His words cut off. His hand closed on a leather strap, but then he gave a quick laugh. "There's a difference between accepting a thing and truly accepting it," he said, and it made no sense, but for a moment she thought that she understood, even so.
Then, just a heartbeat later, she didn't understand at all. "But you're hurt. You can't…"
"I can," he said, and, "I have to. I doubt I'll have to go far." He touched her on the shoulder, as if he was years older than her, and far more wise. "Thank you for taking care of me."
And then he mounted clumsily, and then he left her.
Winter turned to thaw, and the weather became no different from any other winter she had known in her life.
On the first day, she wept. On the second, she went outside, but there was no snow to show her footprints, and the pony did not return riderless to the stable. The cut on her neck turned red and angry, and Nikomedes brought her salve and bandages. On the third day, cleaning the stranger's bedroom, she found enough silver coins beneath the pillow to pay for a pony and a saddle and a few warm meals. She kept the coins, but she did not tell her father.
She was afraid at night, and locked her door, but on the fourth day she turned the key and opened the door, and lay there for hours unable to sleep, starting at every noise. The night after that, she slept, and her cut started healing.
On the fifth day, a small party of soldiers arrived and took the bodies away. They asked no questions, as if they already knew the whole story. Althaia almost asked them for news of her stranger, but Nikomedes stopped her. He might be a fugitive, he said, who had killed and then run away from justice. "But you never liked him!" Althaia cried, and Nikomedes said no, no he hadn't, but the man had saved her life, and he couldn't bear to see anyone punished for that, no matter what else they had done.
Weeks passed. Winter faded towards spring, and the year started to turn, as slow and as inexorable as ever. She felt the doors slowly closing in on her. Life was about work and the same old vistas. No-one came. Nothing changed.
And then, in the spring, a sour-faced tax collector came and returned the second tax, the one that had almost ruined them. News came that the baron had been disgraced, brought down by the king himself for nameless crimes and corruptions. His heir, his nephew, sent out messengers to announce how entirely he deplored the actions of his uncle, and promising a new age of gold.
Little changed. Spring was as wet as ever, and the view from her window was the same. A travelling doctor eased some of the worst pains of her father's leg, and waved away all talk of a fee. Money was more plentiful, and Althaia persuaded her father to hire another hand, and when the harvest eventually came, it was a good one. Althaia worked less hard, but dreamed more often. At the end of the harvest, Althaia begged her father to let her take the surplus into town to sell at the market.
"Why?" he asked her, pouring a cup of wine.
"Because I've never gone further than ten miles from this door," she said. "Because I'm eighteen now."
"Which is all the more reason for you to stay at home," her father said. "It's not safe for a woman on the roads alone."
"Then Nik will come with me."
Nikomedes inclined his head when told, and he climbed onto the seat of the cart without a murmur. "You never doubted that I'd agree to come with you," he said, when they had travelled for several minutes in silence.
Of course not, she almost said, because you're a servant and haven't got a choice. It felt wrong to say it, though, almost as if it was untrue and not the proper reason at all. "No," she agreed. "I knew you'd come."
They rumbled along the barren path beneath the olive trees. Soon the path became a road, and then she was further from home than she had ever been, but still the world looked the same.
"And if I decide not to stop at the town, but to carry on…" she said, resuming the conversation they had laid aside an hour before. Her voice cracked. "You would still come then?"
But perhaps she didn't want Nikomedes to come with her. Perhaps she was articulating an idea she had never expressed before, even to herself.
She would find him.
"It's him," Nikomedes said bitterly, as if aware of her every thought. "It's him, isn't it? That's why you're suddenly so keen to leave."
"I…" She shook her head. "Yes. I think so."
Nikomedes's hand tightened on the reins. "You only knew him for a day, and he was asleep for most of that. You can't love him."
"I…" Her hand fluttered to her face, as if to hide something there. "I don't think it's love, or not exactly, but…" Her stranger was a dream, an image, a story. He was a fiercer, wilder world that wafted so briefly into her own, and then was snatched away. He was dangerous and vivid and gentle, and he walked out of the sunset, and come with the snow. Life was dull before he came. Life was dull now that he had gone.
"You don't even know where he is," Nikomedes said, his shoulder hunched.
"No," she agreed, but he had come to her from the world outside, and the world called to her. It always had.
They reached the town and sold their crops, but then Althaia turned her face towards the sunset, and carried on.
Nikomedes came with her, but each day he said less and less. But he held her when she caught a chill from an early rainfall, and he crouched over her when noises in the night made her gasp and cry that they were under attack. When she laughed with embarrassment over the mistake, he said fiercely that it didn't matter, that he would defend her from a hundred false alarms rather than miss the chance of defending her from real danger.
But he had slept when the true danger had come, of course, while her stranger had saved her.
The days drew shorter, and at length they reached the royal city. "Why do you think he's here?" Nikomedes's voice was impersonal, uninterested.
She looked up at the towers and the temples. He had walked out of the sunset like a man from the stories, and where else could stories be centred than here?
She could barely remember his face, she realised.
"I… don't," she said. "I just wanted to see the city."
She couldn't remember his voice at all.
The world had been beautiful and ugly; it had been strange and yet familiar. They had passed farms identical to her own, and girls had watched them pass, wearing clothes like her own clothes. Olives stretched everywhere, the same as at home. There were goats in pastures, and fields of harvested corn. She saw new skylines, but at night she dreamed of the old. She wondered how her father was, and knew that the new farm hand could not possibly be as good as Nikomedes.
"I want to go home," she whispered, but quietly, so Nikomedes could not hear her. She wanted to wander, but she wanted to be home. She wanted to fly, but where would she come to ground? She wanted a life of stories, but she wanted… what?
"So now we're here," said Nikomedes. "What now? Are you going to search every house for him?"
"Just stay a night," she said, "and then…"
Go home, she thought, or let the gods give her what they knew she dreamed of.
In the morning, the king and queen walked out in procession as thanks were given to the gods for a successful harvest.
Althaia caught a glimpse of the queen, and saw that she was as beautiful as the songs made tell, like the statue of an ancient goddess, but more lovely, because she was alive. Althaia was lapped by the fringes of a song; close to greatness. This was the world of love and romance and stories. She wanted… Oh, she wanted…
"Althaia." Nikomedes grabbed her arm. His voice was strange, heavy as a stone, and then laughter flickered over his face, and then dread, the expression of a man who had given up all hope. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. "The king."
The king. Her King.
And somehow, even through the crowd, he saw her. Afterwards, when the crowds had departed, she found herself in an audience room in the palace, with Nikomedes at her side. He looked like a man who was facing execution, who had accepted that fate.
"My King tells me that you saved his life," said the queen.
The king shrugged. "My sorry life. I deserved to lose it, I'm afraid."
The queen stood even straighter, not looking at her husband. "And he rewarded you for this great service by paying you a handful of silver and giving no explanations."
The king and queen exchanged a look. Althaia lowered her eyes, wanting to look, to write every moment and every detail to her heart, but not daring to.
"I hear that you long for greater things than a quiet life in the country," the queen said, and Althaia snapped her head up, because she had never spoken of such things, even when she had thought this man just a stranger, almost asleep. The king shrugged apologetically, and smiled.
"It is unusual," the queen said, "but queens and kings can break the rules, or so I have been told." Another exchanged look. Althaia felt herself flushing, but not sure why. "I can offer you a place…"
Althaia heard the rest, but the words faded into one shining vision. A place at the palace, serving the queen. Songs and music and the proximity to greatness. She would watch the unfolding of new stories. She would watch her stranger - this clever, mercurial, fathomless man - as he stamped his mark upon history.
She could fly.
Perhaps it was just another cage.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," she said, bowing low, "but I think… I think I want to go home."
The king's expression tightened, almost as if he was in pain, but the queen took his hand, and he drew closer to her, the expression gone. His smile was just for her, for his wife and his queen. Despite everything, it hurt a little, seeing that.
Despite everything… The hurt faded as if it had never been. "Home," she said again, and, standing, she took Nikomedes's heavy, resisting hand, and twined her fingers with his. "Home," she said, meaning it for him, only for him.
When she dared look up again, she saw that the king was smiling broadly. It was the first genuine smile she had seen from him, she realised. Everything else - everything else - had been a mask. "I'm glad," he said, and even his voice was changed, with an accent that she didn't recognise. He turned to Nikomedes, the smile suddenly chilly. "You were right to distrust me. The attention of a king is a dangerous thing."
"Your majesty," Nikomedes said, tightening his grip on her hand.
"Now go home," the king said, waving his hand. "That's the first thing I said to you, Althaia, out there beneath the olives. See, I'm right about some things, at least." He grinned again, and his eyes were sparkling.
But his was not the smile that Althaia looked for. As they walked out of the palace into the brightness of the afternoon, Nikomedes' was the smile that she lived for, and it was as bright as any sun.
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