Jaysh rolled his head to the entrance and listened for what he already knew was there, the thud of clumsy footfalls and the huff of labored breathing. This was, in essence, a repeat performance of the encounter he’d suffered three mornings ago, only this time it was taking place in the middle of the night and this time the performer would be discouraging behavior instead of encouraging it.
     Otherwise, it was same. Same unwanted visitor, same bleak setting, same god-awful purpose: Captain Bigmouth of the Jashian Military had come with his bag of bigmouth words—and his bucket of smarmy charm—and he would not leave until he’d driven Jaysh mad with frustration.
     He’s gona ask, Jaysh fumed. That selfish son of a badger’s gona ask.  
     Iman had wanted to ask when he’d seen the secret thing from the general’s chambers, but his shock and disappointment were too great and he’d barely had the strength to drag himself from the room. Later on, of course, after he’d spent the better part of the night drinking his ale and running his mouth, he’d gained his second wind, donned his trusty tankard-goggles, and decided that he owed it to his dear old friend to save him from himself. And now here he was.
     Ready fer me to knock them goggles from his head, Jaysh fumed, running his hand across Zeph’s spine and scratching the back of her head.
     “Sah’right, girl,” he whispered. “I’ll be right back.”
     Zeph didn’t act as though she’d heard. At the sound of his voice, she neither moved nor looked up, but remained stiff across his bedroll, both luminous eyes burning holes in the darkness beneath the archway.
     “Sah’right girl,” he said again, scratching her head. “It’s jus him.”
     Zeph pulled away from his hand, yellow eyes never straying from the entrance.
     Well, it is the middle of the night, Jaysh thought, giving her the benefit of the doubt, and she was plum-tuckered.
     Plum-tuckered was a popular euphemism of the halfling, as in, Yeh wake a halflin when he’s plum-tuckered an’ yeh get what’s comin! This expression was usually screamed at the top of Reets’ lungs as he shook his fists in the air and ran after the two boys who’d just woke him.
     But regardless of whether Zeph was plum-tuckered or not—or simply irate—Jaysh didn’t have time to worry with her. At the moment, he had bigger fish to fry and he intended to do the frying on the outside of the perimeter.
     “Sah’right,” he said, speaking the word one last time and scratching her behind the head. She pulled away from his fingers and he took that as a sign he could go. He set her down and bolted for the entrance.
     Along the way, as he dodged tombstones and leapt plaques, he found time to reach inside his shirt-pocket and retrieve a tangle of vine, bringing forth the splintery coil and biting a healthy portion from the tip.
     Mm-mm, good, he thought, shoving the remainder in his pocket and listening as a mellifluous voice gave warning in his mind.
     Vine is the enemy of sleep, Mums chided. You may have it now, but later—once you’ve rid yourself of this pest—your sleep shall not come easy.
     Jaysh ignored the advice and continued to chew, chewing so hard that some of the tar-colored saliva went leaking down his throat. His dear old friend had not come here to wish him well or to tell another fish-tale or even to discuss with him the finer points of his escape. He’d come to discuss one thing and one thing only, and when that time came the woodsman was going to need all the becalming effects that his precious vine could muster…possibly more. 
     Jaysh reached the gate and stopped, the stink of tavern smoke drifting up the hill and the erratic thump of footfalls traveling up the slope, and erratic was being kind. Had he heard the irregular rhythm of the steps from his bedroll, he wouldn’t have been in such a rush.
     Iman was all over the place, stopping and going, weaving and swaying. He must have been more than a little upset at what his dear old friend had shown him, because it sounded as though he’d been hitting the tankards a little harder than usual. So hard, in fact, that he only made it a few more clumsy steps before his body thudded on the ground.
     Jaysh started despite himself, trotting down the path and going no distance at all before he heard the captain moaning from the reeds. He veered after the sound and moved to intercept his fallen friend, coming to a stop at the place where Iman’s lower half extended from the shadowy grasses.
     Jaysh looked down at the legs and felt a cold hollow open in his belly. Instead of dark green pants and soft beige boots, he saw soft bare thighs and dirty naked feet. But it wasn’t the indecency of the legs that gave him cause for alarm. It was the bracelets he saw clasped to each ankle, the shiny silver disks and tiny colored beads. He knew those bracelets well—too well.
     “Yeh ah’right?” he asked, secretly hoping the owner of the bracelets wouldn’t answer. If she’d passed out on her feet and fallen unconscious into the reeds, he might be able to sneak back to his bedding, grab up his things, and make an early start of the day.
     He’d have to make sure she was breathing, of course—he wouldn’t want to leave her there to die—but he wouldn’t have to listen to whatever fool idea had gotten into her skull. Because anything so grave as to pry her from the taverns and drive her to the Hill was nothing Jaysh cared to hear about.
     But you already know what it’s about, Iman’s voice echoed in his head. You know who your woman-friend drinks with and I know you know what we’ve been talking about.
     From below him in the grass and gloom, he heard the slurred voice of someone with a brain injury. Only he knew it wasn’t the sort of brain injury caused by falling headfirst off a barn roof or stepping into the business end of a pickaxe. It was the self-inflicted sort of brain injury that took place at the local tavern.
     “Jayshy…,” his woman-friend said, “…Jayshy, I reck’n… I reck’n I fell.”
     “Yep,” Jaysh said, wincing at her voice and reaching into the reeds. He fished around for her sweaty armpits, hoisted her to her feet, and then kept a hand on her shoulder until her balance returned.
     “Jayshy,” she said, her breath alive with pipe smoke and rotten fruit. “Jayshy, baby,” she said again, “Jayshy, yeh cain’ led’er do it. Yeh jus cain’t led’er.”
     “Ah’right,” Jaysh said, nodding dutifully and trying to sound sincere. He had no idea what she was talking about—or whom she was talking about—but he didn’t bother asking. He’d learned the hard way that, when Gariel was like this, asking questions only made her angry.
     “Ain’t fair, Jayshy,” she went on, shaking her head and nearly falling over. “Ain’t fair fer her to do it to me. Not after e’rythin I done, an’ e’rythin I been through…,” she let her eyes lose focus and, for a time, the whole of the night seemed to be trapped in those bulbs. “I waited fer it, Jayshy,” she said at last. “I waited fer it, an’ I took care of yeh, an’…an’ the way I fig’er it…,” she said, letting out a sigh, “…yeh owes me, Jayshy.”
     Jaysh didn’t know what to make of that, but he nodded all the same and gave her the perfunctory Ah’right, and that seemed to be enough.
     “I’s the big’un, Jayshy,” she told him, pulling away and moving up the path. “Them others is kind’a with her, kind’a like, but mos’ly i’s the big’un.”
     Frowning a little, Jaysh spit at the hillside and said, “Big’un, huh.”  
     “Yeah,” Gariel said, still shuffling towards the Hill. “I’s tha’ big’un. She’s the one wha’s tryin to lead folk out’a here. Tellin folk i’s too wald here an’ tellin folk them happnin’s cain’ be fixed, tellin em the land’s dif’ernt now, wakin up like.”
     She took two or three awkward steps, staggered hard to the left, then said, “An’ tha’ lil’un’s no better, Jayshy. Tha’ lil’ pink-eyed freak wif all them pictures on his arms, an’ tha’ thing livin in his robes. He was right there wif er. Up’n tol’ them old farts she was speakin true, an’ tha’ they ought’a send e’rybody away, send em right off ‘fore the land went dif’ernt on em an’ woke up.”
     Jaysh rolled his vine to the other cheek. “Dif’ernt, huh.”
     “S’what they said,” Gariel told him, “tha’ Jashand’r was wakin up or some other fool thing, an’ when it was good an’ woked up, it wou’nt be Jashand’r no more. It’d be this other thing they was talkin bout, this thing she was a-callin…ah, what was it she said…,” she trailed off, still stumbling up the path, then said, “…W’ll, I cain’ member what she called it, but it weren’t a perty name, I member that much.”
     “Drugana,” Jaysh said, not sure where he’d heard the word.     
     Gariel said, “Tha’ might’a been it, yeah.” She took a few more steps. “Make any sense to you?”
     Jaysh thought it over, trying to give Mums the benefit of the doubt since she was probably the most intelligent person he knew (aside from the general), but in the end he could only shrug his sorry shoulders and shake his sorry head, offering her an apologetic, “Huh-uh.” 
     Closing on the archway, Gariel said, “It doan’ make no sense to me neither, Jayshy. Or to tha’ lil’ cripple that works with the big’un. Iman says the cripple tol’ them others they was out’a their ever-lovin minds. Tol’ em he wants to stay an’ use the army on them happnin’s.”
     “Did he, now.”
     “He sure did,” Gariel said, “an’ I think it would'a worked too, ‘ceptin the big’un an’ the feller wif the thing in his robes said we ain’t got no army.”
     Jaysh, who’d been standing casually in the grass and waiting for the butcher’s daughter to pass out, started slightly. “How they fig’er that?” he said.
     “Cause i’s true,” Gariel said. “Cause Iman an’ tha’ lil’ cripple said it was true. Yeh fig’er if they’re doin’ the tellin, an’ they ain’t got nothin t’gain by lyin, then i’s gota be true. B’sides,” she said, pausing to spit a wad of smoke-induced phlegm off the trail, “yeh member that special meetin them old farts had t’rush off to?”
     Jaysh turned to the dark blotch in the east where the City of Onador rested. It would have been next to impossible to forget that meeting, each and every one of the advisers coming over to tell him about it, apologizing for their departure and then explaining there’d been an incident in the Western Sway that could not be ignored. Of course, the most memorable part was when each of them dropped the not-so-subtle hint that Jaysh’s presence at these meetings would soon be expected. He couldn’t have scrubbed away that part of the memory with lye and a horse brush. 
     “I heard somethin bout it,” he said. “Somethin bout the west post.”
     Gariel chuckled at this, brief and humorless. “Yeh ‘member a couple days back when you an’ Iman went out there an’ had a look round? W’ll, right after yeh lef’, later tha’ v’ry night I hear, somethin nasty come sneakin out’a the weeds an’ kilt a mess’a them boys.”
     For a moment, Jaysh stood frozen in place, his jaw pumping and his eyes locked on the back of Gariel’s head. When the shock passed, he found himself staring into the vast sheet of darkness forming the western horizon. Come first light, he had planned to venture into that horizon on his way to a better life.
     But now…?
     As Gariel weaved and staggered up the path, Jaysh wracked his brain for another pass into the western lands, but the only pass of which he knew was the Mad Man’s Pass…which lay within a stone’s throw of the west post. He supposed there might be other passes further to the north or south, but he didn’t know this with any certainty. Moreover, if the nearest pass was north, did he honestly wish to traverse the Harriun in order to gain access? Or if it laid to the south, what exactly would he find down there on the other side of the Shun?
     More’a them prints? he wondered, traveling back in time to the afternoon before the original incident and seeing with his mind’s eye the horrible handprints pressed into the Western Sway, the handprints he’d described to Iman as the two of them rode to the Hill.  
     The prints sank at least half-a-finger into the soil and that was saying something considering the moisture of the Sway had been sucked dry and the crust of the prairie was hard and grassy. But of course, with something that large, the crust never had a chance.
     I could’a sat in it, Jaysh had told Iman from atop his saddle. I could’a sat in the palms and stretched my legs in the fingers.
     But worse than the print’s size was the amorphous pools of mucus he’d found drying at the attack site. The surface grasses were clotted together like blood-soaked hairs, but it wasn’t anything as simple as blood bonding these reeds together. He didn’t know what it was, but it crunched under foot like a scab, and the color was all wrong. It had an opaque cast like that of an old man’s cataract, but with cloudy-pink streaks running through the middle, as if something red had gotten mixed in and tainted the grayish fluid.
     And the smell…
     As he recalled, no liquid that came from an open wound smelled like that. On the contrary, this liquid reeked of the stuff that came from an open gullet, like one of those young bucks at the Wound who drinks himself full and then heaves his guts behind the alley.
     Turning from the western horizon and fixing his eyes on someone whose puking days were long behind her, Jaysh said, “They kill it?”
     Gariel shook her head as best she could. “Doan’ know,” she said. “Man what rode in to tell the tale did his fleein while the killin was goin’ on. Jus found himself a horse runnin through camp an’ jumped up on im, let the critter take im where it would. He ended up on the edge’a town the nex’ mornin. Farmer spied the horse grazin in the Sway and the man collapsed on its back. When he saw the uniform, he fig’erd somethin was wrong an’ brought im to the castle.
     “But by then,” she said, sounding disgusted, “them ole farts was scramblin round to find you an’ your brother. Tha’ lil’ freak took the man in an’ looked im over. When he din’t find nothin wrong with im, he put him up in a room an’ perty much forgot about im ‘til he come around an’ started spoutin off bout dead soldiers an’ gutted horses. After that, the lil’ freak got word out in a hurry.”
     Walking slowly towards her, Jaysh said, “So they doan’ know how many there was. Or what they was?”
     “Not a bannin thing,” Gariel said. “An’ the lil’ cripple, he was quick to tell them others that. He tol’ em not to put stock in somethin that come from the mouth of a deserter. But the freak an’ the big’un, they wou’nt listen. They’re still down there goin’ on an’ on about what this feller thinks he heard.”
     “Which is what?” Jaysh asked curtly, waiting a moment then adding, once it was clear she wasn’t going to answer, “Which is what?”  
     Gariel jumped at the urgency in his voice, but did not turn around, only cocked her head back. “Feller thinks whatever attacked em went fer the horses first, like it was tryin to trap em there an’ wipe em out. He says it were the horse screams what woke em up. Says it sounded like they was bein' pulled apart a piece at a time. The c’rral, too.”
     She huffed skeptically. “I ain’t so sure yeh can hear a horse bein' pulled apart, or the posts on a c’rral comin out’a the ground, but tha’s what he tol’ the freak. An’ uh’course the freak went an’ tol’ them ole farts, so here we are. Ne’er min’ tha’ feller din’t see the thing doin’ the pullin. Ole freak-boy believed e’ry word he had to spill.”
     Craning his head to the west and searching for shadowy movement, Jaysh said, “They sendin any one back?”
     “Not til tomorruh,” Gariel said, “but there ain’t much to send. I think they’re sendin a couple runners to make sure whoever’s left stays put. Them old farts think whatever it was that hit em come through the Mad Man an’ that if’n our boys come a-runnin to the castle, more’a them things’d come wif em. An’ then we’d have the whole mess here in the city.”
     Thinking an armed escort across the Sway sounded like a pretty good idea, Jaysh said, “They goin’ tomorruh in the mornin or afternoon?” And when Gariel didn’t answer, he realized he could no longer hear the soft shuffling of her feet. He turned and found her as he’d surmised, standing still along the entrance. What he had not surmised, however, was the way she was peering up at the curved underbelly of the archway.
     Jaysh took a step towards her, his breathing shallow and quick as a pang of worry stole through him. Only this worry had nothing to do with the mysterious killer in the Sway and everything to do with his mysterious woman-friend at the arch. He moved towards her.
     Even though the object beneath the archway was obscured by darkness, Jaysh knew what it was. He couldn’t say he’d looked at it recently, no more than he’d looked at the individual headstones littering the other side, but he had seen it, back when he’d first started leaving the bed of his woman-friend and sleeping on the Hill. He knew from memory that there were two corroded bolts fixed in the stone and that, hooked to these bolt, two rusty chains suspended a simple wooden sign. Nothing more than a shank of wood with two words on its face, a brief announcement to all those who enter that they were about to set foot on hallowed ground.
     But if’n it’s so simple, Jaysh wondered, and if’n she already knows what it says—an’ I know she knows!—then why’s she starin at it like that?
     Adding insult to injury, Gariel lifted her hand and ran a finger along the letters. Or tried. With her slender arm and delicate finger now numb with drink and, quite possibly, agitated by what Iman had told her, the tip of her finger kept sliding too far when it should have stopped or slipping from the grooves for no reason at all. After awhile, she gave up the act and lowered her hand.
     “‘Morial Hill,” she said, speaking the words she could not trace. 
     Jaysh stepped into her line of sight, his mind a jumble of thoughts and images. “Hey,” he said, eyes darting between sign and woman-friend. “Hey, yeh want me to walk yeh back?”
     The butcher’s daughter made a noise in her throat, a noise that might have been a hum on any other night. But on this night, with her breath and sweat saturated with drink, and her head and body tingling with fury, the sound came out as a mischievous grunt.
     “So I bet’cher ready fer bed,” Jaysh said, thinking very hard about putting a hand to her shoulder and pulling her back. As a rule, he never engaged in physical contact unless he and his woman-friend were being intimate and, even then, he shied from initiating it.
     Now, however, with that strangely-sinister grunt still echoing in his ears and his discomfort levels at an all-time high, the notion of flesh-on-flesh contact didn’t seem so bad. Especially, if it broke his woman-friend’s trance and brought those beautiful, plotting eyes away from the wooden sign.
     He raised his hand like a man contemplating whether or not to stick it in a fire, then watched her lurch forward and pass beneath the arch.
     “Hey—Hey, babe.
     Gariel didn’t stop. With legs stiff and choppy, she moved along the interior path of the Hill, moving passed the pillars of kings and the slabs of servants until she reached the woodsman’s bedroll. She squatted down beside it and fell forward on her knees.
     Standing by the archway, Jaysh strained his eyes at the impenetrable darkness, wondering if it was his bedroll or packs that preoccupied the woman-friend’s mind. She was always after him for coin—even though he’d repeatedly told her he had no need for the discs—but her hands weren’t tearing at the pockets of his pack, so he assumed she wasn’t digging for coins.
     So what’s she after? he wondered, scanning the blankets for his precious cat-thing and seeing that Zeph had already vacated the area. He remembered the hateful look the cat-thing had given the archway and imagined his little companion had taken off long ago. But if’n she ain’t after coin, an’ she ain’t stranglin Zeph, what is it she thinks she’s doin’ down there? Ain’t like there’s anythin else down th—
     He saw what Gariel was looking at and his heart fell cold. Oh, no, he thought, and broke into a walk, covering half the distance and seeing that, yes indeed, his apprehensions were warranted.
     Instead of his packs or bedding, the butcher’s daughter was stooped over the tiny figurine by the side of the trail, the one whose sightless eyes stared after the woodsman as he slept and whose pudgy arms remained forever clasped behind her winged back.
     Jaysh came to an unsteady stop beside the butcher’s daughter and the statuette, his eyes darting between the two. He felt like he should say something—he had rushed over here, after all—but since speaking had never really been his forte, he just stood there, panting out his open mouth and waiting for something to happen.      
     Gariel extended one shaky hand and touched the shadows of the angel’s face. “We doan’ need the army to stay,” she told him. “Iman tol’ me he’s got a plan tha’ doan’ use one’a them boys out west. He tol’ me he’s got a plan tha’ uses them Lat’ian boys the humpback wants to hire. Them, an’ a few of us here in the city.”
     Jaysh felt the cold rush out of his chest as his heart began to pound.
     Gariel lowered her hand to another chiseled feature of the cherub’s face that neither of them could see. “An’ yeh know what?” she said, speaking in a soft and tender voice the woodsman didn’t recognize. “The humpback an’ the cripple are on Iman’s side. The big’un doan’ like it none, an’ the lil freak doan’ care fer it neither, but them other two like it jus fine. An’ yeh know what else?” she asked him, sweetly. “Iman said we doan’ need the big’un an’ the freak to make it work. He said we jus need the king.”
     Jaysh said nothing, his eyes fastened on the dark area of the angel’s face.
     Gariel ran her hand along the graven sides of the serif’s cheek, her fingers gently caressing what lay hidden in the gloom. “So I tol’ Iman…I said, ‘W’ll, Jayshy’s king now, ain’t he? Cain’ he make it happen?’ An’ Iman, he looks at me, all sad like, an’ he says, ‘Yeah, tha’s right’. An’ I said, ‘W’ll, go get im. Go on up to his room an’ tell im. He needs to know.’ But Iman, lookin even sadder than b’fore, he says, ‘I wish I could, Gair. I wish I could.’”
     Jaysh swallowed hard.
     Gariel said, in a calming voice that didn’t sound the least bit angry, “He tol’ me bout the map, Jayshy.”
     Jaysh drew a slow, stuttering breath.
     Gariel said, “But yeh doan’ really wanna leave, do yeh, Jayshy? I know yeh tol’ Iman yeh did, an’ I know your all tore up bout losin them hobbies, but if’n Iman’s plan works, baby, yeh know yeh’ll get em back, right?”
     Jaysh realized he hadn’t exhaled and forced himself to breathe, vaguely aware that somewhere on his right the butcher’s daughter was getting to her feet and moving her scantly-clad bodice against his grass-strewn shirt, wrapping her arms about his torso and laying her head against his chest. Like him, she drew a breath as well, only hers made a humming sound as she released it.
     “I know yeh doan’ wanna leave, Jayshy,” she told him. “I knew tha’ much the first time I woke an’ found yeh gone from bed. Been ferever ago that it happened, but I member it plain. We was jus kids then, barely old enough to wanna sleep together, but I member it. I member comin up here in the night an’ findin yeh curled right here on the ground, wrapped up in a cover yeh stole from m’bed.”
     Jaysh felt his head wanting to shake, felt his belly tighten in knots.
     “Wha’d yeh call er, Jayshy?”
     But Jaysh said nothing. Due either to his weariness or his shock, his mind had gone utterly blank. He stood there with his arms at his sides and his eyes on the seraph and all that came to him, as he tried to answer the question, was a lumpy green square.
     It was floating in his mind, in the liquid darkness of his thoughts.
     He took his mental eyes from the rippling green shape and directed his physical eyes at the base beneath the figurine’s feet. Just like that, he remembered the name that had been carved thereon. Like the sign beneath the archway, that name was committed to a portion of his memory that had escaped the debilitating effects of his mental blockage.
     Barely parting his lips, he took another shallow breath and said, “Beth.”
     The butcher’s daughter nodded. “Tha’s what I thought,” she said. “Now, do yeh really wanna leave Beth, Jayshy?”
     Jaysh laid his bearded cheek against the spiky crown of Gariel’s hair. He closed his watering eyes and let her question rage against his thoughts, let it tear at the lumpy green square that hovered in his mind.
     After awhile, he found the strength to shake his head.