Sleep had not come easily, that night, and I woke early—well before sunrise. The air was thick with a cold, grey mist, and in the dim light of dawn, even the trees around us seemed only dark smudges in the grey. My legs and back ached from the cold.
The small clearing felt dead, and heavy. There was almost no sound, but for the occasional drip of water from needle to branch, and even that seemed oddly muted, as if my ears were packed with wool. The smell of the cedars, normally so rich and pungent, seemed flat—like spice gone stale with age; and in its place, the air had taken on a marshy rot.
A few feet away, under in a thin blanket, Dajoën still slept. It was unusual for me to wake before him, but then we’d talked well into the night. Aradnae was nearly due East when we’d finally run out of things to say. He’d drifted off quickly enough, but I’d lain awake for some time after, just listening to him breathe . . . trying to get used to the idea of my life without him.
The fire had gone out during the night. I reached for a stick and tried to stir it back to life, but it was cold. I briefly considered trying to build a new one, but decided I’d probably wake him, and that he could use the sleep.
As quietly as I could manage, I got up, pulled my blanket around me, and crept off toward the river. The cedar litter and soft earth gave no sound as I walked, and, a little out of the clearing, I stopped trying to be quiet.
Free of trees, the river was noticeably brighter than the clearing had been, but I couldn’t see the far shore. Mist rose from the water in dense plumes, and breathing became a little harder. But the air smelled better—less marshy, more like herbs. I tried to enjoy it.
We had camped near a bend in the river, where sand piled up along the shore, making the water easy to reach. I knelt down among a bed of low, flowering plants, and drank. The water felt warm, and I let my fingers trail in it. A little ways off—though it seemed more distant—a bird burst into song; I listened quietly for a few moments, then headed back.
When I arrived in the clearing, a few minutes later, I found Dajoën up and a small fire burning. The mist hadn’t thinned, but the light had gotten a little better, and he seemed his usual alert self.
A small amount of smoke curled listlessly outward from the flames, rising only slightly before spreading into the mist. But the air smelled noticeably more of cedar than it had. It was a welcome change.
“I had hoped not to wake you,” I said, and sat down close to the fire. I pulled my blanket tighter around my shoulders, then put my hands up to warm near the flames. Dajoën’s blanket was already rolled and tied to his pack.
“I slept enough,” he said, and smiled. Even in the dim light, the green of his eyes sparkled, and almost shone. “You look tired, though.”
“A bit,” I said, and nodded. “Too many thoughts, I guess.”
His smile faltered, ever so slightly. “I know,” he said softly, and quickly turned away. He pulled a skin from his pack, stepped around the fire, and walked off toward the river.
I stared into the flames, and must have lost track of time, because when I looked up again, he was stepping back around the fire, the skin full.
My hands were feeling warmer, so I forced myself up. I decided that the blanket would be too much of a hassle, and I dropped it near my pack; it slouched down into a damp, little heap, and I stared at it on the ground for a some time, shivering for both of us.
When I turned back to the fire, Dajoën had a small copper pot filled with water arranged over the flame.
“Tea?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Maybe later, if you want it. I was thinking of adding the leftover grouse to a stew of kanth and dried fruit.” He shrugged—one shoulder. “It is a special occasion, after all.”
My stomach growled loudly in response, and we both laughed. It felt good. Like old times.
“Anything I can do?”
“Sure,” he said, and motioned to the leather bag suspended up a nearby tree. “Why don’t you pull the meat off the birds while I get the kanth in the pot.”
I recovered the bag from the tree, and sat down near him. The birds weren’t small, but we’d eaten later than usual, and there wasn’t much of them left. I pulled out my knife and began tearing the remaining meat and skin from the bones.
We worked in silence, as we had many times in the past. The thickness of the air drained what little noise we made. But it was comfortable—as it had long been—and I was able to enjoy the moment, just being there with him. Occasionally, I would look up from my work to watch him. I was sure he noticed—he always seemed to know when people were looking at him—but he gave no indication, and I was grateful to him for it.
Finally, my work done and my knife and fingers carefully licked clean, I placed the small square of leather and its minced bird on the ground beside him, then moved a little closer to both him and the fire. I wiped my knife on some moss, then pulled a whetstone from inside my cloak and began sharpening it.
“Dajoën?” I said, a few minutes later.
I looked up from my work, and found him looking at me. Our eyes met, and we held there, for some time. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what I’d been going to say. But it didn’t seem to matter.
The scar on his cheek was just visible in the growing light, a fine white line from jaw to temple. The cut had healed cleanly, but there was a tightness around the eye that never quite went away, and it was prone to catch when he smiled. I felt the urge to reach over and touch it. He had received it the day we met. He had received it saving me.
I let the urge pass.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said, and my eyes stung. I squeezed them shut and turned away.
Then his hand was on my mine, and I turned back to look at him. The corners of my eyes felt wet, but I didn’t care.
“You will always be in my thoughts,” he said, and squeezed my hand.
A lock of his hair fell forward across his face, and he released my hand to brush it away. He went back to cooking, and I stared into the fire, searching in its flames for something I don’t remember finding.
We ate in silence. I spoke only once—to tell him how good the stew tasted. It was only the truth, but I felt it important to say. He smiled and said, “Thank you.”
After eating, I took the pot down to the river to clean it. It must have been shortly after sunrise, by then, for the world was bright; but the mist had only thickened, and I heard not even the call of a bird. I skipped a stone across the water, but I lost sight of it after the first bounce, and the sound after the second.
When I got back to the clearing, Dajoën was waiting for me.
“You’re going, then . . .” I said, and handed him the pot.
“It’s time,” he replied, nodding his head to one side.
“I thought . . . maybe . . . . “
He looked at me and shook his head. “I have to go . . . . You know this . . . . ” I couldn’t hold his gaze.
“No,” I said, at last, to the ground between my feet, “it’s okay.” I’d promised both him and myself that I wouldn’t make it harder than it had to be. I owed him that much.
But it was so hard.
“I’m sorry . . .” I said, and managed to face him again.
He proceeded to pull on his pack, then slip his bow up and over his head, and down across his chest.
We stood there, facing one another. Finally, he reached into his cloak and pulled out a small round pendant of black wood, intricately carved, and hanging from a thin silver chain.
“I made this for you,” he said, and reached out to offer it to me. He smiled, and added, “Not the chain.”
I took it from him and stared at it for several seconds. It was beautiful, and of a level of skill I had never seen before. My hands trembled, and I couldn’t make them stop. Finally, I lifted the chain up over my head and let the pendant drop to my chest. I felt some little thrill in my belly, and I wondered what the knotwork meant. But I didn’t ask.
He looked at it for a few seconds, and seemed pleased with his work. I grabbed his arm and pulled him to me. We embraced tightly, and I held longer than perhaps I should have.
When I released him, he studied me again.
“You’ll be okay,” he said.
I laughed. “Who’re you trying to convince? Me? Or you?”
We left the clearing, holding to the right of the path to the river. About ten minutes out, we reached the ford, and the vast stretch of marshland on the other side.
I stopped and he turned to me. “Just head East,” he said, pointing behind me, “along the river, back the way we came. Ormston is twenty miles.”
“I know,” I said, and nodded.
He smiled that lopsided grin of his. Then, with conviction, “I know you’ll be fine.”
“Yeah. I will,” I replied. I thought he needed to hear me say it. “Thanks to you.”
I wiped my arm across my eyes, then looked straight into his. “Farewell.” The word almost caught in my throat.
He looked at me for a few seconds, like he was trying to memorize my face. I’d been doing that with him for days. Then, “Fare well, my friend.”
He turned and headed into the river. The mists had thinned, a little, under the sun that must have been burning down from above; it drifted in thick clumps on a fresh wind.
Squeezing the pendant in my hand, I mouthed the words, the words I had never quite found the nerve to say . . . and that I would never get the chance to say again. But they changed nothing.
The mists drifted back into his wake, swirling gently in the soft morning light. He faded, bit by bit, as he shrank into the distance. The last I saw of him was a vague shadow, moving ever farther into a world of white.