The next town, Bladswell, wasn't so much a town as a ferryboat station that happened to have an inn and some farms attached. Still, the inn had vacancies and Zae appreciated spending a night in privacy, in something resembling a real bed, after days on the trail. They treated themselves to something resembling a real meal and then a real bath, as well.
She gathered her long indigo curls in a towel and wrung her hair from dripping to damp, then carefully dried her ears—specifically, the line of shining bronze rings that pierced each, all the way from lobe to tip. "Wouldn't it be romantic to sleep in the hayloft instead?" she offered.
Keren, lounging on the bed in only a towel, made a face. "It may sound romantic, but trust me, hay is sharp and unyielding in all sorts of romantic-mood-killing ways."
The gnome raised an eyebrow. "And how do you come by this knowledge?"
Keren stretched and gave an exaggerated yawn. "Oh, look how late it's gotten!"
"Right. You won't distract me that easily."
Standing, Keren slowly and deliberately unwrapped her towel.
Zae, it turned out, was distracted that easily.
∗ ∗ ∗
Keren became increasingly restless as they sailed nearer to the Worldwound. Her anxiety wanted very much to be contagious, but Zae refused to catch it. She sat on the uncomfortable bed with Appleslayer at her feet, and assembled the bits and parts she'd picked up in Chastel. There was something meditative about handling gears and wire. Partly because it was an activity she associated with prayer, but partly because she liked to fix what was broken. She knew the difference between the sentient and the inanimate, of course, but on a more theoretical level, she had always thought that healing a body and fixing a machine were much the same kind of action. Everything ticking along smoothly.
"Like clockwork..." she murmured, and Keren lifted her head.
"Just thinking aloud," Zae answered. "Welcome back."
While Zae immersed herself in her tinkering, Keren had paced their small cabin, and then the deck, and then the cabin again. The knight refused soothe syrup—travel up the river was safer than travel along its banks, but not by much, and she wanted her wits about her. Zae could respect that, and was grateful for it.
Keren joined her, sprawling beside the dog and trailing her fingers through his snowy fur.
Zae enjoyed conversation while she worked. "You said you joined the crusade because your father wanted you to. Was it what you wanted, too?"
Keren frowned. "There was never any other option. Me and Ennis, we were groomed for it from birth. I got my first set of armor at age five. Not in the white and gold, of course, since I hadn't taken my oaths yet, but Father made the Knights sound like the worthiest goal in the world, and there wasn't anyone around to tell me otherwise. I don't know...I'd probably have been an artisan, and made beautiful things with my hands. Maybe I still will, someday." She sighed and rolled onto her back. "What will your contraption be when it's done?"
Zae cradled one half of a brass sphere carefully between her bare feet while she worked on the other half, occasionally switching off or testing to make sure that they still fit together. "It'll be a divining rod. Well, ball. Divining ball. It'll tell us which way your brother is, if we ask it the right questions. Except when it doesn't, of course. These things are never completely reliable. And I only have so much incense, so we won't be able to consult it too many times...but I thought it might get us started."
Keren studiously rubbed under Apple's chin. "That had to be stupidly expensive."
"It was," Zae said quietly. There was no point denying it. "But worth it. And don't even think of trying to pay me back. I've never gotten to build one of these before, and... well, I've never had a chance to do something so big and totally selfless for someone I care about before, either."
Silence stretched out comfortably for a moment. "Surely you've..." Keren ventured.
"Had lovers, as you know. Even almost married once—a halfling. He stole my heart, but I got it back."
The comfortable silence returned, broken only by the dog's quiet snores and the lapping of water against the hull. When Zae assembled the halves into a sphere and looked up, Keren was asleep.
It always surprised the gnome how soft even the most hardened humans became when their features relaxed. Curled up around Appleslayer as she was, it was easy to see her youth. Humans lived so briefly and so brightly, and felt things so intensely. Zae didn't think she'd ever truly understand what made them tick, but to get to share even a bit of that—not to mention being on the receiving end of those feelings—was a gift she didn't take for granted.
∗ ∗ ∗
Apple got his land legs back sooner than Zae did—perhaps because he had more of them to balance on. For gnome and human, the swaying of the riverboat became the swaying of a moderate gait in the saddle, gradually acclimating them both to solid ground.
Just in time to see it fall away. They drew to a halt just shy of the border of the Worldwound, staring out at the ravaged landscape. Overhead the sky was low and leaden gray, but in the distance it churned an unnatural palette of bile and sweet corn.
"Got your gadget?" Keren asked.
Zae fumbled in her satchel and withdrew the orb. She knew she had polished it to a shine, but the oppressive air seemed to take away all that was bright in the world. From a side pocket, she unwrapped a small purple cone of incense, added a few drops of clear oil to it, and slid it point-first into a perfectly sized hole in the orb. Making sure she was facing the ruined landscape, she closed her eyes to concentrate.
"Masked clockmaker, she who drives our gears, abide with us a time and be the whisper in our bronze. We seek Ennis Rhinn, and we travel overland. Is a path to the east toward weal or woe?"
For a few moments, nothing happened. Then the orb began to vibrate with the muffled whir of gears turning in their casing. After perhaps half a minute, it stopped. "There."
Zae turned the orb, and the smoke that filtered out was white and sweetly scented. "Thank you, Lady Brigh." She smiled up at Keren. "We go east."
∗ ∗ ∗
The first crusaders they met were a pair on patrol, wearing gouged, pitted armor that had seen many adventures. One look at Keren's white and gold told them her origin, and when she lifted a hand in greeting Zae wasn't surprised to see the Lastwall shield on the guardswoman's palm when it rose in response.
"Here to join the ranks?" the guard called. Keren dismounted and approached on foot. Zae remained on Appleslayer. The knights spoke briefly, clasped hands, and Keren returned to her horse.
"We're heading in the right direction," she said, and nudged Eridem onward.
A mile or so along, an outpost was set up at the edge of the Worldwound, only feet from where the ground turned from dirt and rock to foul wasteland. They reined in before the tent with the largest banner.
All the crusaders looked just as worn as their scouts had. Some were in makeshift armor or had chipped weapons. Scars abounded on roughened faces. One boy looked barely to have reached adulthood, but already had a pink gash cutting down over the socket of one milky eye.
"What've we here?" he called out, and the dozen or so others perked up and took notice. "Fresh blood from the south?" One of the other men coughed, and spat something green and phlegmy that wriggled away toward the cursed ground.
"That's right," Keren answered. "Making our way east." Zae could see her studying every face, looking for her brother among them. "We'll lend you our strength if we can share your camp tonight."
One of the older men laughed, a harsh sound like a file rasping across stone. "It's clear you're confident with your sword, lass, but what of your little friend?"
Zae straightened in her saddle. "I can make water for you."
A round of raucous laughter answered her. "Isn't a one of us who can't make water, tiny lass. What need have we of yours?"
Zae's cheeks flushed hot. "That's not what I meant! Holy water, to fight the demons. Purified water, to drink."
The older soldier pointed out toward the ruined land. "Can ye purify that, miss?" He shrugged and returned to sharpening his jagged sword. "Get on with you both. We don't need the faces of the fresh and eager to disrupt our lives or end 'em with your carelessness. Make water on someone else."
Zae exchanged a look with Keren, who shook her head minutely and put gentle heels to Eridem's sides.
They continued along the border, mindful of keeping to healthy ground. "Maybe our good fortune is still to come," Zae said, but Keren gave no response.
The sun was setting, turning the sky from an unnatural green to an unnatural reddish-brown. No lights shone in the Worldwound, but occasionally something cracked or slithered.
"Did you see them?" Keren finally asked as they rode along.
Zae's heart pounded. "What?" She scanned the horizon, but Keren shook her head.
"No. Those soldiers. They were so..."
"Close to death?" Zae supplied.
Keren frowned, but nodded. "I expected things to be shiny and organized here, like they are at Vigil, but it's all so... fractured. Desperate."
Another fortified outpost loomed in the distance. They arrived at it just at nightfall proper, as the last of the natural light gave way to an eerie malevolent glow.
"If they're anything like the last," Keren said as they walked their mounts up toward the cluster of buildings, "I wonder if we'd not be safer keeping to ourselves."
"Safer, perhaps," Zae answered, "but less likely to find Ennis."
"What about Ennis?" one of the sentries called.
Keren froze. It seemed to take her a moment to find her tongue, so Zae answered for her. "Ennis Rhinn. Is he part of your unit?"
The guard, who looked healthier and more whole than anyone Zae had seen at the border thus far, pursed his lips. Behind him, three more ragged soldiers limped into the camp, two supporting the weight of the one between them. "For now. By morning I suspect that'll change." He nodded out toward the scarred land. "Demonplague's got him. He's making his hours count."
"He's my brother." Keren rested her hand on her sword hilt, gaze hard. "Take me to him."
The knight held up his hand, showing his sigil. Keren and Zae both did the same. "Well met, Rhinn." When he signaled two more knights to join them, the gnome saw Keren's posture relax; she'd been tensed for a fight. "Been out into the 'Wound before?"
"Figured not; your armor's too clean. That'll change quick. You sure you don't want to wait till morning? Riding through the Worldwound is nothing like picking off a few stray ghouls in the Hungry Mountains. And it's busiest at night."
"You just said morning might be too late. I'm ready." Keren looked at Zae, brown eyes aglow. "What do you think: weal or woe, when we find him?"
The guard lowered his visor. "Naught out there but woe. You'll see that for yourself soon enough."
Coming Next Week: Meetings and endings in the final chapter of Gabrielle Harbowy's "Inheritance"!
Gabrielle Harbowy is an editor for such SF publishers as Pyr, Seven Realms Publishing, and Dragon Moon Press, as well as co-editor of the When the Hero Comes Home anthology series with Ed Greenwood. Her short fiction has been a finalist for the Parsec award, and has appeared in such anthologies as The Beast Within 2, Metastasis, Cthulhurotica, and more. For more information, visit gabrielle-edits.com.
Illustration by Kelly Perry