The wind was the worst part.
Cold, she could handle. That settled over you like a blanket of numbness, gradually spreading to legs and arms, but at least it was slow. The wind was constant, a relentless reminder of how stiff and useless her fingers had become.
“How much farther to the inn?” Sam asked behind her. She could barely hear him over the wind. It had whipped the few remaining leaves off the trees lining the road. It smelled like snow. “Bex! We’ve been trudging down the Pike since Sol came up! You’ve been silent as old Arras in his tomb all day. Are we close to Tearsford, at least?”
“Just a couple more miles. You’ll smell it before you see it.” Piping hot pasties, stuffed to bursting with peas and beans and mutton and gravy, bloomed unbidden in her mind. “You were stone drunk the last time we went, but the Tears lay a board that’ll make this weather worth it. This’ll be worth it, Sam.” I swear it on the Sister, she thought. I’ll make this worth it.
He mumbled indeterminately into his beard, too low to make out anything besides “ice cold arsecheeks”. She smiled lopsidedly into the raw wind and first tiny flakes of snow. She couldn’t grudge Sam a little griping. They’d fled before dawn, scuttling away from Lesh in raw darkness like terrified mice. Sam had left the house without complaint, but he knew. He’d been with her long enough to know what the Calling the day before had meant.
Tearsford Pike had been quiet all day, with only a handful of riders and just one wagon. Sol’s weak wintry light had not erased what the Calling had shown from her mind, and the road had offered little distraction from her fears. All the riders on the Pike had been huddled in their cloaks against the weather, grim-faced before the wind. Just as well no one paid them any mind, as far as she was concerned.
They reached Tearsford an hour later, fat flakes of snow drifting crazily in the wind and light falling rapidly. Sam had grumbled until they reached the brown, dry fields outside the town proper. As they passed neat houses along the main avenue, Sam perked up. “Bless the Brother, I thought you were lying about the smell! Meat pie? A stew? I’ve a hunger to put the brothers of the Starving Order to shame! Where’s the inn?”
“See for yourself, you ravenous old bloodhound.” Rounding the corner, the Tearsford Inn came into view. Three stories tall, broad and squat in the dusk, small windows gleaming with light, it radiated warmth. A sign, brightly painted in the shape of a stout stone bridge with flags flying overhead, swung in the snowy wind.
Music and smell hit them both like a wave as Sam threw open the door. The common room was full, mostly merchants and townsmen with a handful of farmers and travelers scattered across the room. She eyed a singer, crammed into a corner near the fireplace, a battered lute across her knees. Sam had already reached the bar, his spiky beard silhouetted by the fire, when she heard a familiar voice boom out over the noise.
“Samhael Elden! Years it’s been since you’ve come to Tearsford—and sober to boot! What brings you back on this miserable night?” Basil Tear’s family had built their inn generations ago, the town growing up around it and the nearby river crossing. He’d never met a stranger, but she couldn’t risk Basil’s bluster and hail-fellow-well-mets. Leaning across the dark wood, Rebecca looked him in the face and said, “Basil. Shut up.”
Across the room the bard started into “Jim of Diamonds”. The familiar song told the story of a legendary glutton. A prince among men was Diamond Jim, the spreads that he ate were enormous… Voices joined in as she watched Basil’s face fold, wounded and hurt. “I’ve done nothing to earn such cutting words, Rebecca Gaelach,” the innkeeper said in a quieter voice. “I’m surprised to see old friends in my inn, is all. The last time I saw you and Sam, the Moonbringer had just killed good King Arras, Sam was drunk to the point of blindness, and the Sister still had you in her grasp. I still remember Her eyes staring out of your face, Bex. Makes me fear what brings you back now.”
The bard had warmed up, enthusiastically singing the third verse with gusto. The young serving wench sat her beau on a bench, for Diamond Jim’s meals were pure performance… “I’m sorry, old friend,” she said, laying a hand on Basil’s thick wrist. It trembled slightly under her fingers. “We fled Lesh before daybreak. We’ve no money, no supplies, no horses. If you can spare two beds and a spare mount, I’ll see that the Greffathi pay you as soon as we reach—”
Without warning, the front wall of the inn disappeared. It was suddenly not there, pulled out into the stable yard as if a giant had yanked hard on invisible strings. The bard was pulled violently out into the darkness , her lute clattering loudly in the sudden silence. Beside her, Sam breathed out, “Holy Brother Sol. It’s an aubade.”
The last word triggered chaos. The fire roared in the hearth, sparks cast by the wind onto the common room’s thick rugs. Basil ducked behind the bar, bleeding from a gash on his forehead caused by flying shards of stone. A burly farmer slipped on broken cups, falling to the floor before being abruptly wrenched out into the stable yard. She was struck by the surreal sight of snow blowing into the common room as flames licked the table legs. By now she could hear the horses in the stable screaming in fear.
Sam had pulled a wicked looking dirk from his boot and looked to her for guidance. He appeared outrageously calm, all things considered. “What now, Bex?”
Power from the Sister pulsed through her entire body. It was painful, so strong she could feel it echoing her heartbeat in the tips of her fingers. “The aubade is here for me. We have to draw it away from Tearsford, Sam.” She walked through the bloody wreckage of the common room, hearing the deep whoomp of enormous wings outside and above the inn.
For a ridiculous moment she wondered what her eyes looked like to those still alive. Could they see the Sister Simuud in her face, like Basil said? The wind whipped all thought from her mind as she stepped through the obliterated front wall into the yard. The fire had ruined her night vision, but she could still hear the aubade’s wings keeping it aloft.
The wind was the worst part.