On the fourth day of the pilgrims’ sojourn in the House of Saint Mitus’ Eye, the Blessed Goodhost called for a reckoning of their bill of fare. The innkeeper was a ruddy mountain crag by the name of Bunstable. Vance Adell suspected him of rank opportunism. Custom permitted the holy order to postpone the settlement discussion until the hour of its departure.
“I’ll tell you what I told your Petitioner,” Bunstable informed him. “The Great Saints have visited the snows of winter upon the holy mountain early this year. The pilgrim’s road is impassable until the spring melt.”
Vance welcomed the negotiation. Let my thoughts be filled with anything other than Petitioner Sila Kreiner. “There are no guides who can direct our safe ascent? We can offer not only the Saint’s blessing but generous compensation too.”
“The generosity of the Order of Rejuvenationists is widely acknowledged,” said Bunstable, clapping one solemn hand to his chest and making an expansive gesture with the other, “but alas, no coin can buy the impossible. Any reputable guide will tell you it is certain death. Had you arrived but a week earlier – well.” He spread his hands in a passable display of abject regret.
Vance pinched his nose hard, a ward against the migraine he was sure would accompany the conversation. Bunstable’s clumsy exploitation of their misfortune rubbed salt into this fresh wound.
Their delay in arriving at the way-station, the toe on the foothills of the great mountain Luxichre, was all his brother Strake’s fault. Roaring acts of public drunkenness were not beyond the precepts of their Order but Strake’s timing in the town of Velentionne was poor. The local ruler, Baron Helstedd, had lately lost both a wife and an heir in childbirth. Strake’s compulsive revelry had clashed with the Velentiots’ idea of suitable mourning habits. The Baron’s reeve levied punitive fines which decimated their funds. The scandalised Velentiots had been less than generous with alms for the pilgrims. Worst of all, they lost a week’s travel to Strake’s detention in Baron Helstedd’s gaol-tower. For the last thirty days, the pilgrims had marched with uncomfortable haste to compensate, as the mountain air grew chill.
In theory Saint Mitus’ Travelling Order of Rejuvenationists held to no schedule in their pilgrimage to emulate the great expeditions of their patron. The journey could be expected to take years. Certain practicalities held, however, and staying ahead of the weather was not considered irreverent. The superiority of an expeditionary leader’s vision was reckoned according to many measurements. By far the metric that mattered most was whether they reached each of the nineteen Venerated Wonders before all eight pilgrims experienced resurrection.
The expedition of Sila Kreiner was stuck at the base of its fifth wonder.
Vance composed himself, banishing a frown. “Goodhost Bunstable, I hope that our protracted stay does not inconvenience you or your family.”
“The House of Saint Mitus’ Eye has not turned away a pilgrim in more than a hundred years, Master Vance. Not since Mitus himself bestowed his word and blessing upon my great-grandfather.” Bunstable looked set to recount the details of that singular occasion yet again, but Vance interrupted with as much grace as he could muster.
“In addition to daily offering of the ash-purse,” he said, leaving unspoken the understanding that the traditional gratuity would be increased in accordance with the modern cost of living, “we will work for our keep.”
Bunstable hunched his shoulders, drummed his knuckles across the ledger spread across his spacious escritoire and smiled. The starving carrion birds that wheeled about Luxichre’s summit could likely not match his look of insatiable hunger.
“Under ordinary circumstances, Master, that would suffice. But the Feast of Horns is a week away and Petitioner Kreiner enjoys uncommon renown. With so reputable an Eight under our humble roof, the whole town will seek invitation in the hopes of sharing your blessings. The House is obliged not to turn them away.”
“Don’t fear for your livelihood, Goodhost.” Vance tasted something sour but returned the smile with studied reserve. “You’ll have all you need.”
Vance took his leave and went in search of his brother. With luck, he could inspire Strake to reform before the next crisis arrived.
He found Strake lounging on cushions before the massive fireplace of the common room with Dessit and Polma, the only remaining unresurrected members of the expedition apart from Vance himself. Before the prophetic dreams had driven him from his business and his family into Kreiner’s sphere, Dessit had been a fishmonger, selling narwhals, marlins and giant squid in the markets of Tosrada. Broad-shouldered Polma had been a skirmisher in the Diamond Battalion. She still carried her javelins everywhere.
They idolised Strake Adell, and why not? Vance saw nothing of the pious, bookish mouse he’d grown up with in this brash, charming athlete. His resurrection had burned away a boy’s shuddering nervousness exposing a surprising core of boisterous confidence. He was a walking emblem of the Saint’s blessing: tall, hairless and assured.
Not that he seemed to care anymore.
“Brother, join us! Falaha will make some room for you.” He shifted his hips a little to reveal Bunstable’s eldest daughter pressed against his side, half-buried by cushions.
“Good evening, Master Vance. My father has kept you too long at your book-keeping. May I offer you refreshment?” She gave Vance a wide, lazy-eyed smile as she fumbled to straighten her clothing. He caught a generous glimpse of exposed skin and cast his eyes away at once. He tried to tell himself that his preoccupation with Goodhost Bunstable’s rapacious accountancy left him impervious to all distraction. Then his thoughts strayed to Sila, collapsing the delusion.
The four saluted each other from brimming saki cups and drank. Not their first round, Vance suspected. On the verge of replying to her solicitation with a curt, automatic “No thank you,” he paused to consider the question.
Would it cost the expedition so dear if he were to take an evening’s relaxation? His fellow pilgrims were doing whatever they could to dampen the tension smouldering in the bones of the Eight. If they held him responsible, Dessit or Polma would have spoken against the invitation. Nor it seemed did they attach blame to Strake, who shed responsibility like sweat on a cool breeze.
That left Sila. None of the company would dare speak against their Petitioner who was blessed by their patron Saint. But tradition accorded her full responsibility for their deliverance into Resurrection.
He sighed, shaking his head. The long winter loomed ahead. Were his disciplined habits observed to slip, he would soon see them reflected by the others. Besides, Vance could not recall the last time his food and drink did not taste of ashes.
“Do you not have duties to perform, daughter of our Goodhosts?”
“This hour belongs to me, Initiate. Your companions have convinced me I need not spend it alone with my books.” Falaha beamed at him, oblivious to his weary turmoil. “Master Vance, your brother speaks passionately of the fires of the Saint but he declines to show me his scar. Can you persuade him to share his blessing?”
Vance was taken aback. “Don’t you know where it is?”
A round of giggles and Strake’s sly grin answered his question. The fires of resurrection begin in the lower abdomen, the same point where a Hantan spearhead fatally wounded Saint Mitus long ago. The hairless, flawless flesh of the Resurrected was marred only by a burned patch above the groin.
Vance supposed Falaha would ignore any warnings concerning his brother’s dangerously ephemeral attentions. Strake’s whims were like mayflies, buzzing distractions to everyone in his vicinity but soon dead to Strake himself. How little he resembled the Strake-of-old, whose ecstatic fervour was the only force capable of rousing him from crippling shyness and a life of monkish study. It was Strake-of-old’s urgent piety that drove them both to pledge themselves to Sila Kreiner’s pilgrimage.
Vance himself lacked the conviction that his occasional dreams of strong-armed, toothy Mitus were genuine Saint-blessed visions, despite Strake’s needy, self-serving interpretations. Even now he knew he would have surrendered his place in the Eight and gone back to his quills and ledgers, had he not made the terrible mistake of falling in love with Sila Kreiner.
If Vance had ever been transported by a captivating vision, it was that of Sila-of-old. Raven-haired, blue-eyed and freckled with the sun of the freezing northlands, her curves were muscular and her hands as quick with a boning-knife as a zither. Her smile, shy at first with the natural caution of her people, became warm and wide as she and Vance became friends. They formed a natural partnership. Her wit and zeal attracted the best pilgrims. His disciplined organisation and head for numbers ensured the expedition was better outfitted and funded than any before or since.
They fell in love.
Sila Kreiner died and resurrected eight months after the expedition embarked. Vance still felt the heat of his tears, the brute muscularity of her convulsions, her grey lips blistering as they parted to howl in triumphant horror. At last the first flames licked from her belly. Then he could hold her no longer. Fire and ash consumed her and left behind a stranger.
Vance thought, I could give it all away right now. I could drink until dawn, every day until winter breaks or the money runs out. I could walk back down the valley to Velentionne and get an assaying job in the Baron’s silver mines.
He could turn his back on years of work and sacrifice. Saint Mitus. His fellow pilgrims. Strake. Sila.
The dissolute moment guttered like an expiring candle. “Get off your backsides,” he said. “Goodhost Bunstable needs a new alpaca pen. Hard work and snow will sober you up.”
The House of Saint Mitus’ Eye had withstood two hundred years of everything the holy mountain could throw down at it, from the scouring icy winds of winter to spring floods, to wild fires and rock falls. Its travails left it with a surprisingly long list of minor repairs.
Bunstable was as good as his unspoken word. The pilgrims grumbled for a day or two but soon became accustomed to the steady flow of odd jobs, the biting cold blasting down from Luxichre’s heights and the feel of woodworking tools in their hands. Gerrolt-of-old had been a carpenter for forty years. The oldest pilgrim might no longer speak of his former responsibilities to the fortifications of Chancel Banholdt nor the family he left there but the scourge of resurrection had not stripped him of his skills with a saw and plane.
“Perhaps it’s fortunate we are only waylaid for one season, Goodhost,” observed Sila Kreiner one morning as the pilgrims tore down the rotten walls of the bath-house. “If we stayed any longer, Saint Mitus himself would not recognise the place.”
Bunstable grunted. He’d ceased to lavish praise on the pilgrims’ tirelessness or compliment their workmanship a few days earlier. Having established that their efforts under Gerrolt’s exacting supervision was of exemplary quality, he now contented himself to present the Eight’s Petitioner with a list of desirable repairs, refreshed daily, and withdraw to his other affairs.
On behalf of the rest of his uncomplaining Eight, Vance had taken umbrage at being taken for granted. He exacted an unsaintly revenge, insisting on providing exhaustive, painstaking pecuniary assistance to Bunstable and his wife Yousta as they prepared the Feast of Horns. His intervention intercepted a few cut corners and inflated fees but any savings were dwarfed by the sheer scale of the planned enterprise. More than two hundred townsfolk were expected to squeeze into the large tent fixed alongside the stables, devouring groundfruit platters, sweet loafs and jugs of steaming spiced liquor and dancing reels to a ten-piece pipe band. Saint Mitus’ traditional songs would be rendered by a local chorist, considerable in both voice and fee. Most of those were the discordant bawds of a marching army but in practice a lot of popular modern music would be included. “It’s what Saint Mitus would have wanted.”
“Sila, can I have a word?” Vance whistled quietly by her side. Shortly after they became lovers, he had developed the habit to drag her attention from some internal communion. She used to smile.
Now she turned a cold green eye. “Are you referring to me?”
“I beg your pardon, Petitioner Kreiner.” Vance looked at his feet, nipping in annoyance at his thoughtless tongue.
“Is there a problem?”
Vance cast a wary look at Bunstable and said, “It concerns a member of the Eight.”
The sceptical squint she directed at him from beneath the pronounced brow and sandy lashes was withering. She knew which pilgrim he meant. She marched off behind the shearing sheds, expecting him to keep up. He kept up. “What did he do this time?”
Vance grimaced. “It’s the daughter. Falaha. He says he’s in love.” A pang of jealous longing speared Vance’s constant state of mild exasperation when Strake confided in him. Not dismay at his brother’s cavalier foolishness, nor delight at his romantic joy. Strake was of his blood, but he felt nothing of his brother’s mood. Would a genuine visionary feel this awkwardness towards a Resurrected loved one? Probably not.
Sila Kreiner shook her head, her expression one of sour distaste. Sila-of-old had weathered with boundless good cheer the interminable delays, detours and unexpected crises of pilgrimage. Now she had taken to endless brooding, sullen and impatient. Her fiery passion to lead her Eight in the footsteps of the saint was gone. Now her capacity to inspire had dimmed but her grim determination to complete the ritual was undiminished.
“You Adells,” she growled. “Is there no end to the trouble you will put me through?”
Vance was taken aback. “What do you mean, Petitioner?”
“Did you think it wouldn’t get back to me? Strake has been talking about abandoning the expedition. Of breaking the Eight.”
“He made some foolish comments over dinner, Petitioner. Nothing more impious than that. Whatever you heard, I’m sure it was exaggerated.” Sila Kreiner no longer ate her meals with the rest of the Eight. Since their stranding at the House of Saint Mitus’ Eyes, the only time they could rely upon her company was the morning and evening rituals of veneration. She never missed those.
“If his talk breaks my expedition, Master Vance, I will hold you responsible. Correct him.”
A peal of hearty laughter erupted from the work party. Strake and Polma were lifting the new wall into place when an alpaca cantered up it, mistaking it for some high mountain passage perhaps. Falaha, the Blessed Host’s daughter, laughed hardest, her hands slapping the rails of the animal pen.
“I will do what I can, Petitioner.” Vance frowned. She had specified both of them. “Petitioner, have I also done something to displease you?”
She looked at him again as though he were a beet stain on her sacramental tunic. She turned on her heels and left without a word.
“Don’t be concerned, Master Vance,” said Bunstable, coming over to lay a familiar hand on Vance’s shoulder. Vance was too distracted to take offence. “She’s anxious about the Feast of Horns. Understandable but unnecessary. The preparations are all but perfect.”
Vance knew the details of their preparations to the last coin. He recognised Bunstable’s tone. “Have we overlooked some additional expense, Goodhost?”
“There is a boy, a herder with a talent for the longhorn. It occurs to me that perhaps the celebrations should begin with a dusk sounding.”
“That is an old tradition, little in favour in these times.”
Bunstable leaned close, his air one of concern. “Your petitioner strikes me as a traditionalist, Master. Perhaps it would ease her burdens were we to, ah, resurrect the spirit of Mitus’ ways.”
When Vance asked what fee he supposed the herder might charge for the service, Bunstable replied with a figure almost double the fair price.
Vance authorised it anyway.
That night, after their evening rituals were complete and before Strake could disappear into the inn’s rambling interior in search of his paramour, Vance steered his brother to their shared room.
“You’ve got to cut this out, Strake,” he said. “You can’t keep this up all winter. The Host is already measuring you up for a wedding robe and counting your treasury share as dowry. If you break the Eight for this girl, Sila will kill you.”
“She doesn’t seem to have her old sense of humour, does she?” Strake grinned down at him from the top bunk, his bare scalp gleaming in the candle light. He was changing into a fresh shirt that smelled uncharacteristically of lilac blossoms. Was Falaha doing his laundry, on top of everything else?
“Be serious. You know what this means. Polma and Dessit haven’t Resurrected yet.”
“Nor have you, big brother.”
“I don’t – I mean, that’s right. You’re putting all of that in jeopardy.”
Strake climbed down from his bunk and wrapped his arms around Vance. “Saint bless you, big brother. Without you we would have fallen apart months ago.”
“What do you mean?” Vance squirmed in the embrace. Once he had enjoyed his timid brother’s rare outbursts of filial affection. Now that they visited with greater regularity than a clock’s chimes, the novelty had burned down its wick.
“Dessit doesn’t want to Resurrect any more. He wants to go back to his wife and his fish. Sulsan and Hiram are so taken with Polma’s war stories that they want to turn south and enlist. And as for you, Master of the Purse Vance Adell –“
“As for me, what?” Vance was disoriented. How had his simple purpose of talking sense into Strake gone so far astray?
“You’ve spent a year moping over your coins and your ledgers, mourning a woman who’s been standing right next to you.”
“Sila Resurrected, damn it.”
“That’s right, she Resurrected. She didn’t suddenly forget everything.” Strake tightened the embrace, as if Vance might break his grip and flee. Vance was seized with the urge to do just that. “Oh, brother, you’ve never really grasped the doctrine, have you? I dragged you into this and you found your own reasons to stay but it was never a question of simple faith for you, was it?”
Strake’s firm grip on his shoulder forced Vance to look him in the eye. Vance saw his brother-of-old, earnest and alive with the simple joy of doctrinal interpretation. “Saint Mitus blesses us in order to make us who we need to be. He takes what is weak and imperfect and burns it away. The rest of the world sees a new man, but the man-of-old is still there. When you Resurrect, your priorities change as much as your looks, but you are still you. Your memories are intact. Some of them are just buried deeper than others.”
“I know all this.” Vance willed his voice to annoyed indifference but even he could hear the fear at its core.
“You know it. You don’t understand it.”
“What are you saying, Strake?”
His brother gave him a look a fond reproach, like a favourite pet caught doing something unspeakable to the furniture.
“Oh you great fool. She still loves you. It’s you who’s tearing her apart.”
Vance couldn’t sleep. He stalked the rambling halls of the House of Saint Mitus’ Eye, settling for a while in the dark kitchen to chew some sourroot. He poked through Bunstable’s library but found only tedious works of military history and treatises on mercantile theory. Of those latter, Vance knew each volume by heart. He rested briefly before the common room fire before surrendering to the certainty that sleep would not come.
He went outside. Dawn was an hour or two away. In the shadow of towering Luxichre, under snow-cloud skies, the dark was impenetrable. A single lantern hanging above the alpaca barn doors afforded dim respite from the ink of night.
Snow drifted lazily down through the lantern’s pale circle of light. Vance felt it settle on his face and neck. The tiny stings of cold transported his thoughts.
Sila-of-old had spoken often about her home in the frozen wastes. Life was simple and hard. They hunted narwhals across the pack ice by day. By night they sealed their caves with blocks of ice and sang folk stories while they stripped carcasses, made clothes and repaired weapons. Word of Saint Mitus’ feats was almost unknown there. When her visions began, seizing her with terrifying, mystifying images of strange landscapes and brutal wars, she might have gone mad. One night when they lay together, sweating and bright-eyed, Sila confessed to Vance that if it were not for a travelling mystic who recognised the signs of her possession by the spirit of the long-distant saint, she would have thrown herself into the freezing waters. Instead she had packed a few possessions and journeyed south to meet her destiny.
Was what Strake said true? Was that brave girl, who left all she knew to seek communion with a holy figure she’d never heard of, still there in the stern taskmaster Saint Mitus left behind?
His eyes adjusting to the dark, he circled the inn. Overhead Luxichre, broad and smooth, tapered to a thick pointed summit. It was atop its crest where Saint Mitus performed his second greatest miracle, after the first Resurrection. Facing the champion of King Scapra’s army in single combat to decide the fate of the Dennel Tablelands, Mitus fought with such valour that king and champion both were persuaded to his cause. So legend went. Vance privately suspected that strong liquor and hasty land deals were a significant factor in the alliance.
As he rounded the western side of the inn, Vance saw light spilling from an upper-storey window. He knew the room. Petitioner Kreiner was awake, it seemed.
Seized by a sudden impulse, he re-entered the inn and climbed two flights to the western corridor. He knocked on her door before his resolve could fade.
“Who is it?”
“Vance. I saw the light, Petitioner. Is everything all right?”
The door opened a crack. She was dressed in a thick cassock, a hood drawn over her bald head for warmth. If she had slept, it was only poorly. She regarded him with weary caution.
“What do you want?”
“I wanted to –.” He couldn’t finish. Her eyes held no fondness for him. They barely registered recognition. Strake was wrong. “I want to go through the treasury details with you.”
For a long moment she stared at him, blinking slowly. Then she said, “Are you hoping to cure my insomnia?”
Her expression was unchanged. It took a while to sink in that she was joking. It finished the work of unnerving him.
“I apologise for disturbing you, Petitioner. We can deal with this at a more appropriate hour.”
Her mouth tightened. Her curt gesture waved him into silence. “Get your books and meet me in the common room. We might as well make the most of the quiet.”
He caught a glimpse of her shucking off the cassock as her foot pushed the door closed.
It was the morning of the Feast of Horns.
Sometime during their perusal of the Eight’s accounts, Vance had succumbed to the warmth of the common room hearth and dozed off. His awakening had been less agreeable. Strake nudged him awake with a booted foot and a hearty morning’s greeting.
“Happy feast day, Eight-brother,” he bellowed, shoving a steaming cup of vosot, a locally popular bitter tea flavoured with rancid alpaca butter. Strake had taken to it with reckless abandon. Vance compared it unfavourably with spiced bile. “You didn’t come back to our room last night. I hope you didn’t do anything impious.”
“As if you spent any time in our room,” Vance replied without rancour. Despite his gregarious bother’s insinuations, there were no salacious details to share. True, the early hours he had spent with Sila Kreiner had been unexpectedly companionable, almost comfortable. She had attended closely to his review of pressures placed upon the Eight’s dwindling finances by Goodhost Bunstable’s fleecing rates. They discussed strategies for soliciting new benefactions, perhaps at the Feast of Horns or else in the spring. His final recollection before falling asleep was Sila’s confidence that the inconvenience of lingering at the House of Saint Mitus’ Eye might be turned to opportunity, if harmony prevailed through the winter.
Vance doubted her willingness to consult his expertise could be ascribed to depths of rekindling passion.
Strake just sipped his swamp-mud brew through a knowing smirk and said nothing.
At morning venerations, Sila Kreiner’s features were composed and relaxed, as though she’d woken fresh from a week’s rest. At the end of her usual mechanical recitation of the liturgy, she had coughed and offered a few observations on the significance of the Feast of Horns to Saint Mitus. These amounted to little more than the observation that Mitus was a devotee of good food and copious liquor. Her suggestion that they take one last opportunity to enjoy themselves before a winter of meditative austerity and labour was delivered with her typical stolid pragmatism. Vance fancied he detected an amused note.
The pilgrims threw themselves into the feast preparations with a will, completing the repairs to the inn’s outbuildings, hanging decorations and erecting the great tent. They trudged down to the nearby town leading an alpaca-drawn dray, loaded it with chairs and tables and returned. They stacked platters with the meat of a dozen animals, chopped vegetables, stirred fruit and herbs through simmering cauldrons of wine. Goodhost Yousta oversaw their labours with judicious eyes, offering numerous suggestions for improvement. Her husband and his liquor cabinet entertained several local burghers of nominal piety and advanced appetites.
At a mid-morning break, Vance observed the Goodhosts in a furious exchange of mutters. He couldn’t make out the words, but the heat and the subject were unmistakable. He looked around, realising he hadn’t seen Strake for some time. Nor was the Goodhosts’ daughter Falaha present.
Alarmed, he sneaked into the House of Saint Mitus’ Eyes to look for his brother. His search ended at his first stop. When he reached their shared room, he heard the unmistakable exertions of lovemaking. The hoarse, urgent grunts suggested the participants were close to their climaxes.
He didn’t have time to wait for them to finish, nor was he inclined. Strake must know he was on the verge of exhausting both the Goodhosts’ hospitality and his Petitioner’s patience.
Swallowing hard, Vance threw the door open. “Strake, for blood’s sake, get dressed –“
He stopped short, blood rushing to his head. Strake was there, naked skin flushed red with sweat and effort, his muscles rippling and hard. Falaha was beneath him, her fingers clawing into his shoulders, her chestnut curls spraying over the edge of the bunk like a spring waterfall. Beside them, Polma was perched astride Dessit, pinning him with her soldier’s strength and a furious need. Her elder by nearly three decades, Dessit’s face was purple with the effort to keep up with her.
All four turned their heads toward Vance with expressions ranging from horror to blank disinterest. Polma’s hips did not slow their hungry rocking. Everyone else froze.
Strake’s guileless grin was unapologetic. “Welcome back, brother. The bunks aren’t big but I’m sure we can squeeze you in somewhere. Of course if this puts you in mind of somewhere you’d prefer to be, we’ll forgive you.” Falaha giggled again, Dessit made a strangled noise and Polma chanted her battalion motto as she came, hoarse-breathed and small breasts heaving.
“Saint’s blood,” said Vance. He didn’t know where to look. Settling on the rough beams of the ceiling, he said, “Bunstable is on his way.”
“He’s the least of our problems, I’d say,” said Strake, looking past Vance and pointing a crooked finger.
Vance whirled. Sila Kreiner stood behind him, her eyes simmering.
“Get up.” Her fury was like a blast of wind across the northlandic ice. “Get your clothes on.”
Falaha scurried from under Strake and scrabbled for her discarded clothes. Strake lazily untangled himself from the sheets and stood. Even Polma, whose eyes blazed with defiant satisfaction, climbed down from her summit. Dessit just lay there, his breath racing, his stiff cock flat against his stomach.
Vance insinuated himself between the group and their leader. “Petitioner Kreiner,” he began, “this is festive spirits, nothing more.”
She ignored him. She said, “You betray my oath of good conduct, to a Blessed Host, no less. Just to slake your cheap lusts.”
Vance tried again. “Sila, I –”
“Say nothing.” Struggle as she might to keep her face blank, Sila was grey with disappointment. It was not the face Vance knew better than any other. It was not the face he’d fallen in love with. Pilgrims made no vows of celibacy, not formal ones. But in the tight, tense communities of the Eight, discretion was essential.
Worse, she committed the conduct of the Eight to the Goodhosts with her word as a Saint’s Petitioner. Bunstable’s House was Blessed by Mitus himself, in perpetuity. However willing was Falaha’s participation, Strake’s indulgence strained the limits of hospitality. The insult to their host was an insult to their patron.
With sick horror Vance conceded the failure to prevent this moment was his. Sila had given him a responsibility she could not assume for herself. Her eyes were chips of frozen resolve. Vance could not meet her glare and looked at Strake instead. Strake was flushed, amused and unapologetic.
Sila pushed the door wide open. Not an invitation but a command. She said, “Get dressed. Attend to the final preparations for the Feast of Horns. We will discharge our promise to the Blessed Hosts. As soon as the feast rituals are observed, you will all pack your belongings and leave the House of Saint Mitus’ Eye.”
“Leave?” said Vance. “But the mountain road is closed, Petitioner. We cannot ascend in this weather.”
She replied in a cracking voice. “We are not climbing the sacred mountain. We will turn back down the valley. This Eight is broken. Our pilgrimage is done.”
Polma hissed in anger and slapped the timbers of the bunk. “The pilgrimage is not done,” she growled. “I have not Resurrected. It is not done!”
Falaha caught her breath. She threw her arms about Strake’s shoulders as if she could protect him from the barbed decision. “Petitioner Kreiner, do not be rash. Please. If you break within these walls, my father’s shame –“
“Will be an ordeal of endurance I suspect he will survive, with enough coin,” Sila said. “I am the Petitioner. The Eight is broken. It is done because I say it is done!”
Dessit made a coughing noise that they mistook for assent. Then his jaw opened and he let out a howl of protest. His voice rose and became more shrill. The tight black hairs on his stomach and groin began to shrivel and wisp into smoke. Vance stared in horror at the dark tendrils coiling up from Dessit’s belly.
“Resurrection!” Vance gasped. “Get snow buckets! Quickly!”
With a soldier’s obedience and an innkeeper’s duty, Polma and Falaha fled away to comply, their incomplete dress forgotten. Strake abandoned his clothes and watched, unconscious of his nakedness, his whole attention on Dessit’s ordeal.
Sila Kreiner pushed past Vance and hunched over Dessit, grasping his hand in support. Dessit rocked and curled his body, as if he could crawl away from the fire in his stomach. “Mitus’ Blessings are on you, Erno Dessit, in this House of his Eyes, on this day of feasting,” she recited, calm and sure, strong and soothing.
Dessit howled again. Now flames guttered along his abdomen, spreading from one sizzling hair to the next like a racing forest fire. His skin was blistering and blackening.
Vance grabbed a blanket from the top bunk and rolled it tight into an improvised beater. He smothered the flames before they could spread from the bunk. He could see it would be no use. In a moment Dessit’s whole body would be engulfed in a miniature tornado of flame. When the final fireball came, it would consume the tiny bedchamber.
“Get him out of here,” he said, pulling at Sila Kreiner’s shoulder.
She was a rock, resolute and unmoving. “He stays,” she replied with calm command.
Strake said “Brother, see to the fire before it takes hold.”
He spared Sila a second of disbelief, and one for his brother. Then Vance ran to organise the fire fight.
Organising was what he was good for.
The combination of a heavy snowfall and the intervention of guests arriving early for the feast brought the flames under control. From the outside, the House of Saint Mitus’ Eyes was a sorry sight. The entire southern facing had charred and collapsed before the flames were finally snuffed out.
Vance, shivering in damp and sooty clothing, dawdled at the rear of an exploratory troupe established to inspect the internal damage. Gerrolt the carpenter led, appraising the structure’s soundness with each step. Sila Kreiner followed, placing herself between Goodhost Bunstable at the fore and his daughter Falaha. Perhaps she sought to forestall further recriminations between them. Vance suspected it was him she wanted to keep at a distance. He was grateful.
The fire had spread quickly from the pilgrim’s dormitory to the entrance hall, the library and several adjoining bedrooms. The investigators proceeded cautiously, one eye on the ceiling beams above. Before long it became apparent that while a staircase here and a dividing wall there were beyond repair, the bulk of the damage was superficial. The liberal application throughout of certain waxy varnishes had built a resistance to flame into the ancient timbers of the way-house.
Gerrolt itemised a series of renovation projects. His manner was taciturn and assured. He struck Vance as completely at ease with the Eight’s dissolution. When informed of Sila’s decision, he had blinked just once, before turning to Bunstable. “With your permission, Goodhost, I would like to venerate Saint Mitus by restoring his House to order.”
The shocked Bunstable had naturally accepted the offer. His wits regathering, his mind had now turned to other matters. “Petitioner Kreiner, I wish to discuss appropriate restitutions. Until a full accounting can be made of damages, I suggest the ash-purse be doubled and-”
Vance cut in. “Goodhost Bunstable, the Eight is disbanded. The customary obligations are no longer inapplicable. Tradition requires that I discharge contractual debts and divide the treasury’s remaining funds equally to the pilgrims.” After a moment’s consideration he added, “For what it’s worth, you may count on my share.”
In the dull lamplight, Bunstable’s face fell into grey horror. Before he could muster a protest, Sila raised her voice. “Fear not, Goodhost. You are blessed by Saint Mitus.”
“Are you mad?” cried Bunstable. “My inn is in ruins. My lodgers have set it ablaze and now flee the bill of fare. What blessing is this?”
Falaha placed her hand on her father’s shoulder. He flinched and turned a furious eye upon her, but her thoughtful expression dissuaded further outburst. “Father, consider. No Eight of such high standing has broken in decades. Today’s events border on the notorious, and Petitioner Kreiner’s followers will carry word to the far corners of the land. Our House’s fame will grow with a small taste of scandal.”
Bunstable’s frown contorted in grievance. Falaha turned her beguiling smile on him, delivering the fatal blow to his objections. “Of course if you prefer no notoriety whatever to arise, a spring wedding on the birthday of the Saint would be as prestigious as it is auspicious.”
As the flustered Bunstable endured hearty congratulatory back slaps from Gerrolt, Vance slipped quietly away. He found his way to the threshold of his dormitory room. Fire resistant varnish had spared nothing from the fury of Dessit’s conflagration. The furnishings, their possessions, his account books – all were muddy ash now.
“You can account for every coin with or without your ledgers, Initiate.” Sila had appeared at his side, her face a disdainful mask. The biting odour of steam and slag was almost unbearable.
“Depend upon it, Petitioner.”
“I’m not the Petitioner anymore.”
“Nor do I follow.” Having confirmed his destitution, Vance wanted nothing more than to leave. Under Sila’s stern glare, he found himself rooted in place, framed by ruins.
“You are freed of your obligations, Vance. I’m sorry they were such a burden.”
“Don’t tell me you broke the Eight on my behalf,” said Vance. “I couldn’t bear that.”
The space between them was infinite. He felt too small beside her. Unresurrected. Unworthy. The Saint did not need him, nor did she.
Sila sighed. The sound had a strangled quality. “Have I any hope of forgiveness?”
Vance could not think of a response. He said nothing.
Her voice barely a whisper, she said, “I Resurrected too soon.”
Vance said “Strake says Saint Mitus doesn’t set the fire until the clay’s become the cup.” To his ears, it sounded hollow. He hoped she found some solace in it.
“I don’t mean it was too soon for the Saint,” she replied. “Too soon for us. I was not ready. Neither were you. I wish I could have spared you that pain.”
The concession felt like a dismissal. Vance could not bear his own mute incomprehension. He walked away.
A newly Resurrected Dessit, flanked by Sila Kreiner on one side and Strake Adell on the other, took his place unsteadily at the head of the long table, served by tradition for the absent Saint. He was hairless of course, tall where he’d been short, and much less overweight, though still thick around the torso and thighs. His eyes were blue now and his skin a light tan. He appeared to be in his late twenties.
The feast-goers offered congratulations to Dessit-reborn, to his companions and to the Saint. When it became known that the kitchens were untouched by the flames, cups of mulled wine were raised in toast. Even Goodhosts Bunstable and Yousta, their regard for their daughter split between suspicion and jubilation, held their cups aloft and thanked Mitus.
Vance held himself apart from the celebrations. He no longer knew how to behave in this company. The Eight was broken. He would not Resurrect. There was no place for him in the Order of Rejuvenationists now. No other pilgrimage would take on a member of a failed Eight. He could not imagine becoming a lay fellow, devoting himself with simple faith and no hope of a greater calling. Saint Mitus might have great plans for his fellowship, but they no longer included Vance Adell.
He became aware that Strake and Sila were watching him, conferring in whispers. He turned, uncomfortable, looking down the road to the town at the steady stream of well-wishers and patrons of the Feast of Horns. One of them would surely agree to accommodate him for the night. He no longer wished to return the way he came in the company of his former companions. Best to make a clean break of it.
“The Feast hasn’t begun yet. Are you already looking to tidy up?”
He had become lost in his reverie. He hadn’t noticed Strake approach. Too late to run, but what could he say?
He decided on simplicity. “I’m leaving.”
Strake nodded thoughtfully. “A broken Eight doesn’t need a treasurer,” he observed.
“I wish you well on your engagement, brother. You’ve made a formidable match. The Saint would approve.”
“No doubt,” said Strake, with an air of sheepish pleasure. They watched the milling crowd in silence. The forced cheer of the tragedy narrowly averted was giving way to relief and a mood of celebratory thanks. Eventually Strake said, “Did you know Saint Mitus never travelled with seven other people?”
“What?” Vance had never heard anything like that before, let alone from his doctrinally-precise brother.
Strake’s guarded expression would better have fit Strake-of-old. “On his original pilgrimage he met many people along the way. He led armies, fought battles and saw the wonders of the world, but he never came up with the idea of the Eight until he sat down at the end of his life to write his memoirs.”
“Why eight then?”
“I think it was just his lucky number.”
“Are you trying to tell me something?”
Strake spread his hands and shrugged. “Not a thing,” he said. He looked across at Sila Kreiner, who was leading an impromptu ritual of greeting for Dessit. She looked relaxed. There was even a small smile playing across her face as she led the prayer.
“Things change, big brother. Saint Mitus has big plans, but maybe he’s not as fussy as we all think about how they get delivered. Walking the world in a big circle, seeing the same sights he saw a hundred years ago and telling his stories over and again, until we burst into flame. Even a drunken old warhorse like Mitus can think of more efficient ways of getting things done, don’t you think?”
Vance considered the life he would go back to, counting the coins for some grasping lord, perhaps managing an estate in his later years. He looked back to Sila. She was a new woman. She could never return to her ice sheets and her gutting knives. She had given up her Eight. Without it she had nothing. He had never seen such a look of contentment, not on this face nor her last.
“I won’t Resurrect,” he observed. His relief was a surprise; he’d expected to give voice to overwhelming shame.
Strake wrapped a reassuring arm around his shoulder. “I never thought you would, big brother. The Resurrected are forged to become blades in Saint Mitus’ arsenal. Dessit will return to his nets and boats to become a great man of the port cities. Gerrolt’s been building great monuments in his head for months. As for Polna, she’ll lead great war parties whether she burns or not.”
“What about Sulsan and Hiram?”
Strake chuckled. “Every general needs soldiers with good muscle. Mitus made them mighty. We can’t expect him to work miracles on their wits.”
“You know, you blaspheme a lot more often since you were reborn.” Vance caught himself smiling, warming to his brother’s good humour. Saint Mitus, it was said, was an amiable companion.
“Well, there you are then. I’m the chaos and disorder that fans the flames.”
“Don’t let the Goodhosts hear that.” The smoke odour hanging to their damp clothes made him blink away tears. What other cause could there be? “Are you really so keen to overthrow tradition?”
“I’m just here to tear down some walls and clear a path. Kreiner’s the one who will make new traditions. No more Order of Rejuvenationists, no more marching songs, no grand sightseeing expeditions. Even the Nineteen Venerated tourist spots may find new significance.”
“I wish her well,” said Vance. He meant it. It still hurt to say it. Better to go now, before the grief became real. He turned his back to the revelry.
A thin horn sounded a low, groaning note that echoed across the massive face of Luxichre. The Feast of Horns began with low cheers fading into a song of mourning and renewal. “Goodbye, Strake.”
Instead of overpowering him with one of his bearhugs, Strake asked, “Do you know why I knew you would never take the fires, Vance?”
He paused. “Did you have a vision?”
“I used my eyes, brother.” Now Strake lay his hands on Vance’s head and turned it gently. In his eyes shone the blessing of the Saint and, perhaps, permission to change his mind. “You’re already what she needs you to be. You always were.”
Vance saw Sila Kreiner, seated with the faithful, singing and smiling before the House of Saint Mitus’ Eyes. Her eyes were alight, green and wet, shining with love and purpose. The seat beside her was empty, a senseless void left in hope of a centre.
Vance looked past her to the House of Saint Mitus’ Eye, smoke vapour wisping about it in the freezing mountain air. He thought of its hearth and the morning’s fire kindled from the evening’s coals. He thought of spring, distant but closing. He thought of warmth shared against the cold.
A fire grew in his belly as he returned to the Feast of Horns.