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or did misfortune's bitter storms

Chapter Text

Will turns seventeen in the Hallasholm Yard.

He doesn’t notice.

(It’s not until later, when he and Evanlyn are holed up in the hunting cabin with a storm howling around them, that he realises it, and it’s longer still before the thought truly settles into place.)

He turns seventeen a slave, with patches of frostbite on his hands and face, slowly healing lash marks on his back and chest, and nothing in his mind but a fog that only warmweed can penetrate.

He turns seventeen with one foot in a shallow, frozen grave and a shovel in his eager, unwitting hands.

(“Tell me about Redmont,” Evanlyn says, huddled beside him on the floor in front of the hearth. The fire is barely enough to keep away the chill, and Will is shaking hard. His mind is back, finally, but his body is still sick and weak and exhausted from the ordeal of the past several months, and he would be frustrated if he weren’t so tired and so, so cold.

(His stories stutter through aching jaws on unsteady breaths, but she listens, and she doesn’t rush him.

(He hates himself for making her take care of him, for being dependent upon her, for being so helpless without her, and he expects that she probably hates him for it, too. If she does, though, she gives no sign of it.)

He turns seventeen with no memories and no future, far from everything familiar, alien even to himself.

(He tells her about growing up in the ward, about childhood friends and enemies and misadventures, about the birthday celebrations Baron Arald insisted all the children be given.

(“When’s yours?”

(“Early November,” he answers, and she goes still against him.

(“So you’re seventeen, now.” It’s not a question. Even so, he doesn’t have an answer.)

He turns seventeen, and.

(A few days after the storm blows through, he tries to go out hunting. There are fresh tracks in the snow, clear enough that even his sluggish mind can follow them with ease. But exhaustion catches up to him long before he catches up to his quarry, and he has to turn back or risk collapsing in the snow.

(The next time he tries, he’s slightly more successful. Until he lifts the bow, that is, and the act of drawing it sets his arms shaking so badly it’s impossible to aim. Again, he’s forced to admit defeat.

(Evanlyn suggests snares, instead, and he seizes on the idea. His hands shake as he shapes and sets them, but that doesn’t matter. He can still do something useful.)

He turns seventeen, and celebrates with scars he won’t remember getting. He turns seventeen, and marks the occasion with losses rather than gifts: a toe, parts of his fingers, his courage, his spirit, his will. He turns seventeen, but ages a year for every day and has been for a while, so how old is he really?

(He shoots at the man about to kill Evanlyn, and for the first time the little, useless bow sends its little, useless arrow flying true, but it’s not enough. His hands are finally steady, his instincts finally strong enough to overpower his inadequacies, but it’s too little and too late. Evanlyn will die, and he will be the reason.

(Despair is a familiar companion by this point.)

He turns seventeen in his sleep, and wakes a completely different person.

(He sits by the fire with Halt and Horace and Evanlyn, staring into the flames and trying not to shake. He fails. He tries not to feel the eyes boring into him, and fails at that as well.)

He turns seventeen, and no longer has the faintest idea of who he is.

(When he’s doing something, when his mind is focused and engaged, he’s all right. For that reason, he does his best to stay busy, but he still finds himself staring emptily ahead at times, lost in contemplation or seized by memories too vivid to ignore.)

He turns seventeen, and wonders if he’ll ever be warm again.

Chapter Text

“You’re such an idiot,” Horace accuses. The words hold only a fraction of the anger that he’d started with, but he’s holding onto it tightly, unwilling to let it go completely. Will is an idiot, and he should be made aware of it, no matter how long it takes Horace to get the point across.

“Perhaps,” Will agrees easily, giving him a sunny, somewhat lopsided smile.

Horace glares, but Will goes blithely on. “I mean, I really should know by now that trying to save your life will just make you grumpy. Can’t imagine what I was thinking.”

“You weren’t,” Horace shoots back, “and I’m not ‘grumpy.’ I’m angry. There’s a difference.”

“Grumpy,” Will sing-songs, smiling happily. “Grumpy, grumpy Horace.”

His voice is just a bit too smooth, almost slurred, and his eyes are entirely too bright, glittering unnaturally in the flickering firelight. In spite of that, Horace has to fight to keep his expression stern. He’s never been able to resist that damned smile.

“Angry,” he corrects again. “Angry, angry Horace, because of stupid, stupid Will.”

Will simply moves his head in a loose, expansive motion that manages to convey utter disregard.

He can afford to be careless, Horace thinks bitterly. He’s not the one stuck in a tiny village boarding house with an idiotic friend. An idiotic, increasingly delirious friend, who’d somehow found a way to get mauled by the only wolf in a ten kilometer radius. Under ordinary circumstances, Horace would find the situation more terrifying than infuriating, but Will just doesn’t seem to get it.

“Explain to me,” he says, with careful enunciation, “how you looked at me, wearing damn near full armor, carrying a shield, and sitting on a great big horse trained specifically to fight, and came to the conclusion that I needed to be protected. By you.”

Will’s smile slips away. “Because you’re important,” he says.

“And you’re not?” Horace demands, incensed, but Will shakes his head on the pillow.

“Not saying I’m not,” he says. “But you’re about to get married. That’s important. More important than me.”

Oh, Will. Horace sighs, and drops his gaze. The floorboards, like the rest of the room, are bare and uninteresting, but they’re easier to look at than Will’s earnest, guileless expression. He drops a hand over Will’s, where it rests on the mattress, then pushes himself up.

“I should see about getting us some supper,” he says, and leaves the room without looking back.

← ⋅ →

The long gashes raked down Will’s legs by the wolf’s scrabbling hind feet are bad enough, but it’s the savage, tearing bite marks on his upper arm that really worry Horace. The first thing he did once the damned thing was dead was clean them out, ripping the remnants of fabric away and emptying both of their waterskins over the wounds while Will sat slumped in a post-battle haze of shock and fading adrenaline – for short and vicious though it was, it had definitely been a battle – but he’s seen enough injuries to know that these ones would need far more than his fumbling attempts at treatment.

He let them bleed freely for a while before bandaging them, hoping the blood would further flush out any filth left by the creature’s teeth, then pulled Will to his feet, got him back on Tug, and set a course for the nearest town.

The attack had come in the morning; they reached the village by noon, and by the time the sunlight was starting to slant away at an angle, Will’s cold-skinned shock had given way to the first flushes of fever.

Now, well past sundown, he’s left the stage of drunken looseness and entered the absent unreality of twilit thoughts. He hums to himself, tracks the aerial paths of things that aren’t there, and generally sets Horace on edge. Horace has managed to get him to drink some water and have a few bites of stew, but beyond that his success has been limited. There should be a healer coming, at some point, but the innkeeper had been vague on the details; the man lives in the next town over, which is a bit of a distance, and may or may not have more pressing cases to attend to, so they’ll just have to wait and hope for the best.

At the moment, Horace isn’t exactly brimming with confidence. The deep gouges and punctures torn into Will’s arm are already furiously inflamed, the skin swollen and red and the wounds themselves seeping a mix of blood and thin pus into the bandages. The cuts on his legs are shallower, and although they’ll need to be addressed, Horace knows that the real danger lies in the bites. He carefully pulls the gauze away, wincing as it sticks and tugs, and scowls at the sight beneath them.

A low thread of sound breaks through his sour contemplation, and he glances up to see that Will is humming again – or, no, he’s singing this time, the half-shaped words barely above a monotone, lips moving slowly as he stares glassily at something across the room, or else in another realm entirely.

It’s just noise, at first, but then, with a jolt, Horace recognises the song. It’s a popular folk tune, normally upbeat and cheerful, but this haunting, keening rendition of it sends his blood running cold.

—And fare thee well, my only love, and fare thee well a while,
and I will come again, my love, if ‘twere ten thousand miles.
‘Til all the seas gang dry, my dear, and rocks melt with the sun,
and I will love thee still, my dear, while sands of life shall run.

He’s heard Will sing it before, but never like this – and yet, the changes are consistent, the tune faint but true, the cadence clearly well-worn and familiar. He’s rewritten it, he thinks, and suddenly the mournful loneliness of it is unbearable.

You’re about to get married. That’s more important than me.

Horace has to shut his eyes against the swelling ache in his chest. He’s suspected, for a while, but never known, and though part of him tries to insist that he still doesn’t, not really, some deeper, wiser part admits that yes, yes he does, and probably has for a while. He’d always been too unsure, too afraid to think on it, and now here he is, scant weeks away from being married, looking down at his best and oldest friend, resigned and uncomplaining even in the detached dreamscape he drifts in.

“You’re such an idiot,” he whispers. This time, though, he doesn’t know which one of them he’s talking to.

Then, because he must, he opens his eyes and returns to his work of rinsing and cleaning and bandaging, and of cooling and soothing and encouraging.

And all the while, Will stares into nothingness and sings quietly of his heartbreak.

Chapter Text

He used to love winter. Used to be entranced by the silence of the snowfall, used to revel in the invigorating crispness of the air, used to delight in looking up at the stars, seemingly so much closer and so much brighter than they were in the warmer months.

And even after… Even after, he didn’t hate it. Didn’t fear it. He just...didn’t like it. But that was fine. It was bearable, because he had Halt with him, to keep him grounded and reminded, and because he was home, where everything was familiar and constant and safe.

If he woke up sweaty and shaking and not entirely sure where he was, it was a matter of seconds to find something that could tell him: the small crack at one corner of the windowpane, the three knots in the wood ceiling above his bed, the sprigs of fir and holly that Halt picked instead of flowers during the snowy months and kept in vases around the cabin.

If he slopped frigid water on himself while carrying it from the stream to fill the barrels, or if his hands began to burn with remembered cold, he could go inside and sit by the fire until until his mind was back in the present and his body had stopped its desperate shivering.

If he was hungry, he could eat. If he was exhausted by a hard day’s work, he could spend the night in a warm, dry bed, with neither wind nor cold to wake him.

If, with a blink, he found himself staggering on the decks of the wolfship, staring down the streets of Hallasholm, huddled in the cabin, trudging over the mountains lost in the haze of warmweed shackled at the paddles hands blistered and peeling air burning in his throat stooped over a shovel until his back ached splitting wood until he couldn’t lift his arms struck down by the knotted rope shaking too hard to think mind too frozen to remember—

If he lost himself, Halt would find him, and bring him back.

Each winter gets a little easier, but then he graduates, and leaves his home behind.

 

Norgate is difficult, but not impossible. Partly because he has a goal, and his concentration keeps the worst of the wraiths away, but mostly because Horace is there, a solid presence at his side, ready to pull him back to reality with a gentle word or a careful touch. Between those things, he manages not to fall too far into his head. Still, he’s relieved when the thaw comes, and breathes a little easier with the melting of the snow.

 

The next winter is.

It’s.

It’s the first winter he’s spent on his own since....that, and all the progress he thought he’d made is gone.

When he wakes up one morning in the second month of the season to find a thick layer of snow on the ground, there’s nothing he can do to keep his heart from beating faster and faster, and the more he tries to slow his breathing, the harder it is to get enough air.

He ends up huddled on the floor in a corner of the main room, head against his pulled up knees and back pressed hard against the walls. You’re not there, he tells himself, you’re not there you’re not there you’re not there, but the words mean nothing to his mind, his lungs, his heart. You’re not there, and still he shudders, still he gasps, still he cries.

And he hates himself, he hates himself for falling apart like this, but more than anything he hates what happened. Hates his terrible luck, hates the horrors he was forced to endure, hates the cruelty that almost killed him, hates how quickly he was broken, how casually he’d been condemned to suffer this hell for the rest of his life, and how eager everyone else is to forget about it.

A single moment of bad luck was all it had taken to ruin everything. A single rock arcing down out of the darkness by the bridge, and he’d been captured, kidnapped, and enslaved; starved, beaten, frozen, drugged, abused in every possible way, and even now, years later, there are parts of him that refuse to heal, that likely never will.

One second, one accident, and he’d been damaged so badly he can never recover, and it just isn’t fair.

Hours later, once the worst of the shaking has stopped, he pushes himself stiffly from the ground to find that night has fallen and the hearth has long gone cold. For a moment, the thought of laying and relighting it is enough to threaten another round of tears, but he forces the swell of exhaustion down and gets to work.

He’s on his own, now. He’s got no one else to rely on.

 

He has three more episodes over the next week, each brought on by tiny, insignificant things and each as draining and determined as the last. Seacliff is even quieter in the winter, so it’s horribly easy to be pulled into thoughts of silence and isolation, and horribly easy to shut himself away. It’s a terrible combination, he knows that, and part of him is screaming that he knows better, that he shouldn’t be giving in, that he’s only making things worse for himself, but it’s not enough. It’s enough to make him ashamed and scornful, of course, just not enough to make him do anything differently.

When he notices his pantry growing bare, rather than venturing into town to resupply, he simply cuts down on his intake, going from two meals a day to one, then from meals to snacks as both his ingredients and his energy dwindle. He can see Halt’s glare and Horace’s concerned disapproval, but they’re too far away to intervene.

Similarly, when his firewood starts to run low, rather than going out and cutting more, he lets the cabin grow colder and colder, until his fingers are stiff during the day and his breath steams at night. He puts more blankets on his bed and curls up more tightly. He’s had worse than this and survived it, so he can survive this, too.

By the end of the week he’s come perilously close to reaching for the brandy, which he ordinarily never drinks but keeps stocked just in case. Just in case. In case of what, he can’t even bring himself to think – not in words, at least, but he knows. In case the cold reaches too deep, in case sleep eludes him too long, in case the ache of longing gets too sharp and the temptation gets too much. He hasn’t gotten closer than opening the cabinet, though he suspects his self-restraint won’t last much longer, not the way he’s going.

He hasn’t spiraled like this in years, but he’s too deep to climb out now, no matter how badly he wants to.

A sharp knock on the front door breaks into his thoughts, and he eyes it idly from where he lies on the long, low sofa in the main room. Tug hadn’t sounded a warning, he realises, so it can’t be anything that serious. Still, the part of him that’s still him, still awake and still trying desperately to regain control, clamors loudly enough that he drags himself up with a sigh and makes his way to the door, to open it before the knocking can come again.

It’s Edwina. He blinks. He’d completely forgotten about her.

“Edwina,” he says, and feels only a mild sense of surprise when his voice comes out a dry, grating rasp. It’s been so long since he’s spoken to anyone.

“Ranger,” she replies, eyes wide and posture taken aback. “You— You’re— You look terrible. Are you ill?”

“Something like that,” he answers, and steps back to let her in. “I apologise for the state of…” he waves a hand vaguely around the interior of the cabin, cold and dark and in utter disarray.

He watches her take it all in, but instead of the disapproval he’d expected, he sees only sadness in her eyes. Somehow, that’s worse.

Then she sets her large basket down on the kitchen table with a decisive thud and shepherds him back towards his room. “Get some sleep,” she says firmly. “I’ll take care of things here.”

He should object, dig in his heels and insist that he doesn’t need to be looked after like a child, or grin and demur and gently shake free of her concern, but he’s tired. Down to his soul, he is tired, and if he turns away her offer, he may not get another. He needs help, whether or not he wants it, whether or not he deserves it.

He nods wearily, and lets himself be led. “Thank you,” he says softly.

He will realise later that this is a victory, but for now it just feels like a failure.

After all, he’s on his own now. He should get used to it.

Chapter Text

There’s a brief knock at the door of his hut, then it opens to emit a swirl of snow and the Emperor – Shigeru, Will corrects himself – who closes it smoothly behind him, shutting out the worst of the wind and cold.

"Konnichiwa, Shigeru,” Will greets him, and bows his head slightly. His throat still hurts, but at least he can talk again. "O genki des’ka?"

Shigeru returns the gesture with a smile. “Genki des’, arigatō. And you are looking better as well, Cho Cho,” he adds, switching to Araluen.

“Nihon-jango ga hanasemas’,” Will protests, but Shigeru shakes his head.

“Your wish to learn our language speaks well of you, Cho Cho, and the men appreciate your efforts, but I wish to practice my Araluen as well.”

Will raises an eyebrow. Shigeru’s Araluen is perfect, as far as he’s concerned.

Shigeru smiles. “I have spoken Parsik with your friend Seley-el-Then,” he says, “and Nihon-Jan with my advisors, but I have not yet had a chance for Araluen today.”

Will’s eyebrow rises even higher. He knows his Nihon-Jan is too limited for any real conversation, but how will it ever improve if he doesn’t push himself? Still, he knows by now to admit when he’s beaten. “Anata ga shuchō suru baai,” he says, feigning great reluctance, and Shigeru bows deeply at the concession. When he rises, his eyes are sparkling with humour.

“Thank you, Cho Cho,” he says. “May I sit?” He indicates a chair at the small table, and Will mentally kicks himself for not inviting him to do so. Egalitarian attitudes or no, Shigeru is still the emperor, still the sovereign of a foreign land, and Will should have a better handle on his manners.

“Yes, please,” he says hurriedly. “Sorry.”

Shigeru waves the apology away and sinks gracefully into the chair. “If anyone is to apologise, it should be I, for disturbing your rest. But Kurokuma said that you were much recovered, and I was eager to see you for myself.”

Will rolls his eyes even as his face heats up. ‘Mother hen’ would be a better name for Horace than ‘black bear,’ right now. Even knowing that his friend’s overbearing tendencies are born of genuine care and concern, Will has little patience for them, and he doesn’t particularly enjoy having his finicky immune system made into a spectacle. Or worse, into something to be pitied.

“Horace tends to exaggerate things,” he says, keeping his eyes on the low ceiling.

“I have noticed this, yes,” Shigeru agrees. “But you were quite ill, and I am glad to see you on the mend.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Will insists. That he hasn’t even tried to get out of bed yet today remains firmly pushed aside, along with the fact that his throat feels like he’s been breathing sand for the past week. “I get sick easily; I’m used to it by now.”

“That doesn’t make it any less unpleasant,” Shigeru says evenly. Will finally risks looking at him, only to find that there’s no undue pity or worry in his expression. “Kurokuma has told me of the reason,” he goes on. “Not directly, but he spoke to me of you often, and I know that you have walked in many dark places, but none so dark as a snow-covered land, such as this.” He gestures to the door of the cabin, and to the storm beyond.

Will shivers, then scowls at himself. He should be over it by now, but his body stays anchored in the past, trapped in those months of misery and starvation so that even now, years later, he is weakened by them. His mind is another matter altogether, and one not worth dwelling on.

“It is not a thing to be ashamed of,” Shigeru tells him, stepping into the flow of his thoughts so seamlessly that Will startles a bit. If the emperor notices, he doesn’t react. “To endure hardship is a sign of strength, doubly so when the struggle is prolonged. We have a saying: Nanakorobi yaoki. Do you know what that means?”

Will turns the phrase over in his mind, but can only pick out one piece. “Something about the number seven,” he says slowly, “but I don’t recognize the rest.”

“‘Fall down seven times, stand up eight.’ It means that encountering setbacks is less important than facing them, and I don’t believe you have ever encountered a setback you have not overcome. You have stood up many, many times. That is something to be proud of.”

“Perhaps,” Will says, but without any real conviction. He can’t imagine ever being proud of the way that the sight of thick snow fills him with dread, or of how he catches colds at the drop of a hat, and usually at the least convenient time. He can’t be proud of the fact that he just wasted a week, flat on his back and too busy hacking up a lung to do anything useful, when time is against them and they need every minute of training and preparation they can get. He can’t be proud of the fact that he’s a burden to everyone around him.

“I can see you do not believe me,” Shigeru says. His voice is kind, if a little bit sad. And there’s the pity, Will thinks sourly. “But that does not make it less true. The rest of us see your strength, even if you do not, and we are grateful for it. Your presence here is a great gift, Cho Cho. Please, do not feel that you have diminished it by being human.”

Shigeru stands from his chair, and holds his hands out to the fire for a few moments, flexing his fingers stiffly. “Perhaps I am getting old,” he says ruefully, examining them, “but this weather makes my joints ache. I sometimes think it a weakness, but I suppose it is simply a part of life. Sometimes, if I am in a very good mood, I can think it a beautiful reminder that I am connected to the world around me, and that I have a place in it.” He glances over at Will, and smiles slyly. “But only if I am in a very, very good mood.”

Will chuckles in spite of himself, then winces as it tugs something in his chest and he falls to coughing. It’s not nearly as deep as it had been, but it’s still uncomfortable.

“Some tea would help with that cough,” Shigeru suggests. “Shall I make a pot before I go?”

Will gets a hold on himself, and clears his throat painfully. “Tea sounds lovely,” he rasps, then clears his throat again. “But if you don’t urgently need to be anywhere else, I’d be honored if you shared it with me.”

Shigeru cocks his head, listening as a gust of wind howls shrilly outside. “No,” he says decisively. “I am quite sure I do not need to be elsewhere. I think that, for now, our place in the world is right here.”

Chapter Text

The first time Will saw one, he’d stopped, dumbstruck and staring. Without slowing, Halt had grabbed his shoulder and pulled him along.

“Best get used to them,” he’d said, voice low. “The sooner, the better.”

“But why?” Will had asked, finally finding his own voice. “Why is it there? Are there more? What does—”

“It’s there because it’s there,” Halt had told him. “And yes, there are more, and as far as we know, they don’t mean anything. They just are, and you’re not to touch them, or climb them, or get close to them. Do you understand?”

Will had nodded, but he hadn’t understood, not really.

But he had become used to them. There were only a few in the forests of Redmont, and in the first year of his apprenticeship he learned not to stare, not to pass too closely, not to let temptation take hold in his mind. He always wondered, though. He always wondered.

← ⋅ →

In Grimsdell, they’re everywhere. Even among the lights and the whispering, he notices them – always in the distance, but always drawing his eye, pulling him in. The ones in Redmont had been ageless but benign, somehow, and even the one he’d seen in the forest above Hallasholm had simply been stark. These, however, are eerie, menacing. They’re taller, thinner, darker, like the trees themselves, but no moss grows on the stone, and the fog seems to hang thicker in the air around them. Each time he sees one, he looks away with an effort, but it’s too late. Little by little, his hackles rise, and the rein on his imagination gets looser and looser. He’ll wonder, later, if the Night Warrior would have broken him so badly if the stairs hadn’t been there.

The next day, when he goes into the woods again, Alyss at his side, the lights are absent, as are the voices, but the stairs remain.

As they pass the first one – is it closer to the path than it had been last night? – Alyss tenses, just a bit.

“Is that—” she starts, but Will cuts her off.

“Yes,” he says curtly. “And there are more. Try to ignore them.”

“Why?” she asks. Not for the first time, Will realises that he doesn’t have a good answer, but the one he has is all he knows to give.

“Because bad things happen if you don’t.”

← ⋅ →

He asks Malcolm about them, but only when the sun is shining broadly in the clearing, and birdsong fills the woods around it.

“Are the stairs yours as well?” he asks, but Malcolm purses his lips.

“No,” he says slowly, as Will had known he would. “I thought about adding some more, at first, but it was a foolish thought, gone in an instant.”

“So you...know about them?” Will hedges. Malcolm nods.

“More than I would like to, I think,” he says, and changes the subject.

← ⋅ →

When the Scotti breaks free of their trap and takes off into the woods, Will isn’t thinking about them. He’s thinking of his quarry ahead of him, Horace behind him, and Alyss trapped in that tower with Keren the madman. But as they get further and further from the path, and the trees get denser, one looms into view off to his right, and he stops, turning instinctively towards it.

“He went that way,” Will says in an undertone as Horace draws level. “Horace, head off in the other direction, and make plenty of noise.”

Horace complies, and in the cover of his stomping and crashing and calling, Will slips across the tangle of winter-dormant undergrowth and snow-dusted roots, heading ever closer to the dark stone of the stairs.

“Why would you go towards it?” he mutters soundlessly. Maybe there aren’t any in the highlands of Picta, and the Scotti simply saw it as a place to shelter? Maybe there aren’t any in Picta, and so he doesn’t know that he has to resist their call?

His pulse quickens as he draws nearer, and it’s becoming harder and harder to keep his focus on reading the signs in the snow and fallen leaves. He’s never been this close to one, and maybe it’s just habit, just conditioning, just that damned superstition, but it’s odd. It’s wrong. The air seems to...to move, somehow, in a way that has nothing to do with wind, and with each step the sounds of the forest seem to move further and further away from him, like his ears are clogged.

If you climb up, you’ll have a better vantage point, he thinks in a voice that isn’t quite his. If you have to fight, why not take the high ground? Without meaning to, he takes a step to the side, off of his path, towards the stairs, then wrenches his eyes and mind away.

Focus! he tells himself firmly, in his own voice. You could be walking into an am—

And then the Scotti breaks from his cover and rushes him, a knife glinting in his hand.

He tries to draw the man away, tries to move the fight to a safer (hah) area, but whether by accident or design, the Scotti seems determined to do the opposite, pushing him and luring him and grappling him ever closer. At this point, the wrongness is impossible to ignore, even if it is just his mind playing tricks on him, and maybe that’s why his balance is off, why his reflexes seem too slow, why his opponent always seems half a step ahead of him. Maybe that’s why, when the Scotti lunges at him, Will doesn’t realise how close they are; maybe that’s why, when he takes a hurried, clumsy step backwards to get out of range, he doesn’t transfer his weight smoothly enough; maybe that’s why, as he tries to avoid the sweeping steel, he trips, or slips, and goes reeling back onto the hard, cold stone of the stairs.

It was always going to end like this, he thinks, then he’s back on his feet and scrambling away. The wrongness is lessened, now, but it’s still a desperate fight, and Will is less certain by the second that he can take this man alive without being killed himself.

The wrongness is lessened, but there’s something else, now, the muffled silence replaced by ringing in his ears, the bending air now still but greying out in patches, the heaviness in his limbs now fatigue rather than restraint.

He goes down, but rolls in time to avoid a downward slash, and regains his feet in time to dance back and pivot to the side to miss a thrust and send his bent elbow smashing into the Scotti’s extended arm.

Get back on the offensive! he imagines Halt saying, then Get back to the stairs! in the voice that isn’t his, and in the moment he takes to shake off the compulsion, the Scotti tackles him, and the knife fight becomes a wrestling match.

Horace arrives in time to save him from a simultaneous strangling and stabbing, but when he drags Will back to his feet, Will’s knees give out and he goes right back down. Horace follows him, talking too quickly to follow and pawing at his blood-soaked chest.

“It’s not mine,” he says, the sound oddly hollow in his ears. “It’s not my blood,” but Horace succeeds in tearing open his jerkin and shirt and makes a short, sharp noise.

And suddenly he feels it, the burning pain carved across his chest, and the warm wetness of blood seeping into cloth. He looks down, and there, just below his collarbone, is a long gash – perfectly straight, perfectly symmetrical, almost from one shoulder to the other.

“He never touched me,” he says. “He never—”

“It can happen,” Horace says, already bundling up his own cloak and tying it around Will’s chest like a thick, lumpy bandage. “In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to miss an injury.”

“But he never touched me,” Will insists. “He came close, but he never did.”

“Apparently he must have,” Horace says pointedly. “All right, that should hold for now. Can you make it back to where we left the others?”

Will stands and considers for a moment. He’s a bit lightheaded, but that’s probably adrenaline rather than blood loss, so he should be all right. “I think so,” he says at last. “Just… stay away from the stairs.”

Horace peers at him, a worried crease between his eyebrows. “What stairs?”

“The—” Will starts, but when he turns to look, the stairs are gone. In their place is a smooth expanse of undisturbed snow. “Nevermind.”

“Did you hit your head?”Horace asks.

“Yes,” Will admits. On the stairs. “But the stairs were there before that happened.”

“What stairs?” Horace asks again. “We’re in the middle of the woods, why would there be stairs?”

Will feels his eyebrows shoot up. “You mean you haven’t seen them? The whole time we’ve been in Grimsdell, you’ve never seen a single one?”

“No,” Horace says, looking utterly confounded. “Why would—”

“Nevermind,” Will says again. “Let’s meet up with the others, and get back to Malcolm’s.”

He avoids the fresh snow on the way out, but as they head away from the clearing, back towards the path they had left, something shifts in his peripheral vision, and he knows. Knows, but doesn’t look back.

It’s best to ignore them, after all.

Bad things happen if you don’t.