It took me some time to fall asleep, half afraid as I was that Sabastian would slit my throat or something before the morning. While Lady Gray held the watch, however, I doubted he could get away with much, and exhaustion overtook me before she ever woke him.
When the dawn came, and drenched my face with golden light, I realized that she had never asked me to take a turn myself. I wasn't even entirely certain she'd asked Sabastian, in truth; when I opened my eyes, she was still sitting in the same position she had been when I fell asleep. Sabastian, also awake, had produced from his saddlebag an iron pan in which he was frying slices of potato and what looked to be a wild onion. I rubbed the bridge of my nose, sniffing the air with interest.
"Ah, you're awake. Good morning," said the lady. "How are you feeling?"
"A...a little stiff," I mumbled. My shoulder ached once more, and I massaged it gingerly.
"If you go downstream a little ways, you can have some privacy to refresh yourself," she remarked delicately. "By the time you finish bathing, breakfast should be ready, and I'll take another look at your wound before we start for the Cathedral."
The river was still very cold, but it was a warm morning and I would dry quickly. I ducked my head under the water, rubbing my fingers through my hair to try to clear it of whatever debris it had accumulated in the night.
I could run, I thought as I washed. This is my chance. I could run, get away from them.
But where would you go? asked another voice in my mind.
Does it matter? These two are clearly dangerous.
And yet you tried to save her life.
Well, I didn't know who she was then.
You still don't. Not really. Don't you owe it to yourself to at least find out if the stories are true? Besides, it's not like you have any other path laid out before you. Perhaps you were at that inn for this very purpose.
I staggered to the shore and picked up my pack, rummaging for clean clothing. Rarely in my entire life had I felt so conflicted as I did at that moment. The path leading back into the forest, away from Lady Gray and the uncertainty she brought to my every waking moment, beckoned to me. But in the opposite direction, the fragrance of food and the possibility of solving her mystery were equally enticing lures. I stood on the precipice of indecision for some time.
I'll accompany them as far as the Cathedral, I decided. At least among the brothers, I can expect some safety, and from there I can decide what course is best to take.
Neither of my companions were hooded when I returned for my share of the potatoes, and by the morning's light, I could at last get a good look at their features. Sabastian was, as I'd observed in the inn, a tall and craggy figure with a stone face and a square jaw. His eyes were dark and, whenever they happened to glance in my direction, filled with an irritation I couldn't understand; his hair, by contrast, was light, with just a hint of grey beginning to form at the temples. He grunted, probably displeased that I had come back, and turned his attention to the horses.
Lady Gray had a rough wooden comb in her hands, and was weaving her long black hair into a plait over one shoulder. Her back was toward me, but at my approach she half turned to bid me welcome. She was not pretty, I concluded; her complexion was too pallid, her stature too small. But it was her eyes that were the most unsettling, the most forbidding.
At the time, I couldn't comprehend or even describe why her eyes made me so uneasy. It's only now, all these years later, that I can put it into words. They were, simply put, eyes which had seen things that no mere human should have ever been forced to witness.
Rather than continue to meet her gaze, I lowered my own, and blurted out the first absurd thing which passed through my mind. "You dress like your name."
For the first time since I had met her, Lady Gray chuckled. "I do," she agreed, glancing down at the steel-colored fabric of her gown. "I always have. It has its uses. Come, sit and eat; you must be ravenous."
My portion of the breakfast had been left in the frying pan, and had gone cold in my absence, but I ate it gratefully. Sabastian glowered at me from where he hunkered at Kastan's rear legs, inspecting the horse's shoes. "You'll wash that," he said crossly, pointing at the pan I had just emptied. "If you're going to eat our food then you'll have a share in the work."
"Sabastian." Lady Gray's voice was mild.
"No, no, he's right, I'll do it," I mumbled, carrying the pan to the river and submerging it. There were loose pebbles on the shoreline, and I used them to scrub the remnants of scorched onion from the battered metal.
If I had thought that successfully completing the task would endear me to Sabastian even slightly, I was of course sadly mistaken. After drying the pan, I returned it to him, and he gave it the barest contemptuous glance before stuffing it into his saddlebag. "Use fewer stones next time. You'll destroy the surface if you keep that up," he muttered. "Go let her tend you; I don't want to hear any mewling on the road because your bandages need changing."
Masarn, the country where I was born, is the largest of the five nations which are surrounded by the great ocean, and the only one which does not have a coast. It lies more or less central to the other four realms. Each of the five belongs to one of our gods, and has one predominant cathedral dedicated to that deity, though smaller chapels and shrines are scattered throughout the continent. The cathedral is at once the chief house of worship and the seat of the country's government, led by a High Priest or Priestess who also serves as a hereditary sovereign.
The Cathedral of Cedars, as it is properly called, lies rather appropriately at the heart of the forest in which my companions and I had sheltered for the night. It was to this destination that Nisu and Kastan carried us, and the sun was high overhead as we approached the gatehouse. Lady Gray pulled on the reins, slowing Nisu to a trot, watching coolly as a guard emerged to question our presence. "You may tell Father Matthias that I am here," she said.
The guard, a somewhat young-looking soldier, eyed her askance. "He didn't send word that he was expecting a visitor. State your business."
By way of a response, she again reached into the depths of her cloak and withdrew the Graystone. "I think this should answer all your questions," she said, holding it so that he could get a good look at its singular shape.
Judging by the way he dropped his sword and stumbled backward, it did. He glanced into the gatehouse and made a frantic gesture. "Send a page to Father Matthias. Tell him...the Lady is here." Looking back at us, he gulped. "You can...go in."
"Thank you," she replied serenely, nudging the horse with her knees to make him advance once again.
As we entered the courtyard of the Cathedral, I was aware that a crowd was collecting around us. "I need you to get down first, Tobiah," Lady Gray reminded me as Nisu came to a halt. Sabastian was already dismounting, and once I was out of the way he came to lift her out of the saddle. I had noticed that it was an attention she didn't seem to particularly require, but she never objected to it. Two stablehands crept forward to lead the horses away, and Lady Gray looked around at the staring throng.
"Why do they always do this?" she mused, glancing at Sabastian. "They've seen us before."
She brushed at her skirts for a minute, then started for a flight of stairs on the far side of the yard. Sabastian and I fell in step behind her, side by side. As we walked, the crowd parted, drawing back to one side or the other, granting her unimpeded passage. She led us up the stairs and down two corridors, finally pausing to knock.
She pushed open the heavy door to reveal a small, mean-looking man with white hair and spectacles. He peered at her over the rims, not troubling himself to rise. "Your Ladyship. I didn't expect this pleasure again so soon; it's only been, what, six months?"
"More or less."
"I see you've acquired another retainer."
"Something like that." Lady Gray shrugged, taking off her cloak and pressing it into the hands of a quaking attendant.
"You do like to court risk, don't you? I hope that by the time I'm your age, I'm a little wiser."
She looked unimpressed. "By the time you're my age, your bones will have turned to dust."
"Ah, yes. I always forget you're not as young as you look." He gave Sabastian a contemptuous glance. "Still following her around like a dog, are you?"
Sabastian merely grunted, and the confessor turned to me. "Name?"
"How old are you?"
"I can't say I'm surprised." His attention, and his venom, had returned full to the lady. "You'll never stop trying to replace them, will you?"
"Enough," she replied shortly. "I grow weary of fencing with you. If you've nothing useful to say, let us be done with this meeting."
"You have your usual quarters. And I suppose you'll want more money, now you've an extra mouth to feed."
"It wouldn't go amiss. In the immediate, however, what I want is for the young man to be examined by one of the herbalists. He took a nasty cut to his shoulder last night; I don't want it to become infected."
He snorted. "You know where to find them. Confession is at five; I expect to see you then."
"I'll be counting the minutes."