IT TOOK US ABOUT two hours to get back to the greystone hill. It would have been faster, but Denna’s mania was growing stronger, and all her extra energy was more of a hindrance than a help. She was highly distractible and prone to larking off in her own direction if she saw something interesting.
We crossed the same small stream that we had before, and, despite the fact that it wasn’t much more than ankle deep, Denna insisted on bathing. I washed up a little, then moved a discreet distance away and listened to her sing several rather racy songs. She also made several none-too-subtle invitations that I could join her in the water.
Needless to say, I kept my distance. There are names for people who take advantage of women who are not in full control of themselves, and none of those names will ever rightfully be applied to me.
Once we reached the peak of the greystone hill, I put Denna’s surplus of energy to use and sent her to gather firewood while I made an even larger fire pit than our previous one. The bigger the fire, the quicker it would draw the draccus close.
I sat down next to the oilskin bag and opened it. The resin gave off an earthy smell, like sweet, smoky mulch.
Denna returned to the top of the hill and dropped an armload of wood. “How much of that are you going to use?” she asked.
“I still have to figure that out,” I said. “It’s going to require some guesswork.”
“Just give him all of it,” Denna said. “Better safe than sorry.”
I shook my head. “There’s no reason to go that far. It would just be wasteful. Besides, the resin makes a powerful painkiller when properly refined. People could use the medicine…”
“…and you could use the money,” Denna said.
“I could,” I admitted. “But honestly, I was thinking more about your harp. You lost your lyre in that fire. I know what it’s like to be without an instrument.”
“Did you ever hear the story about the boy with the golden arrows?” Denna asked. “That always bothered me when I was young. You must want to kill someone really badly to shoot a gold arrow at him. Why not just keep the gold and go home?”
“It certainly shines a new light on that story,” I said, looking down at the sack. I guessed this much denner resin would be worth at least fifty talents to an apothecary. Maybe as much as a hundred, depending on how refined it was.
Denna shrugged and headed back into the trees for more firewood and I began the elaborate guesswork of how much denner it would take to poison a five ton lizard.
It was a nightmare of educated guessery, complicated by the fact that I had no way to make accurate measurements. I started with a bead the size of the last digit of my little finger, my guess as to how much resin Denna had actually swallowed. However, Denna had been liberally dosed with charcoal, which effectively reduced that by a half. I was left with a ball of black resin slightly larger than a pea.
But that was just the amount required to make a human girl euphoric and energetic. I wanted to kill the draccus. For that I tripled the dose, then tripled it again to be sure. The end result was a ball the size of a large, ripe grape.
I guessed the draccus weighed five tons, eight hundred stone. I guessed Denna at eight or nine stone, eight to be on the safe side. That meant I needed a hundred times that grape-size dose to kill the draccus. I made ten grape-size pellets, then mashed them together. It was the size of an apricot. I made nine more apricot-size balls and set them in the wooden bucket we had brought from the denner plantation.
Denna dropped another load of wood and peered down into the bucket. “That’s it?” she asked. “It doesn’t look like very much.”
She was right. It didn’t look like much at all compared to the draccus’ huge bulk. I explained how I’d come up with my estimate. She nodded. “That seems about right, I guess. But don’t forget that it’s been eating trees for the better part of a month. It probably has a tolerance.”
I nodded and added five more apricot-size balls to the bucket.
“And it might be tougher than you think. The resin might work different on lizards.”
I nodded again and added another five balls to the bucket. Then, after a moment’s consideration, I added one more. “That brings us up to twenty-one,” I explained. “A good number. Three sevens.”
“Nothing wrong with having luck on your side,” Denna agreed.
“We want it to die quickly, too,” I said. “It will be more humane for the draccus and safer for us.”
Denna looked at me. “So we double it?” I nodded and she headed back
into the trees while I made another twenty-one balls and dropped them into the bucket. She came back with more wood just as I was rolling up the last ball.
I packed the resin down into the bottom of the bucket. “That should be more than enough,” I said. “That much ophalum would kill the entire population of Trebon twice over.”
Denna and I looked at the bucket. It contained about a third of all the resin we’d found. What was left in the oilskin sack would be enough to buy Denna a half-harp, pay off my debt to Devi, and still have enough left over so that we could live comfortably for months. I thought of buying new clothes, a full set of new strings for my lute, a bottle of Avennish fruit wine….
I thought of the draccus brushing aside trees as if they were sheaves of wheat, shattering them casually with its weight.
“We should double it again,” Denna said, echoing my own thoughts, “just to be sure.”
I doubled it yet again, rolling out another forty-two balls of the resin while Denna fetched armload after armload of wood.
I got the fire blazing just as the rain started to come down. We built it larger than our last one with the hope that a brighter fire would attract the draccus more quickly. I wanted to get Denna back to the relative safety of Trebon as soon as possible.
Lastly I cobbled together a rough ladder using the hatchet and twine I’d found. It was ugly but serviceable, and I leaned it up against the side of the greystone arch. This time, Denna and I would have an easy route to safety.
Our dinner was nowhere near as grand as last night’s. We made due with the last of my now-stale flatbread, dried meat, and the last potatoes baked on the edge of the fire.
While we ate, I told Denna the full story of the fire in the Fishery. Partly because I was young, and male, and desperately wanted to impress her, but I also wanted to make it clear that I had missed our lunch due to circumstances completely outside my control. She was the perfect audience, attentive and gasping at all the right moments.
I was no longer worried about her overdosing. After gathering a small mountain of firewood, her mania was fading, leaving her in a content, almost dreamy lethargy. Still, I knew the aftereffects of the drug would leave her exhausted and weak. I wanted her safely in bed in Trebon for her recovery.
After we finished eating I made my way over to where she sat with her back against one of the greystones. I cuffed up my shirtsleeves. “Alright, I need to check you over,” I said pompously.
She smiled lazily at me, her eyes half-closed. “You really do know how to
sweet talk a girl, don’t you?”
I felt for her pulse in the hollow of her slender throat. It was slow, but steady. She shied away a little from my touch. “You tickle.”
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Tired,” she said, her voice slightly slurred. “Good and tired and a little cold….”
While this wasn’t unexpected, it was still a little surprising considering the fact that we were only feet away from a blazing bonfire. I fetched the extra blanket from my bag and brought it back to her. She snuggled into it.
I leaned close so that I could look into her eyes. Her pupils were still wide and sluggish, but no more than before.
She reached up and lay her hand on my cheek. “You have the sweetest face,” she said, looking at me dreamily. “It’s like the perfect kitchen.”
I fought not to smile. This was the delirium. She’d fade in and out of it before the profound exhaustion dragged her down into unconsciousness. If you see someone spouting nonsense to themselves in an alleyway in Tarbean, odds are they’re not actually crazy, just a sweet-eater deranged by too much denner. “A kitchen?”
“Yes,” she said. “Everything matches and the sugar bowl is right where it should be.”
“How does it feel when you breathe?” I asked. “Normal,” she said easily. “Tight but normal.”
My heart beat a little faster at that. “What do you mean by that?”
“I have trouble breathing,” she said. “My chest gets tight sometimes and it’s like breathing through pudding.” She laughed. “Did I say pudding? I meant molasses. Like a sweet molasses pudding.”
I fought off the urge to point out angrily that I’d asked her to tell me if she felt anything wrong with her breathing. “Is it hard to breathe now?”
She shrugged indifferently.
“I need to listen to your breathing,” I said. “But I don’t have any tools here, so if you could unbutton your shirt a little, I’ll need to press my ear against your chest.”
Denna rolled her eyes and unbuttoned more of her shirt than was altogether necessary. “Now that one is entirely new,” she said archly, sounding for a moment like her normal self. “I’ve never had anyone try that before.”
I turned and pressed my ear up against her breastbone. “What does my heart sound like?” she asked.
“It’s slow but strong,” I said. “It’s a good heart.” “Is it saying anything?”
“Nothing I can hear,” I said. “Listen harder.”
“Take a few deep breaths and don’t talk,” I said. “I need to listen to your breathing.”
I listened. The air rushed in and I felt one of her breasts pressing against my arm. She exhaled and I felt her breath, warm against the back of my neck. Gooseflesh broke out over my whole body.
I could picture Arwyl’s disapproving stare. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on what I was doing. In and out, it was like listening to the wind through the trees. In and out, I could hear a faint crackling, like paper crumpling, like a faint sigh. But there was no wetness, no bubbling.
“Your hair smells really nice,” she said.
I sat up. “You’re fine,” I said. “Make sure to let me know if it gets any worse or feels different.”
She nodded amiably, smiling dreamily.
Irritated that the draccus seemed to be taking its sweet time making an appearance, I heaped more wood on the fire. I looked out at the northern bluffs, but there was nothing to see in the dim light but the outlines of trees and rocks.
Denna laughed suddenly. “Did I call your face a sugar bowl or something?” she asked, peering at me. “Am I even making any sense right now?”
“It’s just a little delirium,” I reassured her. “You’ll fade in and out of it before you go to sleep.”
“I hope it’s as much fun for you as it is for me,” she said pulling the blanket closer around herself. “It’s like a cottony dream, but not as warm.”
I climbed the ladder to the top of the greystone where we had stashed our possessions. I took a handful of the denner resin out of the oilskin sack, carried it down, and threw it on the edge of the fire. It burned sullenly, giving off an acrid smoke that the wind brushed away to the north and west, toward the unseen bluffs. Hopefully the draccus would smell it and come running.
“I had pneumonia when I was just a tiny baby,” Denna said with no particular inflection. “That’s why my lungs aren’t good. It’s horrible not being able to breathe sometimes.”
Denna’s eyes were half closed as she continued, almost as if she were talking to herself. “I stopped breathing for two minutes and died. Sometimes I wonder if this all isn’t some sort of mistake, if I should be dead. But if it isn’t a mistake I have to be here for a reason. But if there is a reason, I don’t know what that reason is.”
There was the distinct possibility that she didn’t even realize that she was talking, and an even greater possibility that most of the important parts of her brain were already asleep and she wouldn’t remember any of what was happening now in the morning. Since I didn’t know how to respond, I simply nodded.
“That’s the first thing you said to me. I was just wondering why you’re here. My seven words. I’ve been wondering the same thing for so long.”
The sun, already hidden by the clouds, finally set behind the western mountains. As the landscape faded into darkness, the top of this small hill felt like an island in a great ocean of night.
Denna was beginning to nod where she sat, her head slowly sinking to her chest, then bobbing back up. I walked over and held out my hand. “Come on, the draccus will be here soon. We should get up onto the stones.”
She nodded and came to her feet, blankets still wrapped around her. I followed her to the ladder and she made her slow, stumbling way up to the top of the greystone.
It was chilly up on the stone, away from the fire. The wind brushed past, making the slight chill worse. I spread one blanket across the stone and she sat down, huddled in the other blanket. The cold seemed to rouse her a little and she looked around peevishly, shivering. “Damn chicken. Come eat your dinner. I’m cold.”
“I was hoping to have you tucked into a warm bed in Trebon by now,” I admitted. “So much for my brilliant plan.”
“You always know where you’re doing,” she said muzzily. “You’re important with your green eyes looking at me like I mean something. It’s okay that you have better things to do. It’s enough that I get you sometimes. Once in a while. I know I’m lucky for that, to get you just a little.”
I nodded agreeably, as I watched the hillside for signs of the draccus. We sat for a while longer, staring off into the dark. Denna nodded a little, then pulled herself upright again and fought off another violent shiver. “I know you don’t think of me…” She trailed off.
It’s best to humor people in delirium, lest they turn violent. “I think about you all the time, Denna,” I said.
“Don’t patronize me,” she said crossly, then her tone softened again. “You don’t think of me like that. That’s fine. But if you’re cold too, you could come over here and put your arms around me. Just a little.”
My heart in my mouth, I moved closer and sat behind her, wrapping my arms around her. “That’s nice,” she said, relaxing. “I feel like I’ve always been cold.”
We sat looking to the north. She leaned against me, delightful in my arms.
I drew shallow breaths, not wanting to disturb her.
Denna stirred slightly, murmuring. “You’re so gentle. You never push….” She trailed off agian, resting more heavily against my chest. Then she roused herself. “You could, you know, push more. Just a little.”
I sat there in the dark, holding her sleeping body in my arms. She was soft and warm, indescribably precious. I had never held a woman before. After a few moments my back began to ache with the pressure of supporting her
weight and my own. My leg started to go numb. Her hair tickled my nose. Still, I didn’t move for fear of ruining this, the most wonderful moment of my life.
Denna shifted in her sleep, then started to slide sideways and jerked awake. “Lie down,” she said, her voice clear again. She fumbled with the blanket, pulling it away so it was no longer between us. “Come on. You’ve got to be cold too. You’re not a priest, so you’re not going to get in trouble for it. We’ll be fine. Just a little fine in the cold.”
I put my arms around her and she draped the blanket over both of us.
We lay on our sides, like spoons nesting in a drawer. My arm ended up under her head, like a pillow. She curled snugly along the inside of my body, so easy and natural, as if she had been designed to fit there.
As I lay there, I realized I had been wrong before, this was the most wonderful moment of my life.
Denna stirred in her sleep. “I know you didn’t mean it,” she said clearly. “Mean what?” I asked softly. Her voice was different, no longer dreamy
and tired. I wondered if she was talking in her sleep.
“Before. You said you’d knock me down and make me eat coals. You’d never hit me.” She turned her head a little. “You wouldn’t, would you? Not even if it was for my own good?”
I felt a chill go through me. “What do you mean?”
There was a long pause, and I was beginning to think she’d fallen asleep when she spoke up again. “I didn’t tell you everything. I know Ash didn’t die at the farm. When I was heading toward the fire he found me. He came back and said that everyone was dead. He said that people would be suspicious if I was the only one who survived….”
I felt a hard, dark anger rise up in me. I knew what came next, but I let her talk. I didn’t want to hear it, but I knew she needed to tell someone.
“He didn’t just do it out of the blue,” she said. “He made sure it was what I really wanted. I knew it wouldn’t look convincing if I did it to myself. He made sure I really wanted him to. He made me ask him to hit me. Just to be sure.
“And he was right.” She didn’t move at all as she spoke. “Even this way they thought I had something to do with it. If he hadn’t done it, I might be in jail right now. They would’ve hanged me.”
My stomach churned acid. “Denna,” I said. “A man who could do that to you—he’s not worth your time. Not one moment of it. It’s not a matter of him being only half a loaf. He’s rotten through. You deserve better.”
“Who knows what I deserve?” she said. “He’s not my best loaf. He’s it.
Him or hungry.”
“You have other options,” I said, then stalled, thinking of my conversation with Deoch. “You’ve…you’ve got…”
“I’ve got you,” she said dreamily. I could hear the warm, sleepy smile in her voice, like a child tucked into bed. “Will you be my dark-eyed Prince Gallant and protect me from pigs? Sing to me? Whisk me away to tall trees….” she trailed off to nothing.
“I will,” I said, but I could tell by the heavy weight of her against my arm that she had finally fallen asleep.