For a long time I hovered between waking and dreaming. When I opened my eyes I could see Merran and Jadri, both apparently fast asleep.
Eventually I gave up. I got up and, careful not to disturbed the others, I went over to the window and looked out, the stone still in my hand.
No, I thought. Please, no. I started to turn around.
"Don't," he said. "I won't be there."
I stopped and faced the window again. The light outside was too strong for there to be any reflection.
"Tell me who you are."
"You know who I am."
I did. I just didn't want to believe him. I didn't dare to.
"You can't be here," I said. "You can't be him."
"Father, please. I need your help."
It's a trap, I thought. This can't be real.
From a great distance I heard Merran stir, and I realised we didn't have much time.
"Jorden, what is it?"
"Jorden, are you alright?" Merran was awake now, and I could hear concern in his voice. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the window, concentrating in a last effort to reach my son.
"Father, how could you?"
"Don't you know? Don't you remember?"
Know what? Remember what?
No answer. My son was gone.
"Jorden?" Merran was at my side, his hand on my shoulder.
I took a deep breath. "I'm fine," I said.
"Good." He gave me a pat on the shoulder and turned toward the bed. "We need to get going."
"I'd say we go and hide in the mountains. We could stay close enough to get our supplies from here, and as long as we don't go too far west of the border we should be safe."
"Sounds good to me," I said.
"We'll need to talk to Jarvik, of course."
He went to wake up Jadri, and I padded over to my backpack that I saw sitting in a corner of the room. I was hoping someone in Stilllwater had bothered to pack my civilian clothes. They'd be less conspicuous than the law-men's uniform that I was wearing, and they'd definitely be cleaner.
As I bent down to open my backpack I listened to Merran and Jadri who were talking quietly. The few hours' sleep seemed to have done the young man some good, and he sounded calmer and more rational than he had before. I slipped the stone into my pocket again and started to undo the straps on my backpack.
Flames everywhere. Rhiana screaming my name. My son shrieking in terror. The fire dancing and singing and mocking them for a while and then moving in and kissing them and nibbling their clothes and crowning their heads with flaming garlands, hushing their screams into chokes and then gasps and then silence. In the end the fire ruled alone, roaring and rejoicing and mauling my world in its maws.
I couldn't move. Jadri was talking to me, apologising for lying to me last night. I had no idea what he was talking about and told him not to worry about it, my voice sounding almost sane. Merran opened the door and stepped out into the corridor, and Jadri turned to follow him.
"Are you coming?" he asked me.
"Sure," I said, getting up. I walked to the door and closed it and bolted it behind them.
Ignoring their shouts and their fists hammering on the door I went back to my backpack. The fog that had surrounded me for twenty years was finally lifting, and now that I'd seen the first rays of light there was no turning back.
My civilian clothes had indeed been packed, and I took them out. Next was my storyteller's cloak, and I removed that as well. What remained were two folded pieces of paper, yellowed and their edges frayed with age. I remembered taking them out of my hiding place and packing them after the war, but I had no idea what they were.
The first was a letter from my father stating that he had given two of his best goats to me and my household, and instructing me to take good care of them. I smiled when I recognised his semiliterate scrawl, remembering how much my father had loved writing letters.
Before even opening it I knew that the second was the one I was looking for. It was covered in sooty fingerprints and smelled of fire, and when I opened it I saw just one word, written in my own handwriting.
And then the fog was gone for good. I remembered how Rhiana and Jorden had been trapped in the burning farm, and how in spite of my frantic efforts I hadn't been able to get them out. How I'd been willing to give up my life, my soul and everything that I held dear if only their lives would be spared. And how he had been there to grant me my wish.
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