20

They passed in and out of the village of Luxem in one night. Marcel knew the loneliest ways through the plains and then through the forest. A week after they had set out from the city, they arrived at Brukham, but didn't dare stop over at Linde and Kurk's inn for fear of being recognised. They picked up their pace now that Marcel's wound was steadily healing. He was stronger than ever before, now; stronger than Saran had ever seen him.

Not long after Brukham they came to the Silver Tower, nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges: the western, lower one was called The Scrying Hills, Marcel told them, and the eastern, higher one was called The Devil's Arm. They detoured along the valley creek to refill their waterskins, but didn't wander too close to the Tower. Saran didn't want to remember the place where she had been imprisoned. She didn't want to remember anything that had happened to her, come to think of it. The irony of it did not escape her.

"The silver's tarnished," remarked Pieter, glancing at the Tower as they refilled their waterskins.

The other two made no reply, and they went on their way.

It took them almost three days to fight a path over The Devil's Arm, so overgrown it was with brambles and carnivorous vegetation. The trees formed a canopy thick and black over their heads and for most of the daytime they hardly saw the sun. When they finally reached gentler forest on the other side, Marcel scrutinised Pieter. "You sure you can make the return journey on your own?"

"I'm sure," said Pieter. "I'll simply retrace our path. I'm not incapable, you know."

Marcel smiled. "I never said you were."

The small party of three carved a path through the Scarbough Forest, the great eastern woodland that had not been crossed by anyone in the kingdom for decades, and then waded over Drakan's River, and climbed in and out of the rocky hollows of the Sleeping Gully. And exactly nineteen days after they had fled from Teulebaronis, they reached the peaks of the mighty Apocalypse Ranges, the very eastern border of King Gareth's land.

They stood for a moment on the wind-lashed summits, Marcel and Saran and Pieter and the faithful pack-horse, with the clouds breaking overhead. Rain began to fling itself down in icy lashings, cutting through clothes and drenching them to the skin. It was a unique feeling, to be standing on the border between two lands, one known and one unknown, teetering on the edge of a mountain range and feeling as though one slip could send them tumbling over the brink.

They looked out over the foreign country. Below them, the eastern slopes of the Apocalypse Ranges swept into a wide, dark valley cupping a wide, dark lake. And beyond the great lake there stretched a road within a ravine, and beyond that there were grasslands of a beautiful, otherworldly, purplish hue, and finally, beyond the plains there stood a silhouette of a spire, tiny on the distant horizon, that might have been a watch house or an army lookout or a messenger post, or perhaps a lonely tower for prisoners.

The rain lashed into Saran's eyes, and before long her vision was flooded with water and she had to blink madly. It felt like they were being drowned by the downpour.

"This is where I turn back, I suppose," said Pieter, spitting water out of his face.

"Don't sound so forlorn," said Marcel, folding his arms. "You get to travel all the way back, climb through that murderous gully, fight your way through Scarbough Forest, over The Devil's Arm—"

Pieter silenced him with a glare.

Saran managed to laugh. "And what about you, Marcel?" she demanded, cocking her head at him. "Do you feel excited?"

His eyes sparkled at her, as deep and impossibly grey as their surroundings. "How could I not? We are free, you and I. This land that lies at our feet—it is our new life. Who knows what we could end up doing? Settle down in a cosy bungalow, plant lettuces in our front lawn, perhaps even start a family. Wouldn't you like to raise a couple of young'uns?" He grinned wickedly, and Saran simply gaped at him, unsure whether to laugh at him or hit him.

She looked at Marcel, tracing with her eyes the path of a raindrop over his soaked, ebony hair, as it slid down the straight slope of his nose and fell. He hugged a cloak around his body in a vain attempt to keep himself warm and dry, but there was cold rain on his neck, under the collar of his shirt, in his shirt and all the way down to the soles of his shoes. He loomed tall and dark and lean in her gaze. Could she live with this man? Could she follow him and him alone into a strange land?

And Marcel was looking at Saran, at the way her cacao-coloured hair, now black in the rain, whipped at the side of her face, and her coal-black eyes stared ever-accusingly at him, and how there was the faintest curve of an amused smile at the corner of her lips. And she had her arms curled around herself, shivering in her thin shirt and woollen coat, and there was a flush of colour in her cheeks. Marcel remembered vividly what the two of them had had before her memory was wiped from her, and something blossomed inside him. He would wait, and he would stay with her, until maybe one day they could have that back.

Pieter started unloading his own supplies from the pack-horse in readiness for his trip back, but Marcel stopped him. "Take the poor beast with you—we won't need him."

Saran laughed breathlessly. "Are you so sure?"

Marcel met her dancing eyes. "No." He seized their bags, and tossed one to her, and without waiting for any sort of emotional farewell he leapt over the edge of the summit, and Saran followed, and together they climbed down the unknown slopes on the wrong side of the Apocalypse Ranges, and disappeared into the far east.