Prologue and Chapter 1
Des had the impression that they were following a definite path through the brush and over the hills, some invisible path of least resistance through the most obvious obstacles. They trod their way between bramble bushes, picked a light path over tumbled rock falls, danced a minuet over marshy moors, and somehow Whisper never put a foot wrong, whether it was hers or Des's.
She could see no rhyme or reason to the route they took, yet her companion never faltered, never hesitated, never stopped to get her bearings or consider where her next footstep should fall. The going was only slow because Des herself was, and yet she had the impression that miles melted away before them. The tang of blood faded from the air, the smoke receded, and the atmosphere of peril evaporated bit by bit.
They made camp on the slope of one of the blue-purple peaks that ringed the valley, though at this distance it was more striations of green and brown.
Whisper did not want to light a fire until it was full dark, so Des ate a hard biscuit to take the edge off her hunger and settled in. She got her first good look at her new friend in the fading light.
She was, as Des had noted, a bit angular of face, but less severe than she had appeared on the battlefield. Des wasn't sure if she had misjudged the woman, or if Whisper had relaxed some as the dangers fell away behind them, but in either case, while she rarely smiled in a way that curled back her lips and showed her teeth, there always seemed to be a grin dancing around behind the curtain of her face, as it were.
Her forest green cloak looked like velvet, and had an elaborate silver clasp. There was a collar that could be turned up against the wind, and silver toggles to fasten it shut. The cowl was shaped with a high peak and an overhanging bit that looked a bit like the beak of a bird of prey, though Whisper had kept it off except when the angle of the sun was wrong.
It was far too fine for a footsoldier, yet it suited her shape and bearing. Des's first thought was that she must have taken it off a fallen noble, but it showed sign of neither damage nor dirt. Besides, it did suit Whisper, so well that Des could not believe it had been made for anyone else.
Her clothes beneath it were better made than Des's, but sturdy and serviceable rather than fine and fashionable: leather breeches and a leather vest over a shirt of rough-spun wool.
Whisper's body was compact across every axis, though Des knew well her sparse frame had strength to spare. Her auburn hair was a short, spiky spray of ringlets in every direction. Her skin was brown with luminous undertones when it caught the sun or firelight. She carried herself in a way that spoke of warmth, and gentleness, and the deep in the bone strength that must have been necessary to pluck a stranger from the mud and half-lead, half-carry her out of the valley.
Her ears were not large to human eyes, but they did come to a definite, delicate point.
Delicate is the word for her, Des decided. She's so delicate. No soldier, less a soldier than I am... but better than I am at doing what's necessary. That's what she's done for me. That's what I must do for her.
At that moment, Des almost dared some brigands or horrible monster to dash out of the darkness and set upon them, so she could spring into action and boldly... well, on second thought, maybe it would be a good idea if she had a few good nights' sleep before it was necessary, but Des knew that if danger did loom large above them that night, she could do no less than her very best to protect Whisper.
That was the thought in her head when she dozed off. She awoke sometime later to the sound of a crackling fire and the clattering of a metal spoon against the side of a pot. No mortal peril seemed to be on offer. In fact, the circumstances were downright cozy for camping in the open air.
Whisper had brought a bedroll for each of them with extra blankets out of the valley. Des had no idea how she had managed to strap all that on her back and still have some place to put the mess kit or the rations, but they had a pretty good meal of dried beef and root vegetables heated into a stew, thickened by crumbled biscuits. Whisper used a spoon and a bowl, but Des ate hers in gulps and bites and sips from a mug. She felt her hands were too shaky for anything else, and she liked the feel of the warm tin between her hands. It was a strangely homey sensation, like cradling a cup of mulled cider on a winter's day.
Winter was months away, but the cold seemed to flow off the mountains in waves at night.
"You know, we didn't have mountains back home," Des said, when she'd finished her meal. "To me, a valley was the snug spot between hills, or the wide, rolling land around a river. When they told us we'd be fighting to take a valley, I thought... well, I'm not sure what I thought. But when they marched us through Caliprax Pass and I saw the whole thing laid out below us, I knew I had thought wrong. It was almost too much to take in."
"It was," Whisper said. "You came in near the valley's tail end, looking across it the narrow way. It runs more than a hundred miles, all told, and the other end is just a slightly narrower spot where it flows unbroken into what is only held to be another valley by common courtesy and consensus. You could walk a circuit of five hundred miles in the shadow of the mountains and never truly leave the valley system, passing forests and fields, meadows and marshes."
"No, thank you," Des said with a shudder. "I came quite close enough to never leaving the valley as it is. Are you from here, originally?"
"You know so much more about the place."
"Well, I have been here once, briefly, before the war," Whisper said matter-of-factly, "but I had the chance to learn its length when we arrived, as we came in on the other end than you did."
The tin cup fell from Des's hands. It was empty; her fingers had remained curled around its cooling metal form only because their owner had been too tired to tell them to do otherwise. Des felt wide awake now.
"Is something wrong?" Whisper asked.
"You're the enemy," Des said.
"Whose enemy, Des?" Whisper said. "A person cannot simply be an enemy in the general case, as enmity is relative. If I am an enemy, you must specify: whose? Or since you said the enemy, perhaps we could phrase it: the enemy of what?"
"Me," Des said. "You're my enemy, Whisper!"
"Well, that is a choice," Whisper said, "and a disappointing one, but yours to make if you wish. Yet you are not my enemy, Des, no matter what you choose."
"Don't... look, I know you saved my life back there, and don't think I don't appreciate it, but I'm supposed to be fighting you."
"Oh? You and what army?" Whisper said. "The one that left you on the field and is likely now looking forward to its next engagement? No, dear Des, you are not supposed to fight me. Perhaps you were supposed to, once, but you were also supposed to fall where you stood and then die where you fell. That you only managed half that job is perhaps forgivable, seeing as it was your first time out and all. If you wish to return in order to complete your engagement, I will of course wish you well and see you on your way, but if you expect me to come back and fight you, you're doomed to sore and bitter disappointment."
"But what's the alternative? What else could I do?"
"What did you think you were doing when we fled the field in the first place?"
"Fleeing," Des said. "You made it pretty clear that to stay was to die."
"True," Whisper said. "To stay was to die, to leave is to live. So we leave, and so we live. Do you have any objection to that?"
"Just that I don't know how it's supposed to work."
"Well, you've managed beautifully so far. The leaving, dear Des, is one foot follows the other. The living is one breath follows another. So we go."