Boy, I’m doing a terrible job of sticking to my resolutions. But the Sundered Book Club has been discussing The Adversary over on Goodreads, and they’ve gotten past the point where I can post some cut scenes! Also The Reaver comes out next week, and I’d rather get these out before then, so you can all focus on that.
So here’s one: This scene comes late in the book, and a version of it remains. But I wrote way too much book, and the conversation with the ghoul in particular had to go for the sake of space. I was sorry to see it go–this is the culmination of the ghoul escape that happens in an earlier scene, and I think it’s Havilar’s low point with respect to figuring out who she is and where she stands in respect to her past self. Also, I think the ghoul is funny.
But it didn’t have to be there, and so it had to go.
Havilar woke, hazy and aching, before the sky was so much as gray from the rising sun. When Brin had tried to brew the tea for her the night before, she’d put him off and climbed into her bedroll where she willed herself to sleep before he could say another word to her. She did not need caring for.
Brin dozed against a tree, on the other side of the fire. When she stood, he stirred and turned toward her, hand on his sword, and altogether she was still angry at him, and still so glad to see him.
“Good morning,” she said.
He smiled crookedly and let go of the weapon. “Good morning. You sleep all right?”
Havilar shrugged. “I guess.” She still wasn’t happy about being told to sleep. “Did you stand watch all night?”
“Not exactly. I’ve learned to sleep lightly,” he said. “You never know when some noble’s going to get it into his or her head that offing me in the night is in their best interests.” He rubbed his eyes. “Usually though, my room’s not full of owls and voles and things. I feel as if I woke a hundred times last night.”
Havilar wondered what his rooms were full of, what noises he was used to. How many of them were someone else. It wasn’t her business—not yet and maybe not ever. “You should have woken me.”
“I’m all right.” He stretched and a tried to smother the yawn that escaped him. Havilar gave him a very pointed look. “All right,” he admitted. “I should probably have woken you. You just…You seemed like you needed the rest.”
Havilar squatted down beside the fire. “You could sleep now. I’ll pack things up. Or just rest your eyes at least, if I’m too noisy.”
He gave her another crooked smile. “That would be perfect.” He eyed her a moment. “Are we going to talk today, do you think?”
Terror sank its teeth into Havilar. No. Not yet. Not while she was clumsy and awkward and awful. Not while he still made her so angry. It should be now—it should have been days ago—but Havilar still wasn’t anyone worth talking to. Not while she couldn’t use her glaive any better than a beginner. Not while he thought she was too young and foolish to do anything herself.
“We’re talking now,” she said lightly.
“Havi,” Brin sighed.
Havilar stood and went over to her bedroll. “Can we just…can we just get on our way before we worry about this?” He sighed again, behind her, but said nothing else, and when she glanced back, he was settling down to sleep and she felt as if she were drowning.
She ought to be brave enough to hear him say that there was nothing between him. She ought to be sure enough to know if that was what she wanted or not. She ought to be more concerned with finding Farideh who—yet again—deserved the worry more than she did. It made her feel unseated and upset, like a plant pulled up by its roots and tossed onto the stones. She finished packing everything up, and considered waking Brin.
Havilar picked up her glaive instead and turned her attention inward, concentrating on the pull of her muscles, the solidness of her bones. The weight of the glaive steadied in her hands. The shift of tiny muscles in her hands and wrists as the larger muscles swung the polearm, keeping the balance, keeping the aim true. She didn’t imagine opponents, this time, she didn’t make an enemy of a tree or a shrub. She moved the glaive through careful steps, patterns she knew by rote—a sweep, a slice, a carve a chop. Step and slide and step and turn. Once upon a time, she’d heard people say that her glaive was as good as her right hand. Once upon a time, Devilslayer had been the perfect anchor—as long as she had her glaive, Havilar knew who she was.
And now…everything was different, but Havilar was the same. And she wasn’t sure she ought to be.
Slash, sweep, pull the blade up.
Brin was certainly different—he was so sure and so bossy and she hated that pothac beard. Every time something dangerous came up, he tried to make her go home, back down, turn into someone else. Every time he sighed at her, she wanted to curl up and hide.
Chop, press forward, sweep low. Step forward. Turn.
But then he would laugh when she said something funny and everything was the same again. He would smile at her with that glint in his eye that made her think they were sharing a secret, and she was his again and that was exactly right. He would say something like that silly comment about chapbooks and she was sure too that he was hers.
And then he’d sigh.
She lunged forward, barely holding on to the weapon’s haft, the weight nearly pulling it out of her hands. She took an extra step trying to keep it, and stopped, panting. Again, she told herself, and started over. She hadn’t done these passes in years—more years she amended. She hadn’t done all manner of things in years. It made her feel a little melancholy and a little giddy at the same time—like she was a little girl again learning for the first time.. The glaive was hers, not Sairché’s, not anyone else’s. No one could take it from her.
She’d run through the passes once again and started a third time, when she realized Brin wasn’t sleeping, but lay on his side watching her practice. She faltered, and pulled the glaive close. “Sorry. Was I loud?”
“No. I just wanted to watch. You’re getting better.”
She ran a hand over the end of her braid, and realized its shortened length wasn’t surprising her anymore. “Thank you.”
“It’ll come back,” he promised.
It had to, Havilar thought. Because otherwise she wasn’t sure about a single other thing. Especially not Brin.
“What would you be doing today if you were at home?” she asked. “If you hadn’t come with me? If I hadn’t come back?”
Brin screwed up his face as if he were trying to remember his calendar. “I had a meeting planned about now, with one of my contacts, to talk about the state of things in the Dales.”
“People assume if you’re noble, you’re still sleeping this early,” Brin said. “Or, if you’re young and noble that you might be finishing up a night of drinking and carousing and being a general menace.” He shifted his position as if trying to find a more comfortable bit of dirt. “They don’t tend to look for you in backrooms with tinkers.”
“Do you do a lot of that? Carousing?”
Brin laughed once. “No. People tend to think there’s something off about me,” he admitted. “I don’t carouse or whore or drink. I’m a terrible young noble, ruining all their expectations like that, spurning friendships and such.”
Havilar looked away—she realized she was blushing hard. She wanted to know and she didn’t want to know what he did in his free time. Whoring and carousing wasn’t an answer she wanted, but then did that mean he was off with sweethearts and brightbirds and romances? Did that mean he’d become someone who wanted none of those things? Or maybe—maybe—was he holding out for her to return?
You aren’t going to know unless you ask, she told herself. She dug a little hole into the dirt with the butt of her glaive. But how can you ask when you aren’t even sure where you’re standing?
The sound of something moving through the underbrush and breathing heavily, yanked both of their attentions away. In the lightening gloom, a dark, loping shape moved between the trees, edging closer. Havilar adjusted her grip on the glaive. She heard Brin stand and unsheathe his sword. “Get back,” he murmured.
Havilar ignored him and dropped into a defensive stance, watching the approaching creature.
The loping shape suddenly turned and barreled through the underbrush. As it broke the circle of the camp, Havilar saw dark claws and shriveled hands, a face with sunken cheeks and deeper eyes. She scrambled backward, into the ashes of the campfire and over it, getting her glaive up between herself and the ghoul’s reaching claws.
She brought the glaive down, chopping at the creature’s hands. A hit and its smallest finger and part of its palm tore away. She thrust it back, pulling the glaive up across its chest, then sliced down, aiming for the torso before it could get any closer.
The weapon slipped in her grip and the blade turned flat instead of slicing into the creature’s desiccated arm. It yelped, as Havilar struggled to get the glaive back under control. The strike was enough to startle the thing, the fire enough to slow it down…
Enough to let Brin sprint up behind it and cut the creature’s hamstrings with a well-placed slice of his dagger. The creature screeched as it fell to the ground, a horrible sound that locked Havilar’s arms and legs with sudden fear. She dropped her glaive. Brin turned and grabbed hold of her around the waist, dragging her out of the thing’s frantic reach.
“Hungry,” it snarled. “So hungry. Come on. Share?”
Brin pulled an amulet on a chain out from his shirt and thrust it at the creature, who recoiled. “Well met, ghoul. You know what this is?”
The ghoul whined, and cradled its wounded hand to its chest. “No, don’t. Don’t, don’t, don’t.” Havilar crouched, shaking, and reached for the end of her glaive. The ghoul’s eerie eyes watched her hungrily. She felt her gorge rise, and tugged the weapon quickly to her.
“Where’d you come from?”
“Down,” it said. “Down and through the trees.”
“Not the camp,” Brin said.
“Camp,” it said. “Yes, camp. Go to camp. Mistress Zahnya goes to camp. Harrrrpers.” It licked its dry lips. “Tasty, tasty. But no, no, no.” It shook its head emphatically. “We’re being un-wise so no eating. So run.” It eyed the amulet, then Havilar. “So hungry.”
Havilar scowled at the ghoul—why did it think she was the one it could take down? She almost challenged the thing, eager to prove it was wrong. But she stopped herself. “Your mistress sounds pretty wise if she tells you not to try and eat Harpers. Especially not Mehen.”
Brin shook his head. “They wouldn’t be traveling with a necromancer—”
But at the same time, the ghoul flinched. “They would, they would. Loud, dragon man. Sharp teeth, tough skin. Bad eating, so”—it threw up its clawed hands as if there were no helping matters—”run and run and run. And find you, Harrrper-friends.”
“See?” she said. Though whether she ought to be bragging about understanding an idiot ghoul was another matter.
Brin didn’t look away from the ghoul, but Havilar could still see the small smile that broke his stern expression. “Well done, Havi.”
“Yes, Hah-vee,” the ghoul said, beckoning. “Give us hand. Or foot? Delicious foot.”
“If you so much as try to stand,” Brin said, stepping in front of her, “I’ll light you up with more of Torm’s blessings than you ever thought available. You give us more answers, and—”
Before Brin could finish, a line of bright light split the air behind the ghoul, and tore wide to reveal Lorcan stepping into the plane. The cambion took one look at the creature piled on the ground, sneered, and blasted it into ash and bone with a sudden ball of purplish flames.
“Ye gods!” Brin shouted, leaping back. “We were in the middle of something.”
“It can wait,” Lorcan said.
“It has to,” Brin replied. “You’ve killed my informant.”
Lorcan looked down at the dead ghoul. “What in the many layers were you hoping to learn from a ghoul?”
“For starters, where Mehen is—”
“Where is Farideh?” Havilar interrupted. The ghoul was dead, there was no amount of yelling that would change that. “You said you were going to rescue her.”
Lorcan looked at her with that irritatingly blank expression. “Safe,” he said. “Out of the tower. But she will not leave the camp itself without first rescuing the people held prisoner there, so unfortunately your stubborn sister says this little adventure’s not through.”
“But she’s safe?” Havilar asked, feeling as if a weight had been taken from her shoulders. “She’s all right?”
“Oh, safe as a ruby in Asmodeus’s strong box,” Lorcan drawled. “She’s with Dahl, after all.” Havilar gave him a knowing look, but Lorcan just glared at her. “As for Mehen, I’m finding him next, and I’ll send him your way. Get around the mountain, toward the peak on the southeast slope. There’s a plateau there where you can meet easily. I don’t know how far off they are,but I assume you can find some way to occupy yourselves if there’s a wait.” He gave Havilar a significant look of his own.
Brin sheathed his sword. “Why are there ghouls traveling with Mehen and the others?”
Lorcan smiled at Brin and spread his wings. “A very good question. Make sure you ask them.” He leapt into the air and flapped up through the gaps in the canopy, and disappeared from view.
Brin cursed, and kicked the dirt and cursed again. He crouched down and set his head between his knees.
“It’s all right,” Havilar said. “He’s told us as much as that thing would have known.” She considered the remains of the ghoul. “Also, he didn’t try to eat me.”
Brin sighed. “I know.”
“And, maybe Lorcan’s way was kinder?” she said. “To it, I mean. I don’t know, maybe all that holy magic hurts worse or maybe it doesn’t—”
“Doesn’t matter.” Brin stood and held up his hands. They were shaking. “I was bluffing it,” he admitted. “Fairly sure we could have taken it on, with or without Torm. But still. I stlarning hate undead. And if you’d been bitten…”
Havilar rubbed her arm. “You didn’t need to save me from it. Especially if they make you so nervous.” She looked down at the ground a moment, before adding. “I mean, many thanks, but…”
He gave her such a weary look. “Of course I needed to save you,” he said. “It’s just a ghoul.”
Havilar swallowed and turned back to the pile of gear. She tightened her grip on the glaive, the one thing no one could take from her, even if they knocked the weapon from her hands, burned the haft and melted down the blade. I just have to get this right, she thought. Maybe nothing else could be fixed, but she’d die taking back the glaive.
“Well, at least we know where we’re headed now,” she said.