by zara hemla

"She's tranced him," Cuthbert said. "Whether she means to or not, she'll kill us all in the end. Wait and see if she don't."
"You shouldn't say such, even in jest."
"All right, she'll crown us with the jewels of Eld and we'll live forever."
"You have to stop being angry at him, Bert. You have to."
Cuthbert looked at him bleakly. "I can't."
(Wizard & Glass 376)

Roland rides away again. Rusher's hooves clump over the ridge and the two of them are swallowed in the early evening fog. The sun sets like a bonfire in the West. And Alain slumps down into the chair he's pulled out onto the porch.

The air has a bite to it as the month waxes onward. Alain is wearing a brightly colored serape and he fingers the fringes of it absently. His Touch is brilliant today and he can feel Roland moving along the outer edges of it. The horses drift in and out of his range, but they don't make much of a ripple. Roland is a white spark, fading as he rides toward Mejis and Susan.

Sometimes the Touch forces Alain to feel every bug crawling in the woodwork, every bird in the sky. But today it's more like a comfort, like a serape, enfolding him. Letting him see things without the residual emotions, without the force that often accompanies. But it's bright tonight, devilish bright, and Alain knows he can catch Rusher's thoughts or Roland's if he wants.

Inside the bunkhouse Cuthbert finishes writing on his tiny scraps of paper. Alain knows this because he can hear the scritching of the quill as Cuthbert marks out the intricate code. What is he writing? Alain doesn't know. Perhaps something like "We're just boys here. Send help!" or "Did you know they call us the Little Coffin Hunters?" It doesn't matter what he's writing -- Roland will not let them send messages.

Yet -- send them yet. Alain shrugs, annoyed. He trusts Roland but Cuthbert's dissatisfaction communicates itself with every crinkle of the fine, useless paper.

Out along the edge of the Touch, Alain feels Roland meet up with the girl. She is a bright yellow glow, brighter even than Roland, but with a sinister pink overtone that Alain doesn't understand. Something to do -- something to do --

He loses the train of thought as Cuthbert stomps out onto the porch, heel-and-toeing it like a dancer. He holds out a couple of fluttery scraps to Alain.

"What do you think of these, cully?" he mocks in Hambry-speech. "Some help-me notices for our fathers. But will they ever peel out these watchwords? Nay, I think not." His fine mouth is drawn up in a pout that is half-mocking but half not. His eyes reflect the twilight: cold, dark.

Alain doesn't take the papers. He wouldn't be able to read them anyway. "By the gods," he sighs instead. "I can't think of a stupider way to spend an evening. Might as well watch the grass grow."

Cuthbert's mouth stretches evilly. "Maybe we ought to find ourselves girls instead? I hear Depape has a whore in Mejis he treats like a Lady O'Barony. Would it be sport to steal her away?" But even he doesn't seem to find it that amusing. He perches himself on a railing and stares off into the distance. Alain knows what he's looking for. He feels them, burning into the silence.

"And are they out there now?" Cuthbert asks into the night, his voice half-hoarse. Alain knows he's been forgotten. "Does he have her against a tree, and that plain plaid shirt off her shoulders? Is he lucky or doomed?"

On the edge of his Touch, half-bright, Alain knows exactly what they are doing. He usually tries to avoid it (or the Touch avoids it for him), but tonight, with Cuthbert's black lashes filtering the last rays of the sun, it is impossible to resist. His whole body is as hot as a gas-candle in an oil patch. So he speaks, ripping out words from whole cloth.

"They are -- it is a trail hut. He has a blanket on the ground. He's sitting flat on it and she is facing him. She is teasing him with her hair. There is such a lot of it."

In the back of his mind he feels guilty: not because he knows what the two lovers are doing, but because he is telling Cuthbert. And Cuthbert, whose jaw has dropped slightly and whose eyes are almost out of their sockets, obviously wants to know more than he ought.

"Go -- go on," says Cuthbert, strangling on the words. And Alain does, because he wants very much to keep that look in Cuthbert's eyes. The Touch has Cuthbert glowing a dark red and the feeling coming from him is turning Alain's bones to water.

"Well, she puts her hand on his shoulder and she says, 'If you love me, then love me.' And he picks her up and sets her down on him. She takes his earlobe in her mouth and he thumps his head on the wall a little -- they both laugh -- he is moving slow and she says, 'Don't tease.'"

He is talking automatically, for he can't take his eyes off Cuthbert, who has leaned his head against the porch post. Bert's whole body is fluid and his eyes are closed now. One hand, long-fingered, lies on his thigh. He is the most beautiful thing that Alain has ever seen, and it hurts him and he can't stop watching, can't stop talking.

"Her knees are as far apart as they can go. He has one hand on her ass, down low, and he's helping to lift her. He's banged his head again but this time he doesn't care. She bites him. It bleeds. And now they are going fast and faster. She's sweating, down her lower back. It's running over his thumb."

"Alain. Alain, for fuck's sake!" This is definitely a moan and Alain watches as Cuthbert opens anguished eyes and clenches his fists. "You don't know all this. You can't --"

"I know it," says Alain simply. "I can always know."

"But doesn't he know you can see him? Doesn't he care?"

Alain stands, hiding behind his serape, trying to be threatening. "He doesn't know about this. And if you tell him. If you tell anyone. I'll kill you."

"You won't have to kill anyone, cully," says Cuthbert with the shade of a smile. "I expect I'll do myself first and leave you to follow after me." And he walks off the porch with just the hint of a limp, heading off onto the Drop to do himself first, leaving Alain to watch him with a longing that would be completely obvious to anyone less stupid than that black-haired jester.

Alain slumps back down in the chair, prickling and uncomfortable. Roland and Susan have dimmed, no doubt gathering energy for another go. He supposes he can watch Cuthbert's red shadow, but that lost its interest a long time ago. It hurts to see Cuthbert walk away time after time, to watch his private moments, to let him sleep alone. But Alain knows it's not in his power to make a move. He just can't do it, and he never will.

"Are we doing the right thing?" he whispers to the stars, to the dim glows on the horizon. He feels like an ownerless gun gathering dust somewhere and it hurts him to be this aimless. Does Roland know what he's doing? Can they afford to wait? Will this hot, red feeling kill him?

Abruptly the Touch mutes itself, as if it has played enough with him this evening. It leaves him to his comfortless thoughts and the chilly evening. Finally, half-asleep, Alain takes off his boots and his serape and his shirt and crawls into his cot. He dozes fitfully and wakes when Cuthbert clumps back into the bunkhouse. He knows it's Cuthbert, knows by his step, by his breathing.

Cuthbert drops his boots quietly and shucks out of his shirt. As he sits down heavily, the stretched ropes under his mattress creak. Alain can smell him, hair damp from ducking under the pump, but still a little like horse and a little like grass.

"Still gone?" he asks conversationally. Alain sighs.

"He won't return till morning."

"You know?"

"Not like that, no. But wouldn't you stay there, with her?"

Cuthbert sighs and flops onto his cot. "I would. If it were me, I would have taken her and gone, and to hell with both of you smelly bastards and my father too."

Alain laughs, chuffing through his nose. "And so you would. You and that damn rook's-head. Gone like a western wind."

"But not you," say Cuthbert and turns to his right. Alain can see his eyes glittering in the moonlight, the long shape of him under the blanket. "You'd stay here. With him."

After a long moment of silence in which Alain considers whether Cuthbert is mocking him or not, he answers carefully, "I made him my leader. Like it or not now, he has my gun."

"Ka," says Cuthbert, and the syllable is stripped bare, left hanging.

"I gave myself to it -- or it took me. And now there isn't much difference."

"And if he betrays us?"

"He won't. Bert, he won't." Alain puts every ounce of passion into that sentence, hoping against hope that Cuthbert is convinced. But the damp Touch doesn't tell him, and Cuthbert's tone is very damp as well.

"We'll see. We'll see what that bitch'll lead him to, what she'll say to him late at night when he's wrapt 'round her."

"If you have any trust left. . . ."

"I don't. They've killed it off, the both of them, with their poisonous love."

"It's just because you're jealous." And if Alain's voice is flat and bitter too, it's only because of what Roland has without even trying.

"And what if I am? You're keeping me here, so what do you have to complain about?"

"I -- ?" This sincerely shocked tone seems to amuse Cuthbert and he laughs shortly, propping himself up on his elbows. Alain selfishly loves how the moonlight glows on his skin, washing it out to a young boy's white instead of his current Hambry tan.

"How can I desert him when you're still here? You work so hard, it makes me look bad. You count those damn nets like it matters, you take his word as law. And when you meet Susan again, as we will, you'll bow to her like she's his wife instead of a jumped-up gilly."

Alain watches as Cuthbert narrows his eyes and his voice gets harsh like Cort's used to be. It's ugly and compelling and it's rare, because Cuthbert usually hides behind humor and black wit.

"I can't reassure you," he says. "I'm not your mother. I can't comfort you and I can't tell you what to do. But if you go. . . ." He lets it trail off because he can't finish the sentence. If you go -- we'll never see one another again? The Touch has told him that, but would it matter to Cuthbert? Or - - I'll miss you? Pathetic.

But in that flash of silence, the old Cuthbert is back, grinning sweetly at him and saying awful things.

"My mother is beautiful, you great ugly fool, and she'd tell me she loves me and give me sweets. What are you going to do for me?"

I'll tell you I love you, thinks Alain wildly, and climb in that bed and show you too. And you'd forget your mother, I swear it.

"I'm going to let you sleep, and hope that you curb your tongue tomorrow when you see him. Can you do that, Bert?"

"For you," says Cuthbert, and flops back down. "Because you say he knows best. But if he doesn't move soon. . . ."

"Peace, Bert."

"For now."

"For now."


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