Between her own slow breaths came a distant, concerted strike or clatter, strangely repetitious and insistent; she sighed, sat up and eased her feet into her boots. He handed her the rifle without opening his eyes, which she accepted and then abandoned by the door.
The zip tab beneath her chin chimed as she climbed down the outer steps, her hand against the cold wall of the hillside. Low clouds leant the night its sequestered nature and pallid reflet, loosing harbinger flakes that dissolved against her outline as they drifted earthward, under no apparent duress from gravity. At the bottom of the flight she sat down and pushed off the landing stone with both hands, onto the broken suggestion of a path that skirted the base of the pile toward what might once have been its kitchen gardens, the stretch of half-leveled slope upon which the alujha had stood to issue their complaint. Blocks of toppled parapet lay strewn across its width like pieces swept from an enormous chess board and stamped into the ground, casting little shadow.
Edward stood amongst them beside a great cache of windfall timber. He swung skyward then hurled down the head of an axe dragged from a store in the bowels of the ruin; the ancient implement sectioned the limbs with little aid from its dull edge, driven deeply into the wood with a force that shuddered through his daunting frame. His pullover hung from a waiting branch like the upper half of a form he had abandoned. The crack of the blows flew back at him from the wall then away into the encroaching forest, the trees standing as though they had climbed the slope to satisfy a morbid curiosity. Susan stood hoping for an acknowledgment, but he did not pause to look at her and she sat down on a cap stone in a hunch against the cold, her mood settling around her like the sleeping bag, imposing its dense black presence between her spine and lungs.
Within the fixed frame of her stare and its own mechanized trajectory, his shape suffered shade-like alterations so fluid and persistent that she was forced to blink them away before they became too disturbing. They led her to ponder what he battered so unceasingly when the wood began to blur; through his eyes, she saw so much lie down beneath the blade that she ceased to wonder at his dedication and began to make her own grim offerings, throwing the aborted shapes of spite and insufficiency under the steel. The snow did not melt on his shoulders as he worked, but lay in narrow drifts until it slid away along his back under its own weight. Susan could not bring herself to examine the disfeatured archives on his arms, her stare falling instead to the naked foot with which he pinned the branches and its narrow adjacency to the point where the blade cleaved them. That she minded its atrocious potential more than he did seemed a thing of inexplicit poignancy, referring again to their dispirited impasse until clarity urged her to her feet.
He had set down the heavy haft and stooped to toss the cut wood over the wall, where it cleared the parapet and clattered audibly on the floor of the yard. Her careful navigation of the slope toward him caused him finally to pause, albeit with an expression that should have halted the intrusion. Frowning to herself as she stepped over the branches, Susan encircled him with both arms, turning her head against him.
“We do love you, Kala'amātya.” she sighed. “Please don’t be so sad.”
He smelled of the night and green fir balsam and stood completely still, feeling so much like and yet unlike his brother that she suffered a moment of baffling agnosis, meeting reserve where Sachiin wore invitation, a desolate parity with the granite of the ruin and the snow that fell around them so that she might not have distinguished him from either.
“Let me go.” he said, almost in resignation.
“Make me.” she replied, frowning in the expectation that he might. “Thank you... for my tooth, and... everything.”
“Tout le plaisir est pour moi.” he assured her. Susan released him, but grasped the arm he offered as she stumbled backward over unseen timber. She stooped to pick up one of the lengths, shuffling a small way down the slope and wheeling her arm in a circle before letting the piece fly in the hope it would clear the parapet, which it did not, hitting the wall and bouncing back at them. He put out a hand and caught it before it could strike her, committing it to the yard himself and shaking his head faintly at the smile she turned to him. Her gaze followed him to the edge of the cut wood, where he began to sort the pieces too large to throw.
"Do you mind... being called Kala'amātya?"
"Not any more." he admitted. She was led toward her few coherent notions of Helaine de Marchand, imagining her voice as the analgesic agency that had cleansed the word of its pernicious connotations. She bowed her head and blew warmth against her hands.
"I am sorry, for calling you a sadist..."
Dragging another branch from the pile, he shrugged in a brief concession.
"Never apologize to one." The set of her mouth changed with her appreciation of the remark as he took up the axe again. The first log flew in two directions across the snow; Susan watched him halve another dozen lengths. “You look cold.” he added with his back to her, and she smiled at the unsubtle denotation; the crack and buffet of the wood proved so sapid that she was loath to leave it, but he looked to her and changed his grasp upon the weapon, and she shuffled off in the direction she had come.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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