Authors: Claire McFall
Tristan stared at her, his eyebrows drawn together in aggravation. He shook his head slowly, placing a finger on her lips.
“I can’t do that either,” he said.
“Have you ever tried?”
“Then you don’t know. The soul I spoke to said—”
“Who did you speak to?” Tristan’s eyes narrowed.
“An old woman, Eliza. She’s the one who told me how to get back here. She said we might be able to, if we—”
,” Tristan echoed dubiously. “Dylan, there’s no going back.”
that?” she pressed. Tristan hesitated. He didn’t know, she realised. He believed. That wasn’t the same thing.
“Isn’t it worth a try?” Dylan asked. She chewed on her lip anxiously. If he really, truly had meant what he’d said before, if he honestly loved her, wouldn’t he want to try?
Tristan turned his head from side to side, his expression forlorn, sombre. “It’s too big a gamble,” he told her. “You believe this woman because she’s told you what you want to hear, Dylan. The only thing I know is that you’re not safe here. If you stay in the wasteland, your soul won’t survive. Tomorrow I’m taking you back across the lake.”
Dylan shuddered at more than just the thought of crossing the water again. She took a step back, folded her arms across her chest. Her face was set in a stubborn mask.
“I don’t want to go back there. Not alone. I’m going back to the train. Come with me. Please?” She made the last word a plea. It was. She had no intention of going to the train on her own; it was completely pointless without him. This whole thing, everything she had risked, it had all been about getting back to him. She hadn’t known, either, not for sure, but she’d still done it. Wasn’t he willing to take a chance, too? A chance for her?
She watched Tristan lick his lips, swallow; saw the hesitation in his face. He was wavering. What could she say to tip him over the edge, to make him give in?
“Please, Tristan. Can we just try? If it doesn’t work…” If it didn’t work the wraiths could have her. She wasn’t going back across the line alone. Better not to mention that though. “If it doesn’t work, you can bring me back. But can we just try?”
He screwed up his face, torn. “I don’t know if I can,” he said. “I don’t choose… I mean, I don’t have free choice, Dylan. My feet, they’re not mine. Sometimes they make me go where I have to. Like…” He hung his head. “Like when they made me walk away from you.”
Dylan considered him. “You’re still my ferryman. If I ran from you, if you couldn’t make me come with you and I ran, would you have to follow?”
“Yes,” he said, drawing out the word, not seeing where she was going.
Dylan smiled at him. “Then I’ll lead.”
Dylan knew she had not entirely convinced Tristan, but he did not try to talk her out of it. Instead they sat close together on the single bed and he listened to her describe everything that had happened to her since he’d left her at the line. He was fascinated by every detail, never having seen any of the things she’d experienced. He smiled when she told him about her visit to see Jonas, although his eyes darkened when she confessed that it had been the Nazi soldier who had taken her to Eliza and helped her open the door back to the wasteland. Caeili interested him greatly, too, and his eyes widened in surprise when Dylan explained about the books in the records room.
“You saw a book of my souls?” he asked.
Dylan nodded. “That’s how I found Jonas.”
Tristan considered that for a moment. “Were there many empty pages left?”
Dylan stared at him, baffled by the question. “I’m not sure,” she hedged. “It was about two-thirds full maybe.”
Tristan nodded, then caught her confused expression. “I just wondered whether… if I filled my book, whether I’d be done,” he explained.
Dylan didn’t know what to say to that, to his words or the painfully sad look that came into his eyes when he said them.
“It’s strange,” he said, after a long moment of silence. “I can’t even decide if I’d like to see it. If I had the chance, I mean. How would I feel, looking at all those names?”
“Proud,” Dylan said. “You should feel proud. All those souls, all those people, they’re alive because of you. You know what I mean,” she said, elbowing Tristan gently in the ribs when he shot her an amused look at her choice of words. If they were still thinking and feeling, then they were alive, surely?
“I guess that’s true. When you weigh it up, I ferried more souls than I lost.”
Dylan’s breath caught in her throat, thinking of the deleted records.
“I saw names with a line through them,” she said quietly.
He nodded. “They are lost souls. Souls taken by the wraiths. I’m glad they are recorded somewhere, and it is only fair that their names are kept close to the one responsible for losing them.”
A small sob worked its way from Dylan’s lips, but she strangled it quickly. Tristan turned his head to look at her, his eyes concerned, curious, and she had to confess her thoughts.
“There should be a book for me, then,” she whispered.
“Why?” Tristan looked puzzled, not understanding what had painted the anguish across her face.
“Today,” she croaked. “That was my fault. That woman’s soul should go against my name.”
“No.” Tristan shifted round on the bed, took her face in both his hands. “No, I told you. That was
Fat, hot tears slipped down Dylan’s cheeks and coated his fingers as she shook her head in denial. “My fault,” she mouthed.
He wiped her face clean with his thumbs, gently pulled her around until their faces rested together; forehead to forehead, chin to chin. Guilt still churned in Dylan’s stomach, but suddenly it didn’t seem so overwhelming. Not when she couldn’t breathe, not when her skin was tingling everywhere that he was touching her; her blood boiling and racing around her body.
“Shh,” Tristan crooned, mistaking her ragged breathing for crying. He half-smiled at her, and then closed the final millimetres between them. Gently, slowly, he prised her mouth open, his lips brushing softly against hers. Against her will, he pulled away for an instant, gazing at her with cobalt fire, before pushing her back against the wall as he sought deeper, hungrier kisses.
When the dawn broke, the sky was clear and blue. Dylan stood on the threshold of the cottage and looked up at it gratefully. This wasteland was a thousand times better than the desert furnace she’d endured before. Tristan, too, gave a wry smile when he emerged and saw the weather.
“Sun,” he commented, staring up at the glittering sky.
Dylan just smiled impishly at him. Her eyes were bright and shining, screaming a green much more vibrant, much more beautiful than the hues of the wasteland. Tristan couldn’t help but smile back at her, despite the lead firmly lodged in the pit of his stomach.
This wasn’t going to work. But Dylan simply refused to believe that. He was afraid of her crushing disappointment, the disappointment he knew in his very bones was coming, but for now he tried to put it out of his mind. She was here, for the moment she was safe, and he should try to enjoy the extra time he got to spend with her. This was more than he’d ever dared to hope for.
He just hoped it would not end with a quill delicately erasing her name from a page in his book.
“Let’s go,” Dylan said, striding down the path away from him. The valley looked wide and inviting, bathed in early morning light, but Tristan lingered in the doorway, watching her go.
She walked maybe a hundred metres when she realised there was no crunch of gravel echoing her own footsteps. He saw her stop, head half-cocked, listening for him. After a second she whirled around. Alarm widened her eyes before she caught him, right where she’d left him.
“Come on,” she called, smiling encouragingly.
He pressed his lips together in a thin line. “I don’t know if I can,” he shouted back. “It goes against everything, every rule.”
“Try,” Dylan coaxed.
Tristan sighed, aggravated. He had promised her he would try. Closing his eyes for a moment, he concentrated on his feet. Move, he thought. He expected nothing to happen; expected to remain glued to the ground, an unyielding pressure holding him in place.
Instead he stepped easily onto the path.
Instantly Tristan halted. He hardly dared breath, waiting for a bolt of lightning, a slash of pain. Something to punish him for daring to disobey his unspoken orders. Nothing happened. Incredulous and suspicious, he continued down towards Dylan.
“This feels weird,” he confessed in a low voice once he’d all but reached her side. “I keep waiting for something to stop me.”
“But nothing yet?”
“Nothing yet,” he agreed.
“Good.” Feeling daring, Dylan wound her fingers around his. She started walking, and after a gentle tug, Tristan followed.
The valley gave them no difficulties. In fact, it was nice. They could have been any young couple, striding hand in hand through the countryside. There was no sight or sound of the wraiths. It unsettled Dylan to know they were there, hovering at her shoulder, hoping she’d lose focus, look away from her orb. She wanted to ask Tristan what he saw; whether it was the lush grass and heather-covered hills that she could see, or the wasteland as it truly was. But something held her tongue. She was nervous that, if she talked about it, if she drew attention to it, the mirage would disintegrate and they’d be back under the burning red sun. That landscape, she knew, would be much harder to traverse. No – ignorance was bliss.
Beyond the valley lay the wide expanse of marsh. The clement weather had done nothing to soak up the stagnant pools of water or dry out the squelching mud. Dylan eyed it distastefully. It smelled, and she remembered the way it had grasped at her ankles, imprisoning her. After the tranquillity of the valley, it was a stark reminder that she was in the wasteland, that danger still hung around her neck.
Beside her Tristan sighed dramatically. She looked at him, confused at the sound, and saw his eyes were amused. He flashed her an indulgent smirk.
“Piggyback?” he suggested.
“You’re wonderful,” she told him.
He rolled his eyes, but turned so that she could scramble up onto his back.
“Thanks,” she murmured into his ear when he had her in position.
“Uh-huh,” he replied sourly, but she could see his cheeks lift in a smile.
She felt heavy on his back, her arms soon tiring of holding her in position, but Tristan didn’t complain, picking his way through the worst of the mud. Even with her extra weight, he didn’t seem to sink into the sludgy mire. Soon the marsh was no more than a distant memory and Dylan’s gaze was filled with the sheer slant of a giant hill, waiting patiently for her. She wrinkled her nose and huffed, disgruntled; she doubted she was going to able to convince Tristan to carry her up that.
“What are you thinking?” Tristan asked.
Dylan didn’t want to admit to her schemes. Instead she asked something that had been quietly preying on her mind.
“I was wondering… where did you go? After you left me.”
She’d told every piece of her story last night, but she’d purposely avoided asking this. She hadn’t wanted to bring up what he’d done; how he’d tricked her. Betrayed her.
Tristan heard the real question.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I had to do that.”
Dylan sniffed quietly, determined not to get upset. She didn’t want him to feel guilty, didn’t want him to know how much that had hurt. At least he hadn’t been there to see her break down, she thought.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, squeezing his shoulders.
“It’s not,” he disagreed. “I lied to you, and I’m sorry. But I thought… I thought that was the right thing for you.” The final few words were stilted and despite herself, Dylan felt her throat tightening. “When I saw you crying, when I heard you screaming for me…” His voice faltered. “It hurt more than anything the wraiths could ever have done to me.”
Dylan’s voice was very small. “You could see me?” she asked.
He nodded. “Just for a minute or so.” He gave a short, sour laugh. “Usually that’s my favourite part. A whole minute where I am responsible for no one but me. And I get to see a quick glimpse of beyond. Just a flash. Wherever it is that the soul called home.”
Dylan stiffened on his back. She remembered Jonas saying the same thing. That he’d instantly been transported back home, back to Stuttgart.
“That didn’t happen for me,” she said slowly. “I didn’t leave the wasteland.”
“I know,” he sighed.
“Why not?” she wondered. “Why didn’t I go anywhere?”
She counted three of Tristan’s long, confident strides before he answered her.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, but his words lacked the ring of truth.
Tristan let her down as soon as the ground began to firm up beneath his feet. At first Dylan pouted, missing the warmth of being nestled up close to him – and the luxury of being carried – but he took her hand again and smiled down at her. She returned the gesture, but the smile fell from her face as she eyed the steep incline before them.
“You know, I really hate going uphill,” she said flatly.