The third berry didn't taste any different from the first or second, but he paused to let it sink in. After a while he looked up at the sky. It looked the same. With a mental shrug he sat down, wrapping his cloak over his shoulders in case the rain started in earnest, and plucked a fourth. There was still no movement.
After a while a tall woman on a chestnut horse trotted up to him and stopped, the bells of her reins jangling. She scrunched her nose. The effect was to make her look almost exactly like his sister, and he stifled a giggle. "Need a ride?" she said, sounding just a little suspicious. "It's going to thunder pretty soon, you know."
He shrugged. "Look at the clouds. The light's coming right through. Not as if there aren't plenty of trees around, either."
The woman sighed and tossed her hair back. "I can smell it. You'll get soaked. You're new here, aren't you."
"Mmm. Just showed up this afternoon. Want a berry?" He tossed one at her; it arced redly through the air and bounced off her cheek. She made no move to fetch it; the mark it made was juice-red and showed up the shape of her cheekbone. She wrinkled her nose again.
"Well," she finally said, "you'll be wanting something more substantial. Come down to the inn with me and you can have soup." He took her hand; it was thin and sinewy against his, but she hauled him onto the horse easily enough.
Much later that night, belly full and head buzzing, he asked her, "How long has it been for you?"
"Going on two hundred years."
She hadn't even seemed to notice the smells at dinner, the people laughing, clinking glasses, the chewing. He would have thought it would be the chewing that was the hardest. That was why he had eaten before he even came to the settled areas, to seal the deal and keep himself from regretting it. But she sat there, whipcord-lean but not yet starving, and looked at everything but the food. He imagined it was practice.
Outside that night it rained so hard he thought the window would cave in. He wondered if she could taste the sherbert still in the back of his tongue.
Three weeks later, on patrol at the borders, he got a letter from his sister, delivered by a bird. He offered the bird a piece of breadcrust but it refused and twittered away. Dear brother, it began, I miss you terribly, and can only hope that the life below has treated you kindly. I know you cannot answer me, but please, do not lose hope. There have been those before who have been paroled back; we keep your place open. Do not allow the hunger to condemn you.
He ripped the letter in to very small bits before he dumped them in the campfire.
When she came back she was combing her hair out, wincing whenever she hit a snag. "What's the matter?" she asked him, and sat down opposite him, balancing on her bootheels. "You look like Something kicked you."
He lifted his hands - his smooth plump hands with a few trembling muscles, dark even skin, fingernails pale and glossy as if they'd been painted with lacquer. There was still a bit of berry juice clinging to his fingers from breakfast. Instead of answering he got up and started to take down the tent. The bird had long since vanished into the sky, but he kept tossing glances at the last spot he had seen it, as if it could take a report, even if not a message. He rode down into the valleys that morning and she followed him without complaint.
It was not until that night he asked her, "Surely, after two hundred years, you don't still hope for parole? It's not that bad here. I thought it was supposed to be hell, but everyone seems so happy."
Her smile was, as always, thin-lipped. "I didn't expect it," she said, "and I didn't deserve it. For what I did, there can be no forgiveness. I admitted it. Went gracefully, as best I could."
"They said this place was supposed to be hell. It wasn't," she said, and looked away so her hair hung over her face and only the bones of her wrists, balanced over he knees, caught the light. "We make our own hells, and you and the people like you have made this one nearly heaven."
After a few months the letters stopped, but by then he didn't really mind.