It took Illiom the best part of an hour to still the tremor in her hands.
The last thing she wanted was to appear weak, but she did not know how to calm her thundering heart.
Tarmel sat quietly beside her.
Once, tentative and awkward, he even held her as the tears flowed and she could scarcely breathe.
The hardest thing for Illiom was that she could not speak of the one thing that haunted her.
Not human, the owl had warned. She had sought him out silently after the attack but he had not yet answered her call.
She had no idea what he had meant by those words, but when she recalled the look in her would-be-assassin’s eyes, she suspected the owl had the right of it.
“Better?” Tarmel probed later, as she nursed a cup of black tea he had made from his own supplies. She had changed into fresh clothes as the old ones, tainted with her attacker’s blood, smouldered on a fire nearby.
She nodded, her eyes red but dry at last.
“And ready to leave?”
Again, she nodded.
She could no longer stay here. Three people had sought her out in two days, one to aid her and two to kill her. There were no more arguments left in her.
Iod was dousing the overcast sky with pink when the Rider went to look at the bodies. Unwilling to remain alone, Illiom followed him and stood watching from a distance as he searched them, lingering over each for a time.
When he stood up from the task he looked at her and shook his head.
“Nothing,” he declared, unsurprised. “But something puzzles me.”
He stood over the body of the man who had come close to killing her.
“When I attacked this one I did some very serious damage to his leg, enough to disable him. Yet he walked, and nearly succeeded in his intent.”
“Maybe you did not do as much damage as you had imagined?”
Tarmel squatted beside the corpse and used his knife to cut the man’s trouser leg up to the knee.
Illiom shuddered when she saw the bone that jutted out through the broken skin.
“There are two bones in the lower leg,” Tarmel explained, detached. “With only one broken, walking is not impossible, but it is unheard of. The pain would be horrendous, and one would more than likely lose consciousness.”
He mused for a moment, then stood up and walked over to the second man.
“And here is another mystery. I did not do this to his face.”
Illiom approached, quite certain that she knew what she would see.
Who’s claws had gouged the man’s eyes, destroying them.
“Something did this to him before I killed him.”
He looked at Illiom, mystified.
She nodded but avoided his eyes.
There was not much that Illiom needed or wanted to take with her.
She threw a few possessions into an old shoulder bag: tinder box, flint, a water skin. Almost as an afterthought she picked up a round stone – her very own glittering piece of the Sevrocks – and added it to the bag.
Still dazed by the violence of the attack, she rummaged through her few remaining clothes. All were worn or patched. Even her best outfit, the one she usually donned on her yearly visit to the village, seemed inadequate for her impending return to humanity. Illiom had no idea what awaited her in the capital, but she suspected that what might pass as respectable in Velimoss might very well be relegated to the rubbish heap in the royal city.
Annoyed, she ended up stuffing a few of the better items into the bag. It occurred to her that with twenty-five florins at her disposal, there was not a single thing in her hut that could not easily be replaced.
Before leaving she made sure her clay pots were tightly sealed and, as a final gesture, touched her forehead to the hearth stone and murmured a prayer of gratitude.
Along with her bag, she picked up her bow and quiver and walked outside.
A faint rumble of thunder rolled away in the distance.
Illiom closed the door and propped it shut with a large stone. Finally, using her knife, she carved the symbols for welcome and sanctuary on the vertical branch of the door frame.
“So, you do not think you will be coming back?”
She turned to look at the Rider.
“I doubt it.”
While she was packing, the Rider had busied himself repairing the cages that would carry the geese. They were old and dilapidated, but he had done a fair job of mending them with odd bits of rope. Between them, they coaxed the birds into the cages and hoisted them onto Temper. Illiom herded the goats to the rim of the ledge.
Everything was finally ready, yet Illiom lingered.
She cast a final sweeping look at the ring of mountains that surrounded what had been her home and her prison for the past four years. Tarmel watched but said nothing and waited patiently.
At last she nodded.
“I am ready,” she said, and took the first step towards her destiny.
She let the Rider lead with his two horses and trailed behind with the other animals in tow.
Another peal of thunder sounded in the distance.
She followed Tarmel down the slope, grateful that he could not see the silent tears that spilled from her eyes.
They reached the stream and followed its reduced summer trickle until it eventually cascaded down a long, sheer rock face. Here it vanished in a spray of droplets that fell to the wooded world below.
Tarmel drew Illiom’s attention to a pair of horses grazing amongst the tufts of mountain grass.
“I was wondering where they might have left them,” he said. “They were obviously not planning on going anywhere after fulfilling their purpose.”
She looked at him questioningly.
“What do you mean?”
“They let the horses go! They did not even bother to tether them. This puzzle just gets more convoluted at every turn.”
Bidding her to wait with the gelding and the rest of the animals, he mounted his stallion and rode down to retrieve the two horses.
Illiom watched him circle in a way that gave the animals the least possible chance of escape, but they did not seem inclined to bolt and allowed him to round them up effortlessly.
“That was easy,” he said as he rejoined her.
The forest was still a way below them, spreading out across the valley in a green sea of cedar and pine that gave way to paperbarks and eucalypts along the fringes.
They resumed their descent and, with the new additions, skirted down the steep incline before the grey stone of the mountain suddenly gave way to forest.
Illiom took the lead as they stepped into the tangle of trees and began searching for the deer trail she had followed on previous descents. It was laborious work but eventually they stumbled upon it, a relatively clear route through otherwise dense undergrowth.
They fell into an easy rhythm as they followed the trail’s constantly winding decline.
“I saw you earlier, before the attack,” Illiom said abruptly with a backward glance, choosing spontaneity over caution.
She looked at him sharply.
“It is one of the features of Madon. It sharpens and extends the senses so that the student begins to perceive what normally lies outside his reach.”
“It is the craft I practice.”
“It looked like a dance to me.”
“It is a warring practice. I learnt it when I was a boy.”
The conversation was stilted by the exigencies of the descent. They negotiated a tricky passage through a patch of brambles before Illiom spoke again.
“Is it common practice only among the Black Ward, or warriors in general?”
Tarmel did not answer immediately.
“As a matter of fact, it is not at all well-known, but I am trying to change that.”
“Well, it is very graceful.”
Her compliment was rewarded with a smile that quite transformed his face and Illiom saw the boy who dwelled inside him still. There was both pride and pleasure in his next words.
“Madon is the epitome of efficiency and elegance. The movements are economical and powerful because of their grace.”
“Do you do it every day?”
He shook his head.
“No. Sometimes things prevent me from doing so, but I practice as often as I can.”
They continued in silence.
Illiom had tethered Temper behind the gelding, as he was prone to wander off without warning. The goats took less steering but still strayed from time to time, attracted by the uncommon abundance of succulent greenery.
The air was warming and Illiom started to feel clammy. Her clothes clung to her skin, so she untucked her shirt from her trousers and let it hang loose.
When Tarmel glanced at her she thought he would comment on her appearance.
“Madon is not just a set of exercises, it is the flow of life itself,” he said instead. “It gifts one with sharp awareness. The craft’s power rests in that it rejects nothing. It does not avoid, condemn, or judge. It acknowledges all of life, and values death as nothing more or less than life’s equal partner. It inspires total dedication to the only thing that is real and that really matters.”
A retort of thunder sounded then, much closer this time.
“That moment we call the ‘now’, the ever-changing yet ever-present now.”
The trail plunged down another steep slope and they stopped talking.
When it levelled out again, the eucalypts gave way to majestic cedars and they entered a silent world where their footfalls were softened by a thick carpet of needles. There was virtually no undergrowth beneath the giant fir trees, making the travellers’ progress much easier. High overhead the tips of the trees swayed and bent before a breeze that could not be felt near the forest floor, yet still it murmured to them with a calming and insistent song.
The world darkened rapidly, and with an explosive clap of thunder that scattered the goats and drew a loud complaint from Temper, the storm was suddenly upon them.
Illiom left Tarmel with the horses and the mule and chased the goats, calling each by name, trying to coax them back. She heard the downpour long before the first fat drops seeped past the canopy to fall upon her, and by the time she rejoined the Rider they were both sodden.
It did not last long however, and the deluge stopped as abruptly as it had started. The summer storm pressed eastward, rumbling to itself as it went. They continued through the now glistening woods, listening to the flamboyant renewal of birdsong, and breathing in the rich scents released by the rain.
The trail climbed to skirt the base of a towering cliff. Here, through an opening in the trees, they had a clear view of where they were headed.
Flanks of sheer stone rose on either side of a narrow gorge scarred with clefts and ravines. Their trail descended unerringly towards this torturous defile and the forest accompanied them for as long as it dared, holding back at last where a mess of fallen boulders had crushed the foolish trees that once grew there.
The clouds had receded far to the east by the time they reached the gorge, and Iod’s light revealed that midday was well behind them.
Driven by a need to free herself of the mountains’ hold, and by the haunting memory of the attack, Illiom did not think to suggest a halt, even to appease the protest of her rumbling stomach.
Tarmel seemed to intuit her mood and pressed on behind her without comment.
They stopped only to water the animals.
The gorge was nowhere near as challenging now as it was in the spring when the waters slammed through, hard and fast, on their quest for the more expansive and sedate flow of the Weal River. Illiom remembered how difficult it had been when she had come this way alone. Encumbered as they now were with the animals, in the spring the gorge would have been impassable.
Even so, the pair spoke little as they picked their way carefully past slabs of slate, granite boulders as big as houses, and the assorted debris left behind by past floods.
It was late in the afternoon when they emerged on the far side and abandoned the track in favour of a road that connected Velimoss to other hamlets further north.
It was not much of a road as it was rough and poorly maintained. Deep wheel ruts scarred it whenever it dipped into a gully or a low tract prone to flooding. But the road did have one advantage; it did not meander quite as randomly as the track had.
The air here was hotter still and Illiom felt her hands turn clammy, but not just from the heat. After they left the gorge, a gradual restiveness took hold and grew stronger the closer they got to Velimoss. Meeting and dealing with the villagers, finding homes for her animals, answering prying questions - thoughts of these things began to distress her. Illiom was relieved when Tarmel broke the silence.
“It is probably best that we do not talk of your summons or explain the reasons for this journey when we reach the village,” he said without preamble.
Clearly his thoughts had fallen along similar lines.
“What should we say if someone asks?”
“How about, ‘none of your business’?” he suggested with a wry smile. Tarmel cleared his throat and his expression turned serious again.
“Jests aside, we should tell them anything that does not leave a trail for anyone else to follow. I do not know the identity of those who attacked you, but they were seeking you and somehow they found you. I would feel much better knowing that we did not leave any signs of our passing. I want us to become invisible. If we must leave a trail, let it be a false one.”
Iod was lowering himself behind the western mountains when they finally reached the hamlet’s hill. The road began to rise, snaking around the hill and approaching the village in an indirect, almost furtive way.
The two discussed their strategy as they neared their destination.
“How about this?” Tarmel suggested. “Your father, whom you have been on poor terms with for many years, is on his death bed. I am your cousin, and my own father, your uncle, sent me to fetch you, fearing that the old man will not last out the moon. As the hour looms closer, nothing has become more important to your father than to finally reconcile with his only daughter. He is reaching out to you, asking for forgiveness.”
“Such a fanciful tale! Where did you dredge that up from?”
“It happened to a friend of mine. We might as well make use of it.”
The first buildings, a farmhouse with a humble barn, appeared quite suddenly as the road spilled them into a cleared tract of land. A plume of smoke drifted lazily across the field from the main building. Dogs barked enthusiastically as the pair passed, though no one emerged to investigate. Soon other houses came into view and once again their passage was heralded by insistent barking.
A handful of small children, playing in the dirt by the road, watched curiously as they passed. Soon afterwards they reached the cluster of houses that defined Velimoss’ main square.
The square seemed far too large for such a small village. Perhaps someone had been impressed by one of the squares in a larger town and had tried to bring some of that grandeur to Velimoss. If that was the case, they had failed.
All that the vastness of the square achieved was to separate the houses into sad little clusters that huddled fearfully together.
Only a small ring around a central well was actually paved, and Illiom had little doubt that the rest of the square reverted to slush every year with the arrival of the rains.
The well itself was quite beautiful. Its stone sides had been painstakingly shaped to curve without snags and a roof of red cedar offered a little shade. It was beneath this that a small group of women were clustered, talking animatedly in loud voices ripe with gossip.
A young girl cranked a wooden wheel to draw water while a queue of assorted vessels – urns, kettles and wooden buckets – lay scattered about, waiting to be filled.
The women were dressed in the hardy, simple garb favoured by the mountain women of the Sevrocks: shirts and skirts of black hemp, heads covered in brightly coloured scarves. Their feet were bare. The oldest among them wore bright scarlet shawls draped over their shoulders.
When someone pointed in their direction, faces turned and the chatter ceased.
Illiom took a deep breath as they drew closer.
“It be the mountain girl,” one woman announced excitedly in a not-so-quiet whisper. She stared brazenly and Illiom stared right back.
“Greetings goodwives,” the Rider intoned pleasantly. “We are in need of a good meal, lodgings for a night and shelter for these animals. Can any of you help, or do you know someone who might? For the right price, of course.”
The women glanced at each other.
“Velear might let ye have ’is barn for ’alf a silver.”
This comment came from a toothless crone with a face mapped by a lattice of lines and wrinkles.
Another piped in before they could respond to the first.
“Ay, no doubt he would, but ’is barn is halfway down the other side of the ’ill. Ye could try yer luck with ’im or ye could come along with me, sleep nice ’n cosy under me own roof; I lives much closer ’n will just as soon take one or two of ’em geese off yer ’ands than ask ye to part with any coin.”
Illiom looked at the small woman who had spoken. Her hair was a mess of unruly straw, her bright eyes held a look somewhere between cunning and kindness.
“We do not mind paying, if the lodgings suit us,” Tarmel said.
“Oh, it not be much to look at, dearie. But clean straw with a roof ’n four walls to keep the wind out will do more good than ‘arm. An’ me daughter cooks as good as any taverner in Atund. The ’orses ‘ll fare just fine in the paddock this time o’ year and yer geese an’ goats can stay in the barn with me own animals, nice ’n safe.”
Illiom looked at Tarmel who simply raised his eyebrows and, with a slight shrug, left the decision to her.
“How far do you live?” Illiom asked.
“Not far at all, dearie. Just the edge of town, over there,” she said, waving her hand in the general direction.
“Very well,” she decided, turning to the Rider. “Shall we take a look?”
Tarmel gave a disinterested nod.
“I’ll just fetch me water then, an’ I’ll lead ye,” the woman said with alacrity. She jumped the queue and filled her buckets, which Tarmel kindly offered to carry for her.
As they walked through Velimoss at the heels of their prospective host, they gathered a small escort of children and dogs who trailed a little way behind them. An old man watched their passing from a shadowed doorway; a few faces peered out from behind windows.
“Not much happens here, does it?” Tarmel commented dryly.
“We sure don’t ’ave many visitors, if that’s yer meaning,” the woman said with a smile. “The road does go down to Atund but pretty much nothing comes back up. We’re small but we’re ’appy to stay small. I would not swap me life ’ere with anyone in town.”
The goats, tired of travelling, decided to plunder a vegetable garden that grew between two dwellings. Illiom chased them back into line.
The woman, whose name they discovered was Galena, led them off the main road to a cluster of rustic buildings tucked under a copse of ancient elms.
“There be a stream just beyond ’em trees down there. Not much water in it now on account of it being the end of summer ’n all, but when the rains come we’ve no need to bother with the well ’til spring is over. It be ‘ard work, carryin’ ’em pails all this way four or five times every day.”
They released the four horses in the paddock and secured the rest of the animals in the barn. Tarmel stayed with the horses, unsaddling and brushing them down, while Illiom followed Galena towards the house, approaching it dubiously.
It looked shabby, little better than a shack, but when she stepped inside she found it surprisingly clean and airy. And after a full day’s walking without lunch, the prospect of rest and food coloured her decision and the transaction was rapidly sealed.
Galena pointed to a pallet set in one corner of the common room and Illiom quickly explained that they would need two beds, not one.
The woman was about to turn her daughter out of her bed to accommodate them when Tarmel entered and, sizing up the situation, offered to use his roll instead. Galena thanked him and showed him a space to one side of the hearth where he could settle for the night.
The Rider nodded distractedly.
Galena’s daughter, a portly girl by the name of Sule, was a sullen sort. To her credit she did cook a tasty stew of rabbit and potatoes, serving it with a thick slab of grainy bread she had baked that very morning.
Slant, Galena’s husband and the apparent source of Sule’s moodiness, offered them a cup of black beer which Illiom declined but Tarmel gratefully accepted. Conversation was sparse as they ate, but after the meal it headed in a predictable direction.
“Ye’ve lived up in ’em mountains for quite a time now, ’aven’t ye?” Slant broached the subject first.
Illiom noted the quick look he gave his wife as he spoke, as if they had already had words about it in private.
“Four years,” Illiom answered succinctly before filling her mouth with food. He pressed on.
“Ye know, there was some what said ye’d not last past the first rains. And then there was others that said ye’d come down and leave in the spring, if ye lived through the winter, that was. There were wagers aplenty, ye know. But ye’ve lasted more than all them wagers!”
He laughed raucously, pleased at his own wit. Sule frowned at her plate.
“What’s to make ye up and leave now then, uh?” he flung at Illiom. He could not help but give the Rider a meaningful glance, but for his part Tarmel was studiously intent on his food and looked up briefly to smile at their hosts, offering nothing by way of an answer.
Illiom fell on the tale that they had previously agreed upon.
“Tarmel here is my cousin; he has come looking for me because things are not going well with my father.” She looked at Slant the whole time as if she was speaking to him alone. “We are travelling to Atuin before he dies; we have not been on good terms for a long time so perhaps it is time to mend our differences.”
She played with the food on her plate.
“I will miss the mountains.”
Galena offered them more beer then and this time Illiom accepted. Not another word was spoken about her leaving.
Tarmel spoke not at all. All that anyone could get from him was a nod or the occasional monosyllabic response. Illiom wanted to ask him if something was amiss, but she did not get the opportunity.
Being travel-sore and weary they retired early.
Illiom’s bed was no more comfortable than her own had been, but it held no nasty surprises either, just a wooden pallet that barely raised one above the dampness of the floor. It was covered with a generous layer of fresh straw.
She threw a cloak over it and fell asleep almost as soon as she lay her head on the rolled blanket that served as a pillow; but not before she quested out for Who, receiving only silence in response.
After that, sleep was like an empty well, deep and filled with strange, disquieting murmurs and echoes.
The following day Illiom gave all the geese to Galena, who responded with a squeal of unmitigated joy. The travellers then left the house on foot to find homes for Temper and the goats.
Tarmel’s mood had not improved by much so Illiom spoke to him at the earliest opportunity.
“Is something the matter?”
The Rider looked at her with a frown.
“I am not sure,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe.”
She waited for him to explain and eventually he sighed.
“Your attackers’ horses have the brand of the Golden Ward upon their flank. I noticed it last night when I unsaddled them.”
“What is a golden ward?”
He looked at her blankly for a moment then raised his eyebrows in momentary incredulity.
“The Golden Ward is the main army that protects Albradan. Unlike the Black Ward it serves to protect the entire realm. I think the horses may have been stolen … I do not know what to make of it.”
It took most of the day to sell the remaining animals.
The goats ended up with a goatherd and his son who watched avidly as their small herd doubled in size. Illiom was not sorry to see them go, but was saddened to let go of Temper.
In the end he was taken away by the miller, a tall sullen man with a dour expression. The man had recently lost his horse and was eager to replace it. A mule would do just fine.
Illiom did not agree to the transaction until she heard the man speak to her mule in a kind tone and saw him stroke Temper’s muzzle with a caring hand. That took away the last of her hesitation and a deal was sealed.
Having already decided that they would spend a second night in Velimoss and leave early the following morning for Atund, they were walking back up the hill to Galena’s home when Illiom stopped in her tracks.
“Oh no!” she said softly.
“What is it?”
“Jarume,” she said and nodded her head towards a lone man coming down the hill towards them.
She closed her eyes for a moment, shaking her head.
“I was hoping not to see him,” she whispered, and grimaced as the man came near.
Jarume was a tall man of about thirty years. His black hair was oiled and lustrous.
An impressive moustache almost completely covered his mouth. Penetrating brown eyes moved from Illiom to Tarmel and then back again.
He was dressed in work clothes that were so patched it was difficult to tell what the original fabric had been. He clasped a tattered cap in large hands that were weathered and hardened by work.
His knuckles were white from holding the cap too tightly.
He darted another, suspicious glance at Tarmel before returning his attention to Illiom.
“They told me you was leaving...”
His tone struggled between mournful and accusing.
“I have to, Jarume…” she replied hesitantly. “My pa is sick.”
“I’ve ’eard. There be not a one in Velimoss who ’asn’t ‘eard that yer leavin’ an’ why.”
He looked down at the ground, nudging a stone to one side with his boot.
“When will ye be comin’ back then?”
Illiom took half a step towards him and hesitated.
“I am not coming back,” she said at last.
Jarume’s eyes acquired a look of desperate urgency then.
“I jus’ thought ... maybe you an’ me ... we could’ve...”
He hung his head, unable to finish.
“Oh Jarume, I am sorry...” She reached a hand towards him, stopping just short of touching him.
He looked at her hand as if he wanted nothing more than to reach for it and hold it, yet he held back.
After a few moments of silence he straightened, looked again at Tarmel, and gave him a nod. His mouth became set and his eyes grew distant.
“Then I wish ye well, Illiom.”
He tried to smile but scowled instead. He wiped at the expression with the back of his hand.
“I hope ye find what yer looking for, mountain girl.”
He pushed past them the moment he finished speaking and hurried away down the hill without a backward glance.
Illiom stood rooted to the spot, watching him until he vanished from sight.
Then she shook her head and turned towards Galena’s house.
They walked in silence as the gold that precedes twilight gilded Velimoss’ hill in mystical light.
Illiom was half expecting a comment from the Rider, but none came.
She felt like she needed to explain herself, to justify the encounter in some way, and she had no idea why. She waited until their destination was in sight before she spoke again.
“Jarume and I traded each spring when I came to town. He was more generous than the rest so ... I sought him out each time.” She waited a span, but Tarmel still made no comment.
“The last few times he was friendlier than before. He wanted to talk as well as trade. He spoke of his life here, of his loneliness ... I knew that he liked me, it was obvious, and I was sure that nothing would come of it. But last spring, I had started to wonder...”
She had wondered if this was perhaps her destiny: to remain here in Velimoss near her mountains, to wed a local, to settle and have children and take her place in the daily queue by the well. So strong had the pain of loneliness been, and the yearning for the touch of a kind hand.
Jarume had been the only candidate.
“Jarume is a kind man,” was all that she said.
Tarmel slowed as they neared the house.
“Illiom, you owe me no explanations,” he said, his tone matter-of-fact, his expression blank. “I am just a Rider come to fetch you and escort you back to Kuon. As long as you comply with the summons you owe me nothing else.”
His tone softened a little then.
“Just let me know if there are any other loose ends that I should be aware of...”
He grinned as he spoke these words, but Illiom sensed something – she knew not what – lurking behind his smile.
Illiom’s mood grew increasingly brooding and despondent as the evening wore on. She tried to be civil, and tolerant of Slant and his ravings, but chose to retire immediately after dinner.
She lay on her pallet, listening to the low murmur of voices. Then, when all fell silent at last, she wept silently until sleep robbed her of both consciousness and regret.