THE HOUSE IN THE ENDLESS HILLS (Zantheus's Dream)
They reached the shore just after nightfall, but only just.
Still some way away, Zantheus’s limbs began to give way from exhaustion and cold. A creeping stillness started to spread through his body, and for some reason he thought he might release his painful grip on the chunk of wood and swim the rest of the way; Tromo could complete the final part of their voyage by himself.
He regretted this decision at once. Letting go of the piece of mast to bring his arms some relief, Zantheus slipped off from it and plunged straight underwater.
Darkness enveloped him, except for a very faint patch of light above. The stillness started to spread from his body to his mind, and his thoughts became very slow. He found himself confronted by a terrible kind of weight, a thick heaviness that threatened to drag him down irrecoverably. For all his strength of will and body, he could not face it. Panic consumed what was left of his waking mind. He tried to thrash around in desperation, but his limbs would not obey him.
The light at the top of the water was fading fast. How he longed for that light. He would give anything, anything in the world, just to be reunited with that light, just to be up there again. It was getting further and further away. He had the strange sensation of falling, or perhaps it was flying. Or floating. He was sure the darkness was going to swallow him up completely. He called out, unable to free himself, and his mouth filled with water. A hand reached down and grasped his. It wrenched him back up, back up into the light.
The shore. He must be on the shore because his legs had hit something. He forced his head out of the water and spluttered and gasped for air. Everything tasted salty. Zantheus tried to remember how to walk. He stumbled forwards, tripping over several times, begging his body to obey him. The world was dark and blurry and contorted with every step, but the water seemed to be getting shallower. One of his falls brought him to his knees; fortunately by now it was shallow enough for him to crawl. He focused on inhaling and exhaling; his own breath was all he knew. The night air caressed his soaking wet body and he started to shake with cold. As the chill spread down his arms and legs he realised he was nearly out of the water. He had arrived in Dahma! His hands felt soft sand. Without thinking about what he was doing he scooped some into his mouth and rejoiced at its disgusting earthy taste. Then he collapsed face down in it, too exhausted to go any further. Zantheus could not even muster the energy to check if Tromo was still with him. He only managed to raise his head for a moment to cast a brief glance around in the darkness. Then he passed out.
There, lying on the seashore, Zantheus began to dream.
No water. No cold. Just warmth.
The freezing stillness had been replaced by a comforting warmth. This was the first thing of which Zantheus became aware. Despite himself, he lay for a while where he was, with his eyes closed, and allowed his body to drink in the soothing heat. This was forbidden by the Order –as soon as you could hear yourself thinking you were supposed to open your eyes, get up from your mat and recite the Articles. But for once Zantheus found that he simply could not be bothered...
“Zantheus! Get up, Zantheus!”
Checking himself for his unthinkable thought, he jolted upright and opened his eyes. Unfortunately this sudden movement brought with it the revelation that he had been lying with his head pointing down a very steep incline, and so he immediately fell down again. He tumbled backwards at length, armour clanging as he went, and lay once more in a heap at its bottom. Confronted by a beautiful cloudless blue sky above him, he let out a long sigh. He got to his feet and was surprised at once. Where he had expected to be on the sea-shore, somehow he was standing instead at the foot of a cluster of featureless grassy hills which barred him from seeing any further. What was going on? Had he been transported somewhere new again? There was no sign of the boy he had rescued anywhere. Mountain, sky, ship, sea, hills; he was beginning to grow exasperated with these sudden changes of scene. He resolved to climb the hill he had just rolled down to try to work out exactly where he was.
The race up the hill was light and easy, he had been oddly rejuvenated by his sleep in the sun, and yet at the same time he was plagued by a growing sense of unease. The vision that greeted him as he reached the top of the hill shocked him to his core. As far as his keen eyes, which now threatened to fill with tears, could see, a great length in the sunshine, were hills of grass. On every side they rolled, all the way into the horizon, until they shrank gradually away beyond it. Terrifyingly, they were completely bare. There was not a single tree, building or animal, let alone human being, to be seen. The only thing moving was the grass. Its countless blades rippled in the breeze in waves so that the landscape seemed to shimmer slightly; a delicate sea of green quietly washing over the barren hills. Where was this? He had arrived in some strange new country, uncharted by any map he had seen, unvisited by any traveller of whom he had heard.
There was only one thing to do. Zantheus chose a point on the horizon and, eyes firmly fixed, set off. He had to hope that somehow his legs would carry him to somebody who could provide food for him and tell him where he was. So he walked. Minutes faded into hours, and from the movement of the sun he saw that he was heading roughly east, so he thought he might as well line himself up to travel in that direction. All the time questions were going round and round in his head. Where was he? How had he arrived in this uncharted country? Why was he so far away from the sea all of a sudden? What had happened to Tromo? They reeled through his mind one after the other, stirring up anxiety on each pass, but no answers ever came to resolve them.
After some time of unbroken travel, soon Zantheus was begging the terrible country just to change. A rock. A tree. A river. Anything! Anything to bring some variety to these never-ending hills. Anything to break up the unceasing monotony. Time stretched. He became so used to the same questions playing over and over in his mind that they flowed together into one great ebb of desperation, which mingled with his desire to see some sort of a change in the landscape. When the day began to dim and he still felt no physical fatigue, the desperation rose to the pitch of a silent scream, reverberating around inside his head. He did not even try lying down to go to sleep, but carried on at his constant pace, plodding along in the darkness. New questions were added to his catalogue of worries, questions that took their turn in his mind with every alternate step, questions that he would never normally dare to ask, questions that were not worth asking. Was he being punished for acting improperly at the top of Mount Awmeer somehow? Had he drowned while swimming to shore with Tromo –was he dead? He was afraid that he had receded into some sort of limbo, some borderless land in which he was doomed to wander forever...
By the dawn of the next day, his shouts had become audible. Roars of sound started to burst forth from his lips without warning whenever his mind buckled under the strain of the tedium and fear. But they rang out over the hills uselessly and no reply came. No-one in any direction was around to issue any kind of a reply. Even if he just came across one tree, one rock, one stream, anything, any point of change to let him know that he was not alone, that he was still in the world that he was used to, that would be enough. That was all he wanted. He must have covered miles by now. Why was his body still coping? What was going on? His thoughts were fragmenting. He started to let out the shouts of frustration just to remind himself that he was still present, that he still existed, that he was still here. But they only served to remind him of his impotence, of his total aloneness in this place, of his inability to change anything about this country. The starkness of the hills only made the cries echo for longer. The only answer they ever yielded to him was the sound of his own voice.
Until Zantheus saw something. At first he was unsure as it was so far away, but in time he grew surer that he could see a little jut protruding unnaturally from one of the hills. It was still just a dot, however. Each time he came down the side of one hill, he became worried that it would disappear, that he had just been tricking himself, that his mind was inventing things to stop itself from going mad. But it was still there each time he resurfaced, bringing comfort coupled with a reluctance to move out of sight of it again. Nevertheless, he always overcame this reluctance, pulled forward by the need to reach this dot, this chance. It grew bigger. Eventually, when it was only ten or so rises and falls away, Zantheus began to make out what it was. A house! Finally he would be able to talk to another person! By the time he was one hill away, he was running full pelt. He leapt up the last slope and at last found himself in front of the structure.
‘House’ had been an exaggeration. It was more of a shed, neatly constructed out of wooden planks, though Zantheus could still see no trees. But that was the least of his worries! He knocked on the door and opened it.
Inside the shed were only a desk and, seated at it, a man who was craned over some parchment, scribbling furiously with a quill. In the wall in front of him was a single window, which looked out over the endless hills.
“Where am I?” Zantheus blurted out, too frustrated by his hours of wandering to bother to greet the stranger properly.
At first, there was no response. The quill continued to scratch away.
Then: “Of course, the most difficult question has to come first,” said the stranger, who was not startled at all by this sudden intrusion into his shed. If anything, he sounded slightly disappointed. He stood up and turned round to face Zantheus.
He was not particularly handsome or ugly, though a little on the skinny side, and stood taller than Zantheus at a bit over six feet. The only thing you might notice about him on passing him in the street was his hair. It was red, brown and in places blonde. Wildly thick, it had the effect of lighting up the rest of him, a crown of messy dreams that elevated him still further above his height into some fragile world that other people could not see. They locked gazes, and for a moment Zantheus met the most intense stare he had ever come across, except possibly for one other, but he could not remember from where.
“I suppose the best thing to tell you would be that you have strayed into some strange country uncharted by any map that you have seen and unvisited by any traveller you have spoken with.”
“Yes,” said Zantheus, “that is what I thought. These hills seem to go on forev-”
“They do,” the stranger interrupted.
Zantheus was a little confused by this man, and more than a little unsettled. When he had stood up to greet him he had remained slightly craned over to carry on writing with his right arm. Even now as he spoke to Zantheus the sound of the quill feverishly scratching ink into the parchment persisted underneath their conversation.
“Is it not so?” said Zantheus, ignoring the discourtesy. “But they must end somewhere.”
“No, you misunderstand me. They do go on forever. Endlessly. Perpetually. Infinitely.”
There was an uncomfortable moment of silence. “Where are your family?” Zantheus asked, trying a different tack. Maybe if he could talk to somebody else he would be able to find out where he was and how to get back to Qereth.
“I have none here,” said the man.
“Have you no friends? Associates? No-one at all?”
“I am entirely alone—you are the first other person I have ever encountered here.”
“I do not understand...” said Zantheus. He tried reasoning with the stranger. “If you have never encountered anyone else...” He searched around for a reasonable question, “...where did you get that ink?”
“How can I show you?” said the stranger ponderously. His eyes flashed. The pen picked up speed for a moment. “I am alone. I write. This is my existence.”
Zantheus was getting more and more disconcerted. An idea came to him.
“Look—what is your name?”
“You can call me Leukos.”
“Look, Leukos, you must eat. Where do you go to eat?” Maybe this would lead him to more reasonable people.
“Surely you have noticed,” said Leukos with quiet authority. “You don’t need to eat here.”
Just as Zantheus was about to lose his temper and tell Leukos how ridiculous he was being, the truth of his words struck him. He had been in this land for a long time and not eaten a single thing.
“Now do you begin to see?”
Zantheus ran out of the shed in an effort to escape this realisation, but it followed him out. At once he was confronted by the grassy hills again. The idea that they might go on forever hit him so hard that he sank to his knees with the weight of it. He started to shake slightly. He was imagining all the places out past the horizon that had never been seen by human eyes, and never would be, and yet how they were still out there, just...being. It made him shudder.
“You’re afraid,” said Leukos from beside him. Zantheus would never admit this out loud, but for the first time he almost admitted it to himself. Leukos placed a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be. This is just a picture, like everything else.”
At this completely nonsensical remark something in Zantheus that had temporarily given way reasserted itself. The hills did not go on forever, he decided. They could not. That was ridiculous. It was impossible. He got up and, facing Leukos, grasped the hand that had been placed on his shoulder.
“You are quite sure that you are alone here?”
Fiery eyes met his own. “Certain,” was the mad word that formed.
The infuriating man was still writing with his other hand, the parchment pressed against his thigh. Zantheus marched past him back into the wooden shed where he crossed the floor and began going through the drawers in the desk. All he needed was one clue, one relic from the outside world to wrench him out of this nightmare. There were six drawers built into the desk, three on each side. The first three were filled with bottles of ink and spare quills. He could have guessed at the contents of the other three. Sure enough, they were packed full of ream upon ream of the same brownish parchment that Leukos was writing on.
“You won’t find what you’re looking for in there.”
Leukos had sat down at the desk again without him noticing. Zantheus felt a surge of anger well up inside of him but he fought it down. There was no use getting distraught; one of them needed to be thinking clearly. After all, the man might be of unsound mind. He tried to think of a question that would help his cause, but the irritating quill scratched blankness into his mind. “Leukos, stop writing for a moment, would you?”
“No, please, it is irritating me.”
“What are you writing, in any case?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Zantheus swallowed another surge. “Look man, how old are you?”
Nineteen! Not a man then. Still a boy, really. Now a question fired in his mind.
“Do your parents live near here?”
Leukos looked him in the eyes again. “No,” he said, certain as he was sure he was alone here. Had Zantheus been more astute he might have detected the faintest note of melancholy in it. “I don’t remember my parents.”
“Oh. Neither do I,” he said to the boy, but with no emotion at all.
“I know,” said Leukos, eyes back on the page.
What intolerable nonsense! How in the world could he possibly know? Zantheus wondered whether he could believe anything the stranger said if he was capable of making such ridiculous claims. The man was clearly insane. Probably he had been banished to this barren land by his kinsmen as nobody was able to put up with him. He decided to give up asking questions and lent on the desk, groping in his mind for a new strategy. But as his gaze drifted out of the little window and settled on the endless hills once more, despite himself the words just escaped from his mouth as a whisper.
“...how can I go further?”
“Ah, I thought you’d never ask!” said Leukos, changing manner abruptly and standing up. “Yes, it’s about time now I suppose. Help me move this desk.” He picked up the far side of the desk with his spare hand and pulled it towards the centre of the room, using Zantheus as a pivot. Perplexed, Zantheus lifted his own end and dragged it into line with the other. Now he could see that the desk had been partially concealing a large trap door built into the floor.
“What you need”, said Leukos, “is to go on a journey.” He looked thoughtful. “Yes, a very long journey. I shall need a great deal of parchment.” He retrieved this great deal of parchment from one of the drawers. “Don’t just stand there. Aren’t you going to have a look?”
Too bewildered to comment or protest, Zantheus strode over to the trap door and crouched down. He placed his hand on its iron-ring handle and, not without a little hesitation, opened it. As it thudded open against the wooden floor a bolt of shock surged through him. Where he had expected steps, or soil, or darkness, he saw a sky of almost the same colour as that which was stretched over the hills outside. A couple of clouds drifted impossibly by.
He felt a shoe rest against his back. “That’s the spirit,” said Leukos.
“What-?” Zantheus began, and Leukos kicked him into the sky, and for the second time in not so very long he was somewhere between falling and flying, though he was not sure which.
The nightmare was over. He had made it through alive. The nightmare was over.
Someone had said something.
“...what?” mumbled Zantheus.
“I said: are you alright?”
Zantheus opened his eyes to be greeted by the face of a man, which came into focus gradually. It was not particularly handsome or ugly, and it was topped off by a crown of messy red hair. This triggered some dim sort of memory, but Zantheus was not yet awake enough to register it properly.
Slowly, painfully, he sat up. To his relief, he was back on the seashore. Waves lapped rhythmically at the beach with the receding tide nearby. The sand was soft and wet underneath him. It was morning. His head span, his whole body ached, and he was incredibly hungry, although he thought he could remember not so long ago being astonished at having no appetite at all. He must have been dreaming –though it had been more of a nightmare; something about walking over endless hills, then coming to a sort of shed, and finding someone inside…
“Are you alright?” repeated the stranger, for a third time, standing by him.
Zantheus blinked. Now he realised where he had seen that face before. He looked the stranger up and down to make sure he had the right person. Yes, it was definitely him. Everything was there: green tunic, red hair, tall, wiry frame. He even carried a wad of parchment in his left hand and was scribbling in it with his right while he spoke to Zantheus.
“You…” he said hesitantly, “you are the man from my dream…”
The man only stared nonplussed at him. “Excuse me?”
“You were in my dream!” said Zantheus. “Yes, it was definitely you. You were in the shed! You told me to move your desk... and then... the trap door...” He lost confidence as the man’s face remained fixed with incomprehension.
“I assure you that I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
“No, you do!” said Zantheus. “You are definitely he!”
“I can safely say that I have never seen you before.”
“But I assure you that you have!” Zantheus persisted, turning the man’s own language against him. “If only I could remember your name... I knew it only a moment ago... ‘L’-something... Lu...”
“Leukos? I like that n-”
“Yes, Leukos! That is your name! Do you see now? I remembered your name.”
“Hardly!” said Leukos. “I just told you it!”
“No, but I knew it before you told me!” said Zantheus, staggering to his feet. “I remembered as you said it!”
“Oh, did you now?” said Leukos teasingly. “What a coincidence. And how do you know my name, pray tell?
“Because I have met you before!”
“In the endless hills!”
“The endless hills! They go on and on as far as the eye can see!” By now Zantheus was almost hysterical.
“I’m telling you, I have no idea what you’re talking about. You sound mad.”
Zantheus clasped his head in his hands. Maybe he was mad. Ever since he had climbed Mount Awmeer his whole world had turned upside down: He had come face to face with a giant mirror. He had been thrown into the sky and woken up miles and miles away. He had lived and worked on a ship and taken part in a battle on board it in which he had killed a number of people. Most recently, he had nearly died swimming to shore overnight. His body reminded him of this last occurrence now by crumpling up with tiredness. His legs gave way and he hit the ground on his hands and knees in front of Leukos. Worst, worst of all, he still had lodged in his mind a vision of endless hills, of an unpopulated country that went on for ever and ever, the aftertaste of his dream. No, his nightmare. It had all been a horribly real nightmare. But he was so certain that he had seen the red-haired writer in his dream...
He realised something else all of a sudden.
“Tromo!” he said, and started looking around frantically. The boy was nowhere to be seen. “Leukos, have you seen a young boy anywhere on this beach?”
“I can’t say I have, I’m afraid,” said Leukos. “Why? Were you expecting to see one?”
“You do not understand!” said Zantheus, impatient with the writing man. He got up, with effort, to walk around in search of Tromo, looking this way and that, as he explained to Leukos what had happened. “We were on a ship together, but we were attacked when we saw the coast. The boy fell overboard; I jumped into the water to rescue him and we swam to the shore but…” He stopped mid-sentence. Walking was difficult. He felt dizzy. And his stomach...he had the sharpest pain in his stomach...
“You’ve obviously been through a lot, you seem very distressed,” said Leukos. “You’re probably delirious. Look, there’s no point trying to find him until you’ve recovered a bit. Why don’t I go and find you something to eat? You look famished.”
Zantheus nodded dumbly and the man hurried off. He sat down again in a haze in the sand, perplexed and angry at the world. What was the point of rescuing Tromo, he thought, only for him to vanish at the next available opportunity? He wondered if the boy had even made it to the shore at all. It had been an agonizingly long swim, even with the chunk of mast for support. There was no sign of that either, so maybe Tromo had drifted away with it? It had also been extremely cold in the darkness. Zantheus could remember sinking down and struggling to stay above water, almost drowning. Maybe Tromo had drowned. Or he could have wandered off when he had passed out on the shore, while he had been having that horrible dream. He winced at the memory of it.
He sat there mulling this all over for some time. The sun beat down on him. It was good to dry out from the cold, but now the heat brought the opposite problem. Apparently this was a much hotter part of the world than Aythia. He decided that he could not remember seeing Tromo when he had first reached the shore, so either the boy had been separated from him and washed up somewhere else, or he had perished. At the moment, this only made him feel angry. But he agreed with himself that he would try to look for the boy before he did anything else. It was the noble thing to do.
When Leukos returned it was with some green fruit tucked under his left arm.
“Here, you can eat these.” He let them fall onto the sand and joined Zantheus on the ground. “May I borrow your sword?” he asked.
Zantheus was in too befuddled a state to deny him the request, which he would have done normally. He watched in amazement as Leukos carried on writing with his right hand, his pages lying on the sand, while he clumsily slid the sword out of its sheath with his left.
“Oh, it looks like you’ve had an accident,” he said, observing the splintered end. “No matter.” He sliced one of the fruits in half, then used one of the jutted spikes in the metal to carve up the soft orange flesh into slices.
“Would it not be easier if you stopped writing?” asked Zantheus.
“Possibly,” said Leukos, but he carried on anyway. “Here,” he said. He replaced the sword in its sheath one-handed after a few attempts and picked up a piece of fruit which he handed to Zantheus.
Zantheus needed no further prompting. He took the fruit and devoured it greedily. It was refreshing and delicious to the taste. He let the sweet juice trickle down his throat, slowly quenching his thirst. There were three more whole fruits to follow. With nourishment, Zantheus’s body slowly began to return to something nearer to its normal state. His diziness receded a little and the morning became clearer. He could feel himself becoming calmer. It was alright. He would get back. He would get back to Awmeer, he reassured himself. He would find a way. But first he needed to find some things out.
“Leukos –Leukos, stop writing for a moment,” he said to the writer.
“No, you do not understand, please stop for a moment. It is irritating me.”
“No, you do not understand,” said Leukos. “I can’t.”
Zantheus took a deep breath. He remembered how frustrating this boy could be. “Fine. Tell me then, where am I?”
“You, Zantheus, are on a beach just on the edge of the desert of Midbar, on the westernmost shore of Dahma.”
Well, at least he was on the correct continent. “Have you heard of a city called Qereth, Leukos?”
“Yes, of course.”
A spark of hope. “How far away from it am I?” That was the most important thing to find out.
“Quite a long way. It’s on the other side of the country.”
Zantheus had expected as much. He would not despair. He would not admit defeat. He was going to get back. It was alright. “I do not suppose that you know the way to get there?”
“I could find it,” said Leukos. Then he remarked, almost casually, “I could show you the way to it, if you like.”
This was the first encouraging thing that had happened to Zantheus in a long time. He had no idea why this stranger would offer to show him the way back to Qereth, but he did not want to question it in case the offer was withdrawn. Instead he said “That would be very helpful. I am sure my Order would pay you a sizeable sum of–”
“Oh, I don’t want money,” Leukos cut him off. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll do it for the fun of the journey. I’ll be happy to have some company on my wanderings.”
This time Zantheus did not find it so easy to hide his puzzlement. He looked at Leukos. His irises seemed to flame like his hair, red-brown leaping out of pale green. Why would this crazy man want to travel across a whole country with him with no prospect of reward at its end?
“Who are you, Leukos?” This would have been a distinctly odd question for him to put to an ordinary person, but for some reason when applied to Leukos it seemed highly appropriate.
Leukos paused a moment as if considering the question. Then he said “To you, I’m just a wandering scribe.”
What a peculiar man, thought Zantheus. This was not the usual sort of person he would choose to spend time with. Leukos was quite unlike an Aythian knight. And he was clearly raving mad. But he was offering to show him the way to Qereth… This was the only option he had at that moment.
“Are you sure you know the way?” Zantheus asked.
“Alright, look.” Leukos stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground. Zantheus watched curiously. “You’re here, on the edge of the Midbar desert, I think. As far as I can work out at this point, if you want to get to Qereth then you need to move south-east, out of this desert, and then north-east, across the plains of Avarah. That, after some time, will take you to the borders of Choresh, the giant forest. Once you have braved that –fortunately you can pass through it width-ways, not length-ways– you will have reached the fields of Sadeh. From there it is no hard task to make your way to Qereth.”
Zantheus was not encouraged. “You are sure of this?”
Leukos sat up again and resumed his writing. “Well, not entirely. It is only a rough sketch, after all. Some details may change on the way, we must always be prepared for the unexpected. But at this stage, I am fairly confident that is the basic outline of the journey you must make.”
“And how long would it take me to make this journey?”
“Oh, only about three months or so...”
Zantheus was stunned. “What? Three months? How do you know?”
“Well, of course, I’ve never had to make this journey before, that’s only a guess. It may take us far more or far less time. That all depends on what happens to us on the way.”
Frustrated by the man’s cryptic speech, Zantheus grew angry. “Why should I believe a word that you say, Leukos? How do I know that you did not merely invent all of those names from your head? I have never heard of the ‘plains of Avarah’ or any ‘giant forest’ before.”
“Well, I could have made up all of those names, I’ll grant you that. But you will have to trust me –you will see they are all real places when you travel through them. In any case...” Once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. He drew a triangle on the edge of the ‘fields of Sadeh’. “You have heard of the river Nahar, have you not?”
“Of course. I followed it halfway up Awmeer.”
“Right. So it starts on Awmeer...” Leukos stuck a finger in the triangle.
“Yes, it flows out of a spring.”
He then started tracing a line downwards. “Then it flows through Qereth, yes?”
“Yes.” The line passed through the little circle marking Qereth.
“What you don’t know is that it then cuts through Sadeh until it reaches...” The finger stopped. “I’m not sure of the name of the city, but it was built where the river splits into four. The four new rivers all flow through Choresh forest, except one which veers off to the extreme north. If you can find one of those rivers, eventually it will take you back to Qereth.”
“Is there not one nearby?” said Zantheus agitatedly.
“Do not be confused by these lines in the sand, Zantheus. Dahma is a vast continent. At this stage you are better off aiming for Choresh, which covers most of it and lies in our general direction anyway, than trying to find one of the rivers. Anyway, they all converge beyond Choresh. The further east you go the more likely you are to find one of them.”
He waited while Zantheus contemplated the map in silence. Three months. He did not have three months. He thought about what must be happening at the sanctuary now. He wondered if the Brothers were still waiting for his return, or if they had given up by now, assuming he had died on the mountain like all the other First-Order Paragons who had attempted to climb it. He thought of Gaius, his dearest friend, how disappointed he would be. Zantheus had promised him that he would return. He needed to get back to the Sanctuary to show them that he was still alive, to tell them that he had reached the top of Awmeer. But what would he tell them had been waiting for him there? A mirror? A pair of arms? The sky? Pirates? Endless hills? And then...this perplexing man? No. He needed to get back so that he could climb Awmeer again and work out what had really happened to him. And though he had no idea why, Leukos was offering him his best chance at doing this.
“It seems I have no other choice.”
“You don’t,” said Leukos. “Well, not really.”
Zantheus considered all that he had been told for a moment, still looking down at the rough map in the sand. Although it was only small, he realised that a very long journey was arrayed before him. This made him remember something that the writer had said in his dream, which brought it back to him all the more vividly…
“Leukos, am I right in thinking that you are nineteen?” he said.
“Why, yes,” said Leukos, “what a good guess. How did you know?”
Zantheus nearly said “Because I’ve met you before,” but he decided to just say “You look young.” Then he added, “Not much of a man then, more of a boy.”
“Yes, you might say that,” said Leukos.
Zantheus was now absolutely sure beyond any doubt that the boy had been in his dream, but he did not voice this aloud, for he sensed that it would still be denied, for some reason. There was more to this boy than met the eye, and even what met the eye was very strange. Zantheus began to wonder whether all the things that had befallen him in the last few weeks –his transportation to the sailing vessel, his dream, and now meeting the writer again– were connected, but he had no idea how they could be. He would definitely be keeping a careful eye on Leukos.
“Where do you suggest we go first?” he said, changing the subject.
“There’s a town called Ir a little way inland,” said Leukos. “It would be a good place to acquire some provisions for the journey.”
“Alright. Before we go, however, I would like to search for my companion.”
“Ah yes. ‘Tromo’?”
“Yes. He was a cabin boy on the ship. He is a mute, so it will be very difficult for him to get help, if he is still alive.”
“That seems like a good idea. You must be worried sick about him.”
Zantheus reflected on this. He did not feel especially worried. Although he had grown to be something approaching fond of the boy, it was more out of a sense of duty and right conduct that he thought he should look for him than any kind of compassion or sympathy.
“Yes, well, at the very least I should see if he is somewhere along the shore.”
The pair spent the next hour scouring the stretch of beach where Zantheus had landed for any sign of the boy. They walked up and down it, Zantheus aware and alert and Leukos half watching his feet and half watching his writing as his quill scratched on the page. Zantheus thought it better to stay with him rather than split up and attempt to reconvene –he did not trust the writer not to wander off. In one direction their search was entirely fruitless. As they picked their way carefully across the shore they only found more sand. But when they turned around to look in the other direction, they soon found something that caught Zantheus’s attention…
“What is that?” said Zantheus.
He ran over to an object that lay buried in the sand a distance away. As he got nearer it became clear what it was: the chunk of the broken mast from Thalassa’s vessel. Zantheus knelt down next to it and felt the damp wood with his hands, taking care to avoid splinters. It was definitely the fragment that he had been clinging onto for dear life not so long ago. And here it was now, on the shore.
“This was a part of the ship’s mast,” he said to Leukos when he caught up. “We held onto it to help us stay afloat. I must have let go of it at some point, it is so far away from where I ended up… Maybe he was able to hold on, and paddle the rest of the way to the shore…?”
“That would certainly explain these footprints,” said Leukos.
Zantheus looked round, surprised. He had been so transfixed by the piece of mast that he had not noticed anything else. Sure enough, there in the sand next to them was a set of small footprints, quite faded but still discernible, leading up, away from the sea, inland.
“What lies in that direction?” asked Zantheus, pointing the same way that the footprints led.
“That’s the way to Ir,” said Leukos. “That’s their most likely destination.”
“Let us follow them then,” said Zantheus. He walked up the beach, alongside the footprints, taking care not to tread on them and studying them. They were definitely faded and so could not have been made too recently. As they got further inland, the prints started to fade further. Nearer the sea the sand had been soaked in the tide and so still retained the impress of feet along with the water it had absorbed, but as they walked further the sand became drier, lighter and more difficult to walk on, and eventually the prints disappeared altogether. Zantheus stopped and turned to his companion.
“Leukos, do you know the way to Ir?”