One day, several years after, I would sit in an inn and listen to a bard recount how Theryn and Luin had come down from the Hinterlands, along the landbridge to the north of Alvyria. A lie, yes, and yet not entirely untrue. A few years later, I’d hear it told that they apparated into the forest by way of arcane spells and stumbled upon our camp, there in the clearing around the ashen tree. I once told a fellow traveler that they had come searching for me. None of these things are true. I can say much of those two old fools, but why they appeared when they did is beyond me. Call it fate. Call it destiny. I am sure they themselves would not have called it chance.
I sat beside our campfire with Lána and watched as Dema spoke with my parents. The flames painted her in streaks of red, and the roots of her hair glowed as embers amidst ash—her eyes, the coals. She had come down with me, after we shared a few words, though try as I might I could not pry out what she had meant when she pointed at the tree. It loomed behind us, spreading limbs out over the clearing, dancing with leaves of many hues. Flecks of green still lingered amidst the white-bark branches, though a myriad of oranges fluttered on the fringes. Between my mother’s questions, Dema glanced back to it. Her lips moved as if to whisper, and at times I caught the hint of a few words in that unnameable tongue of hers.
Father stooped down and began ladeling bowls of soup out to everyone gathered around. When he arrived at Lána and I, he crouched before us, a bowl in either hand, but held them just out of reach.
“You say she came out of the forest?” he said. “You’re certain of that?”
“We both saw,” Lána said. “She seemed in a hurry, at first.”
Father handed Lána her bowl, then rubbed his jaw. “What did she say to you, Khal? Anything about where she came from?”
“Vómakháll,” I said, though I knew this was not true. Something in me said that it was better to go along—that whisper in my chest, quiet and slow. “She said she came down from Vómakháll. Could she be a pilgrim like us?”
“I don’t know.” Father plopped the bowl in my lap. “I think—we think she might be troubled. Confused, yes. If she says anything to either of you, tell us. She seems kind, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt, alright?”
Lána dried her lip with her sleeve and nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Father arched his brow and gave me a look that I knew all too well. “Khal?”
“Yes, father,” I said. He rustled my hair and stepped back towards Dema and Mother.
Our caravan had pitched three campfires around the ashen tree, plumes of smoking rising up over the covered wagons encircling the perimeter. The sky swirled with tendrils of grey. I watched one long finger of smoke encircle a star, whispering away to the winds that moaned down the slopes towards the lowlands in the east. The air tasted of rich wood withering to ash. I had to knead my fingers to keep the cold from seeping up to my arms, and my own skin felt stiff to the touch.
I breathed long and slow to quell the aching in my chest. It had bloomed now into a drumming in my sternum. That whisper gnawed at me, nestled in my breast. I didn’t have the words for it then, but something in it made the thought of talking to Lána or Father tighten my stomach, so instead I stood and strolled about the clearing.
I stepped close to the tree and dragged my fingers along the bark, feeling the ridges and valleys along one half of the circle wound by its trunk. Where a strip peeled away, I saw in the lip, fibres like silk threads bound into chords. Warmth sang into my skin. I graced the flesh of the tree with the tip of my finger. As I pulled away, a strand of sap spooled out from the trunk. It glistened cyan with flecks of silver embedded in the droplets that sizzled down into the fallen leaves. For all that my mother’s wisdoms told me not to, I smeared a bit of it upon my lip and waited a moment before tasting the rest. It prickled like cinnamon across my tongue, and warmth shivered down my neck.
And then I watched the hairs along the bark bristle up to meet the wind.
And a groan vibrated through the bark and into my hand.
And the breeze rattled through the burning leaves.
“Well then.” A voice piped up behind me. “Theryn.”
Another gave a low hum. “Yes, Luin, we are here.”
I turned and found, standing with their backs to mine, two men garbed in robes—one the color of hyacinths, the other a swirl of hydrangea. The one on the right rapped his walking stick into the dirt and glanced up to the branches of the tree crawling overhead. He had a light in his gaze as if he was looking at something far away, peering past the leaves into the sky. As he turned, he caught sight of me in the corner of his eye and patted his companion’s shoulder.
“Tidings,” he said as they both turned to me. “You are a curious one, boy.”
“How did you get here?” I asked. “Are you with the other woman?”
“The other woman?” The taller one glanced to his companion who shook his head. When he turned back to me, I caught the way he loosened his jaw and batted his eyes—he was going to lie. “We walked in, boy. We’re travelers from Vómakháll. You all have a nice camp here, yeah? We hoped you wouldn’t mind.”
I balled my fists and fixed my stance. “I know you didn’t come from Vómakháll.”
This time it was the shorter one who responded. He gave a laugh like the hooting of an owl and offered a hand. “Luin,” he said, “that’s what you may call me. And my friend here is Theryn. You’re a keen one, aren’t you? But you mentioned a woman…”
I searched their clothes for some mark of their origin. Luin, the shorter one, wore a hood whose tail draped over his back, and his beard was plump and curled tight, hiding all beneath his nose amidst a blanket of grey. A belt girdled his waist, straining to hold its buckle tight, and bottles and pouches decorated a bandolier thrown over his shoulder. His companion, Theryn, stood near twice as tall, and my eyes were drawn to the sword dangling at his hip. The sheath wore an elaborate series of etchings in gold, set into the silver base, and I swore I saw a few jewels set along the hilt before a tug of his cloak hid them from view.
“Who are you?”
“Who are we?” Luin propped his hands on his hips and gave Theryn an inquisitive look. After a moment, he grumbled. “Merchants, down from the capital. We’re taking some goods up to the Westerlands, actually.”
“Where’re your carts? If you were merchants, you’d have carts.”
“You’ve nerve to you, boy,” Theryn said. “Luin, do we really need to do this?”
“What if he goes running his mouth?” Luin half-cupped his lips as if it would keep me from hearing. “I thought we were trying to avoid this sort of thing. What of the huntsman?”
“He’s far behind.” Theryn batted the air. “Alright, alright. Kid, you want the truth. We’re heading up from Nychiour. We’re from the university in Vómakháll. We didn’t want to tell anyone, but we’re bringing something up. Something that others want. You’ve got to promise not to tell anyone. Can you do that?”
I searched Theryn’s eyes. I knew well enough that this didn’t add up, but there comes a point when you need to go along in order to squeeze more out of someone later, so I shrugged. “I guess that makes sense. But I’ve gotta talk to my parents.”
“No, kid—” But I’d already scampered off towards our campfire.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Luin straining to whack Theryn over the head.
“Now look what you’ve done,” he said. “Let’s figure this out. Not gonna sort itself.”
I slowed as I reached the edge of the campfire. Already, Mother and Father had noticed the two men hobbling up behind me. Mother batted down her apron and handed it to Father, then stepped over and offered her hand.
“It seems Khal is bringing all sorts of interesting folk tonight,” she said in broken Lánpareoke. “You may call—” Her eyes widened, and the color fled her skin as Theryn reached out and shook her hand. Mother cleared her throat. “Luin? Theryn? I had not expected—you’ve come a long way to be here.”
“We have. We have.” Theryn looked her up and down and smiled. “It has been a while, hasn’t it? We only just wandered in. You wouldn’t mind sharing some space by your fire? It is awfully cold. Scholars, I’m afraid, are not naturally adapted to such harsh climates.”
“You’re from the university then?” Father said. He beckoned them over to two stools set beside the campfire. “Come, of course we’ve room. Anything to drink?”
Mother stood there as the two men strolled over to the fire. I watched her knead her brow a moment, staring at the ashen tree. She shielded her eyes, then held a hand to her lips, then her hands fell to her sides. At last, she let out a long sigh and turned back to the campfire.
Already, others from around the camp were wandering over to welcome the two strangers. I crumpled into my seat beside Lána, and she shot me a look. “Did they come out of the forest too?”
“I don’t really know,” I said. “They kind of just appeared.”
Lána turned her attention back to the two men. Theryn was in the midst of talking about Mount Vómakháll when Luin rustled his shoulder and aimed a finger towards one of the wagons. Dema, the woman from the forest, leaned against a wheel. She cupped a mug. An automatic hand coiled and uncoiled a tress of hair about her finger.
“You’ve met our friend then,” Theryn said to Mother. “De’ejim. She probably scared you all half to death, no? You don’t run into many of her folk this far south.”
Mother leaned close to the flames, holding her palms up to cup the warmth. “We were only worried,” she said. “She didn’t seem to know where she was. We thought—well, perhaps I should only say it’s good to see she isn’t alone.”
“Of course,” Luin said. “We’re terribly sorry. Her Lánpareoke is quite sparse.”
I leaned forward on my seat. She had spoken to me almost fluently.
“What does she speak?” My father asked, pinching his fingers as if to grasp at some word he couldn’t find. “She has certain mannerisms that remind me of a few westerners I’ve met. Far west, I should say.”
“Not quite.” Again, Luin shared a look with Theryn. How much of this they were concocting as they went? “You have heard of Athica, no?”
“Athica, Athica…” Mother shook her head. “I can’t say I have. Lin?”
Father kneaded his palms. “No, doesn’t ring a bell.”
“It is an island off of Nychiour,” Theryn said. “Far, far south. Not many people know of it, unless they’re from there. That is her tongue.”
A few of our fellow Travelers grumbled back to their own campfires. I spotted Lána’s mother seated alone by hers, knitting something and smiling as she watched the rest of our caravan pry these strangers for answers. She waved. It took me a moment to realize it was meant for me, and I returned the gesture.
“De’ejim.” Luin beckoned their companion over. “Had Theryn near to tears there.”
“As I recall,” Theryn said, standing to embrace her. “It was I who had to comfort Luin. You really shouldn’t’ve wandered off like that.”
Dema wrapped her arms around Theryn and rested her chin upon his shoulder. “Diúlideil nyèmanyelier le’efeinin. I wasn’t gone too long. You worry too much.”
Luin clapped his knees and stood up. “We don’t worry without reason.”
“Is something the matter?” Mother asked. “If you need shelter…”
“No, no.” Luin held up his hands. “We were only accosted on the road. Separated. But now that we’ve our merry little band together again—”
“Surely you can’t mean to go back out there.” Father rose in a swift motion, catching Luin’s arm. He patted the old man on the back and pointed to our wagon. “I mean no offense, but heading out at this time of night isn’t wise. I’m younger and better equipped, but I’d still be worried for my safety. It’d be a crime to send you away. Especially if you’ve already run into trouble. Safety in numbers, no?”
Luin shared a long look with Theryn. Dema slunk back to the wagon wheel and returned to her previous stance, mug to her chest. She seemed to be searching the branches for something. A heavy sigh slipped past Luin’s lips.
“Yes, you’re right.” He clapped a wrinkled hand on Father’s back. “Tides be with you, sir, and your family. A hawk-eyed son of yours, that one.”
Warmth crawled up my cheeks as the two men turned to look at me. “I suppose he gave you a hard scrutinizing,” Father said. “He’ll warm up to you. But we should get you situated. If it isn’t a problem, we’ve prepared a little party for tonight. Only a bit of noise.”
“Let me have a little talk with my associate.” Luin jabbed a finger over his shoulder to where Theryn stood, talking to Dema. “I’m not tired myself, and I’ve not passed up a good show in my life. But he’s a bit of a, shall we say, stickler.”
With that, the rest of the Travelers dispersed, content it seemed with their fill of adventure. They gathered around their campfires, hovering hands over the fire, and a few brought out instruments and tomes. I caught the bark of Old Lewen spinning a yarn, and at another fire, Lána’s mother chanted a poem to the beat of a drum.
Father rubbed his hands as Luin shared whispers with his companions. Mother wrapped her arms about him from behind and rested her forehead on his back. “You’re a good man,” she said, “letting them stay the night.”
“Not a good man,” he said. “Just trying to be kind.”
“There isn’t a difference.” She turned him around and pressed her forehead to his chest. “We need to talk, Lin. I know these two. This is—this is important. Come.”
Father followed at Mother’s heels, out into the space beyond the circle of wagons.
I sank deeper into my seat. I was sickened at the sight of romance, as many children are, but now I suppose it was one of those last good moments I really should have cherished. Thinking back on it, this was perhaps the night the world tipped—the scales swayed back and forth a moment—before a blade was tossed on one side and no wealth of good intentions could balance it again.