That morning, I saw your mother, and it was as if the whole world had conspired to grant me this one glimpse of beauty. She sat on my bedside, unwinding strips of gauze; the slow fold and flick of her fingers coiled lengths of fabric down upon the cot; she drew her lips as she worked, and her eyes were all but closed—her face cast in shades of russet and red. Her irises flitted between her work, twin slivers of gold illuminated by the light filtering through the curtains beside my bed. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, though several curls wriggled free, dangling around her shoulders. Sunlight glinted along the strands. The ends danced as she smothered a laugh. It was only then I realized she was watching me.
I bit my lip. I couldn’t be rash. I needed to be quiet about this, Khal. Quiet and subtle. Never come too quickly out of the gates. It is a sure way to be seen as an idiot.
“You are beautiful.” As soon as the words left my tongue, I clapped my hand over my mouth. “Cathanó sheín. I’m sorry.”
“And you are delirious,” she said. “You lost quite a bit of blood. Lay back down. I won’t have some idiot dying in my bed.”
I glanced down. The sheets beneath my stomach were dyed dark as wine, and someone—perhaps this woman—had bunched a series of towels beneath my sides. Flecks of dry blood clung to the fibers.
“How—” A wave of nausea struck me, and I felt as if my stomach might wriggle up out of my throat. She held the back of her hand to my head, then took my shoulder and laid me back upon my pillow.
“How long has it been?”
“Just a day.” She stood up and batted down her skirt. “You should rest. Father doesn’t want to house a corpse, and you’ll need all your strength to work. Lucky for you, that wound wasn’t very deep, else you wouldn’t be among the living.”
Before she could go, I held up a hand. “Thank you. I owe you… and your father.”
“You’ll work it off,” she said. “One way or another.”
She departed, easing the door shut behind her. There was silence for several minutes, as I leaned back in bed and stared at the beams overhead. Then, a pain blossomed between my lungs, and my breathing grew shallow and long. I kneaded my sternum, trying to ease the aching in the bone. As sleep crept up on me again, I thought of my brother, and I prayed that he too had been saved by some innkeeper’s daughter, but I knew well, even in my delirium, that he had passed beyond the turning of the world.
Father massaged his palm, and I saw as his back arched and he drew his knees tighter to his chest. “I worked for a year with her father. I hauled barrels and prepared meals, and I played every night for those few who would listen. After a year, he let us leave together, but I had to promise I would keep his daughter happy.” Father smiled to himself and ran a hand down the back of his neck. “We joined up with her cousin as their caravan passed by the Hart. Met Yunen and Lewen and all these folk, and we knew we had found the life we were meant to live.
“Then we had you, and those were the happiest days of our lives—were the happiest. For a time, I was worried that I wasn’t keeping up my half of the bargain, making sure that innkeeper’s daughter lived well, but soon we learned she had come ill with your birth, so we traveled to the Hinterlands in search of a remedy. She stayed there, up north, for a few years. I cared for you myself, with no small help from the other women of the caravan.
“And in time, she came back down to join us again. We traveled and traveled and traveled. And now we’re here.” He rustled my hair and grinned. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“What about your family?” I asked. “The ones in Nirkesa?”
“They continued on southeast, over the Meye Strait, and settled in Kúsnenùke. They’re doing well for themselves now. We’ve visited a few times. It’s funny, when I was a boy in Mávben, I never thought I’d end up with the Travelers, but the world has a way of moving us where we’re meant to go.”
He chuckled to himself, laying back upon the stone on which we both sat. It leaned out over the pond, and now the surface glistened with handprints from when we’d scampered up the side. A few lizards clung to face, above the water; the sun baked that half to a golden hue, though when we had first climbed up the whole rock had been in its view. Cyan scales glowed down their backs, and wide dark eyes watched as I stood to fetch my shirt from a branch where I’d hung it to dry. As I walked back, I gave my father a hard look. He seemed to gather my meaning and groaned to his feet.
“We can go back now,” he said, “but if mother is still talking with those travellers, we’ll need to give them time to finish up.”
He took some time to wring out his shirt and rustle free a few droplets that clung to his hair before following me back into the forest. Mountain air moaned cool and steady to the sea, carrying us forward, and the scent of pines swelled in my lungs. As we cut our way back and forth up the slope to the road, father tapped my shoulder. We stood a while on an outcropping of stone and watched the sun dribble slowly out across the horizon, light leaping from one tip of a pine to the next, drawing back towards the horizon, until all the forest to the sea glowed as amber, and then he rested a hand on my shoulder and we walked the last stretch of slope to our wagon.
Mother sat alone upon the driver’s seat, resting her head in her hands. Even with the evening masking all forms, I could see her shoulders tremble, and her arms clasped tight about herself. Short breaths. Her whole body shook. She smothered her cries in her sleeve. A creeping pain sprouted in my chest at the sight, but Father placed a hand to my chest and I halted.
I watched him walk over to her. He wrapped his arms around her, and he rested his head upon her shoulder. She clutched his hand and pressed her lips to the back of his palm, and then they stood a while in each other’s arms.
As another wind felt its way down the road on whispering fingers, tickling at the nape of my neck, I curled my arms around my chest and tugged my cloak tighter. A moonless sky enwrapped our little caravan on the path to Vómakháll—only a single planet flickering amidst the constellations drifting overhead. The Ashen Star, little more than a faint candle, lilted ever towards its zenith. Starlight caught in the folds of my mother’s cloak, silhouetting her in silver, and each stroke of that celestial brush seemed to curl and bend as she placed one last kiss upon my father’s cheek and made her way over to where I stood.
“Khal,” she said. “How was the pond?”
I had neither words nor voice to answer. As she drew near, I broke into a run and stumbled into her arms. I buried my face in the folds of her cloak. She held me tight. Warmth radiated into my damp shirt and eased the bite of the cold, and her fingers were sunlight weaving through my hair as she smoothed my wet curls back and smiled.
“It is okay, Khal. You’re okay.”
My throat burned, and though I tried to speak, no words came. I bunched her cloak in my fists. The scent of something sweet fluttered from the folds. She carried on stroking my hair, and this time I began to cry. Tears stung at my eyes as I smeared them into her sleeve. My cheeks burned against the chill of the mountain air, and I could feel the hairs along my arms prickle up on their ends.
“Shhh,” she said. “Shhh. It is okay, Khal.”
“I don’t want you to leave.”
I looked up. Tears wavered in her eyes, and she traced slow circles around my cheek with her thumb, cupping my chin. “Why don’t we walk?” she asked. “Father says there is a nice pond we can see.”
“But we just came from—”
Her lips drew tight, and I nodded.
As sunset crept ever towards its end, we strolled down the road together until we came to a nice path down the ridge, to the treeline, and as we climbed back down, I looked up to our wagon and saw Father seated where Mother had been, pinching a nervous pipe and waving as we passed out of sight.
We took a different route, but I did not have it in me to tell Mother we were not heading towards the pond. The sun still shone scant rays through the needles, and I wondered whether we would make it back before night descended upon the forest entirely. Eventually, the trees gave way to a meadow of low grasses that tickled at my ankles. Mother clutched my hand, smoothing the back of my palm with a finger.
A hut hobbled close to the edge of the clearing, leaning against the trunks of the pines so that they bowed outward, towards the road, as if straining to hold up what remained of the shack against the oppressive weight of the grasses sprouting on the roof and the moss crawling up its once-white walls. Twin trees stood in the building, breaching the shingles with their boughs, their lower halves concealed. Their needles rattled softly against the chimney that now stood almost separate from the rest of the structure, and a light frosting of snow clung to their bark. Branches full of needles strained against the window panes, coloring them all a sappy green. Where the grasses rose to meet the foundation, a few roots shot gnarled fingers out of the earth. I thought the trees looked like the last residents of that hut, trying to hold onto what remained.
A signpost lay shattered in the dirt. What looked once to have been a cobbled path leading off the road and to the door could only now be guessed at, peeking through the low grasses and overturned stones in a few places. Mother let out a breath and gripped my hand tighter.
“Khal,” she said. “Perhaps you will understand when you are older.”
From where I stood beside her, the sun glistened along her jaw, catching in the hair below her ears so that each curl glowed—a halo of light that fell away as she knelt beside me and cupped my hands. Hers were darker than mine, but the same rich undertones shone in the rise of each knuckle and in the tips of her fingers as she dragged small circles along the back of my palm.
“Mum,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“We want you to be safe, Khal. We just want—” Her voice cut short, and she pressed her head to my shoulder and tugged me close. “Khal, you are going to need to be strong for us, alright? Alright, Khal? We love you more than anything else in the world. You need to remember that. We love you.”
I gripped tufts of her shirt in my hand. “Mum, you’re scaring me.”
“I’m sorry, Khal.” Mother clutched me tight. “Tomorrow, some things are going to change, but it’s only going to be for a short time. Alright, Khal? Just for a couple months, maybe a little longer.”
“I promise you things will get better,” she continued. “Do you understand, Khal? Tell me you understand. Things are going to get better.”
This seemed to ease the pain from her face, the creases in her brow lightening as she kneaded her hands. “Theryn and Luin are good friends.” She smoothed down the shoulder of my cloak and smiled. “Khal, when you were young, maybe only one or two, they visited me in Metir Keviv. I was young then and scared. They helped me leave that place. I came here, to this caravan, and I thought everything would be fine. But they told me one day they would come to check in on you. I had almost forgotten.”
“Where are we going?” I gripped her hand tight. “Are we leaving the others?”
Mother lowered her head, pressing her lips to the back of my palm, then looked back up at me. “The others are working on making some stew, just for you. Alright, Khal? I know you’ve always loved Yunen’s, so—”
I may have been young, but I was not fool enough to miss her meaning.
“I don’t want to leave.” I snatched up her arms and clutched tight. “Mum, please don’t make me go. I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with you. I want to see Vómakháll. I won’t go. I won’t. Mum?”
Mother drew me close, and as I began to cry, I could hear her whispering prayers. She rocked me gently in the quiet of the clearing, as the sparrows swirled overhead and the stars pronounced themselves from the great black above to herald the coming of night.
“You’ll be safer with them,” she said. “Do not worry, Khal. It will all be fine.”
I cried into the fabric of her shirt. “Safe from what?”
She drew in a breath. “Khal, you have to remember to always keep moving. Do you understand, Khal? Please. You cannot stop. You have to keep going.”
I pulled her tighter. “Safe from what, mum?”
“Nothing, nothing.” She smoothed my hair. “Just stay with Theryn and Luin. They’ll keep you safe. But if you’re ever alone, you have to keep moving.”
I nodded into her shirt, and she gave a tired smile. “Let’s get heading back now. We wouldn’t want to miss any of father’s songs.”
“I don’t want to go, mom.”
“I know, Khal.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Khal.” Mother stood, keeping one hand on my shoulder. “Most of life is not deciding what we want to do but accepting what we must. It is not safe for you here. You must go with Theryn and Luin. I love you. Odhé…” She paused, searching the air for the right words, but the sound of my father’s tongue from her lips sparked something in my chest. I found my voice again and answered.
“Odhé maín,” I said. “I love you.”
“Odhé maín,” she said. “You are my song and star, Khal. You are my son. I know this will not be easy, but we will find each other again. Our family will be together, when it is safer for us all. For now, you have an adventure ahead. You’ll get to see the world. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
I wanted to tell her that I did not want to see the world, that I wanted to stay here with her and father and Lána and Old Lewen and all the others, but I didn’t have it within myself, so instead I hugged her again and nodded.
“Let’s head back then,” she said. “I’m sure they’re waiting for us.”
I took my mother’s hand, and we departed from the clearing, heading back towards the caravan and my father’s songs and Lewen’s stories and Lána’s snide remarks, and I thought that perhaps I would wake up tomorrow and this would have all been a dream on the road to Vómakháll—a nightmare conjured up as I slept in our wagon in the shadow of the ashen tree in Álor-én-Ér—and that I would awake and Mother would have prepared breakfast and Father would be readying the wagon, and we would head back onto the road without a whisper of old wizards and fae travelers and this ancient and ruinous pain in my chest. And the tides would rise and fall. And I would grow old on the road. And never would I know a thing of the world beyond our wagons, and I would die and be buried, and history would pass on without pause.
But I did not realize then that the world turns as it wills, and history is not woven by the wishes of the young. And so I sat as we ate one last dinner together, and I listened to my father’s songs, and the moons rose to paint the sky, and I wondered whether there were worlds in which I stayed here, with my family, and whether there were not paths through the Otherworld that might take me there.