Chapter Nine: Pierced to the Root

Upon the banks of the Shóroll Strait, I stood and watched the waves lap upon the shore. I was told that on a particularly clear day one could stand in this very spot and see the oaks of the realm of Nedyále taper down into the sands, where salt-washed branches clawed up from the waters and the remnants of trunks rolled in the waves.

The night before, I’d sat around collecting tales from a few Valkons seeking refuge from the Foundation War in the vast domains of the north, and before I bid them good luck, a woman among them told me of this promontory where she had seen, on the far banks, children clambering up a log like one would a canoe and laughing and hurling one another off, into the waters below. I’d smiled then at the thought.

Here, of course, I realized how silly it was. The far bank is some fifty to eighty miles away, far beyond the horizon. Even with the waves of my own shore well below—a height that made the cliffs of Mávben seem a child’s stairstep—there was only water. Only the faint taste of salt and the sloshing of waves. But it was a charming thought, and so I carried it with me as I headed back north a ways and onto the road.

Old oaks set gnarled roots into the earth, this far south, and one can smell the sap upon the air, save when a breeze carries in salt from the strait. Leaves crackle and squelch beneath one’s boots. The world feels older here than in any other place I’ve roamed, though I’d imagine the feeling would only be greater if I ventured south into Nedyále, the Dawnlands. There, so the stories go, there is a presence of cinnamon ever in the wind, and one can wander between trees whose trunks would require that thirty people stretch their arms to encircle them, and even then they’d have to press themselves to the bark. So I captured, I imagined, a little sliver of that realm in my sketches of the leaves as wide as my palms and the brooks which wove and trickled out amidst the brush. The air was awash with motes of gold—little flecks that buried themselves in my hair—and I was fancying myself a fae out from her burrow when at once I heard a crash of steel and a howl.

I lowered my journal. Shadows darted between the trees. A rustle of leaves. I hurried into a trot, the dirt sinking an inch beneath each stride. A streak of warmth slithered down my scalp. Tingling along my neck. Something shifted behind me and as I whirled around, hand outstretched, my better instincts spurred me to leap aside.

Several horses galloped past. The wind in their wake whipped my hair into a frenzy, and I clutched at my bags to make sure nothing had been dropped in my hurry. Atop their steeds, steel-plated figures clanged and clattered in their saddles. I judged them to be gálkanec, landsknecht, by the cyan of their baggy caps and their xanthous trousers. Tassels wagged upon their elbows, and a patch upon each of their arms wore their crest: An Ghávethcha Nólshesa, the Scarlet Band. The one at their tail turned in his seat and flashed a grin, then shuttered his visor, leaving me on the path to Nedyeser with dust in my mouth and the illusion of a venerable forest much diminished.

More travelers followed after. Merchants lugging packs larger than themselves waddled by, trailing mules; families came in clusters, whole villages by my estimate who wore the patchwork clothes of country-dwellers; garbed in finer fabrics, a few parties of nobles and city-dwellers trotted by on horseback. In the company of a woodworker, Olva, who had brought her family down from the town of Nólben, I began to wonder what all this could be for.

The last day of Tidings, she said. Nedyeser holds a tourney on the final day of every year. A whole event, it is. Been going since I was a girl, myself, but this is my two girls’ first.

I’m glad to have arrived when I did then, I said. How long does it go?

Olva folded her fingers down, one by one. Fifth day of Dawntide.

This is a strange question to ask… I dug through my pack a moment before producing a sketchpad where I’d recorded the various portraits of Khal witnesses had provided. I flipped through a few, then handed it to her. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find this man, would you?

Olva licked her fingers to flip a page, but I held back my instinct to scoop the sketchbook back up. Well, she said, dragging the word out into a hum. These are fine drawings, you know. My daughter is quite good with sketches. A shame she’s not got somewhere to go for it—a school or something, I mean. I think she’d make a respectable painter.

I’m sure she would. I folded my hands behind my back. But this man….

Oh, yes. Olva flicked between two drawings. This is Sóro, no? Old man. Lean. Curly hair. I think he has some northerner blood in him, but I’ve not ever seen anyone else from that far away so who’s to say?

You’re not far off, I said, taking the sketchbook back and jimmying it into my pack. If you don’t mind answering another question, do you know where I can find him?

The tourney will be outside Nedyeser Keep, but if you go around, over a couple brooks, and take a right at this oak with—well, you’ll know which one, then head straight on to the tree line, you’ll find an inn. Sóro stays there. Liam, the innkeep, is a good friend. Lets him stay on account that he brings a fine crowd every few nights. You’ll find him there, I’m sure. She twirled a few strands of hair, then shook her head. That, or the lord will have him down on the green, but that’s not likely.

Thank you. I shook Olva’s hand, then bid her goodbye.

Tidings to you too, chronicler, she said. And good luck.

We broke through the tree line then, and before me stretched a field, at its center a castle of weary stone, slouched on an island within a moat. Tents raised their flags and plumes all across the meadow, but I followed Olva’s instructions, sure enough coming upon the old oak which leaned out over the waters beneath the castle walls, then turned towards the trees and strolled the last stretch of grass between me and my quarry.