Chapter Twelve: Moonpath

In the pining of moonlight, one can see—as a silhouette against cream-white sky—the pitch and crest of Vómakháll, the ridges pronouncing themselves from the droves of oaks huddled about its slopes, and the Wandering Moon—Gaelica searching with tendril-fingers through the canopies of wine-dark leaves. One day I will return there. Where the snow clings to granite and the winds choke the mountain’s throat; where the last cliff stands stark, enveloped by clouds; where thousands of years ago, my people dabbed their hands and impressed the stone with images of the lands they had left behind—there, I will pitch a hut and walk a while, until the tides take me. But for now I have only these memories.

In my mind’s eye, the snow-capped peak hovers along the horizon for nine days before you reach its base—a lifetime to a child, kicking stones between the spokes of wagon wheels as his mother smothers laughter in her sleeve and tells him to behave himself. My father would chide me under her watch, but as soon as she’d turned to tend to the horses, he’d wind up and send a rock careening across the bottom of the cart. Stone would thunk against the beams. The horses would start. Mother would buckle over laughing, no longer able to contain herself, and father would swoop over to catch her in his arms.

Thirteen years, we had come and gone from Vómakháll, when at last we made our final ascent. I loitered in our wagon as my father stuffed blankets and tents back into a chest and mother stood beside the horses, tracing our route up to the city near the mountain’s peak with another of our caravan’s leaders at her side. Eight days until we reached its gates, so I was told; Lána had said so as we strolled along beside my family’s wagon the day before. Now, she scrounged about in the leaves. Her fingers were stained with earth, and she chuckled to herself, rolling a beatle onto its back and watching it squirm itself upright.

I clapped my book shut, folded it beneath my blankets, and hopped off the back of my parents’ wagon to hurry over. She glanced up as I arrived. “What are you doing here, creep? Done reading your book?”

“Leave it alone,” I said, squatting beside her. “Don’t you think that’s cruel?”

Lána rolled her eyes. “It’s a beatle, Khalkáth.”

“Still.” I buried my hands in my pockets. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“One second.” Lána wobbled to her feet, then brought her heel down upon the beatle. A soft squelch. Wings crackling. Legs chittering across the dirt. As she stepped back, Lána snickered, watching it paw at the earth, trying to drag its broken body behind it.

Vúzhlenlkhá.” I twisted my lips. “Why would you do that?”

Lána snatched up my hand and began towards the carts, and I allowed myself to turn to follow, my shoes scuffing over fallen leaves. “It’s just a beatle,” she said. “It’s not as if it can feel pain.”

“But that doesn’t make it right.” A pang slit through my gut, and I halted. Lána tugged at my hand, but I dug my heels into the dirt and shook my head. “I’ve gotta wait for my parents. Go on.”

“Come on, they’ll be following soon.” Lána slouched, continuing to pull on my hand. “Mum will give you her pastries again. She’s still got some rúydlonu.

You must understand something of our journey. We had followed the setting sun for months now, west from the riverlands and over the Véosá, starting down the winding roads into the valleys beneath the Ridgelands, where the air smelled of sap and the winds were ever warm and dry at our backs. We had marched between the isolas at the mouth of the Lúrr Kushenen, and now up the thousands of switchbacks and steep climbs, decorated with outcroppings of stone and wide-leafed oaks, that would take us to the seat of the sultanate. Our first meal came at noon; our second, when the sun perched atop the trees; and if we had gotten a great distance behind us that day, we might treat ourselves to a little something more before we wound our wagons into a clearing and pitched for the night. So at the thought of a bite of rúydlonu, a pastry dipped in tea, I swallowed my complaints and followed after her.

Lána led me along the road, beneath the archway of trees, past several other families and their wagons until at last we came upon her own. Wheels lurched along on uneven spokes. Light peered through a series of holes pierced in the tarp overhead. Lána and I hopped aboard.

Her mother sat at the front, the horses’ reins wound about her wrists as she dragged a brush through the lengths of dark curls draped over her shoulder. Mother and father had only kind words for Yunen. She wore a headscarf, embroidered with thread that had long lost its luster, now a collection of loose stitchings and tattered ends. When she turned back to greet us, her smile deepened the dimples in her cheeks, and that usual intimidation that children feel in the presence of adults was utterly absent. How she had reared a child like Lána was beyond me. I’ve years behind me now, and a bit of understanding, but as a boy I had it in my head that raising a child was akin to molding them from clay and that it was either by failure of craft or poor luck that Lána had come out as she had.

Yunen must have known what we were after. She beckoned to a bundle of blankets near the back of the wagon. As she turned to guide the horses round a bend, she tossed a question back to me. “Pelvouskullenshi?

“Fine, pullouvá.

“And your parents?”

“Fine, pullouvá.

Yunen smothered a laugh in her sleeve. “Málkhelana, how many have you had today?”

Lána sat back on her haunches as she peeled the blankets back to reveal a plate of pastries. “None, pullouvalu. Where’s father?”

“Up helping Rén with a broken axle,” she said. “He’ll be back soon.”

Lána quickened, snatching up a handful of pastries and scampered off the wagon. I bid Yunen goodbye and slid off onto the dirt. Before I’d caught up with Lána, she had already stuffed a whole pastry in her mouth. Flakes of sugar clung to the corners of her lips. She held the rest in her shirt, clutching the hem to form a pouch. I plucked a couple out and tore off bites as we trudged back towards my family’s wagon. The taste of stale rúydlonu clung to my tongue, and my saliva felt like honey against the roof of my mouth. I beckoned for Lána’s waterskin, but she shook her head.

“Get your own,” she said with a mouth full of pastry. “Little mbeikhá rat.”

“Ass.” I swallowed the last bit of my pastry. “How’s Nátkhet?”

“He’s being a prick, as usual. Won’t talk to me anymore.”

I moved to pat Lána’s shoulder, but she shot a glare that might’ve withered my hand had I touched her. “He’ll get over it,” I said. “Besides, I hear there’ll be a tourney up at Vómakháll. He’d like that. Maybe you can go there together.”

“Why would I want to do that?” she asked. “Especially with a prick like him.”

“Don’t go then.” I held up my hands. “Your choice.”

“Why’re you always such a coward?”

I bowed my shoulders. “Just saying, you might like that.”

Lána and I walked along in silence, listening to the groaning of wagon wheels and the steady click of horseshoes against stray stones. A few adults greeted us as we passed. More were perched on their seats, shielding groggy eyes. The parents had stayed up well into the night, sharing wine and a fresh turkey a few of the older boys had managed to catch on the road. The stench of alcohol still drenched the wagons’ tarps, and more than a few of the older members of our caravan slumbered away in their cots. We passed Lewen, the caravan’s storyteller, his bald head catching sunlight atop his pillow. Lána grumbled.

“I’m sorry, Khal.” She rustled my hair, and I shrank away, grinning. “It’s just Nátkhet called me a whore yesterday. And then I went home and—” She gripped tufts of her hair and seethed. “He’s just such… such a….”

“Prick?” I said. “He’s just jealous you danced with that village boy at Krenem.”

“He was mad before that,” she said. “I think some people are just always angry.”

This time, she let me rest a hand on her shoulder. “You’re not one of those people.”

“No, I’m something else.” Lána kneaded her sternum, staring at the road.

A bird alighted above, and the pines rained needles atop our heads, pricking at our scalps. Lána giggled as she picked them out of her curls. In those days, she had a a great wealth of hair, dark and wound tight, and the light splintered by the pines made her skin look rich as river clay, catching in the rosy undertones beneath her eyes.

“You should stay at Vómakháll,” she said, after a time. “I hear they’ve a university there. I see you reading in your parents’ wagon all the time. Think about how much you could learn there? You’d be great. And no more of this.” She threw a hand over the forest around us. “All this mucking and marching.”

I searched myself for some response. “I actually like it here,” I said. “And what about mother and father? Am I just going to leave them?”

“It’s what they’d want, Khalkáth.” Lána pinched my arm.

I batted her hand with a laugh. “How do you know?”

“Have you seen how they look when you’re reading one of your poems? When you’re rattling off some useless fact about some caliph a thousand, thousand miles away?”

“Like anyone’s parents would.”

“Not like mine.” Lána interlaced our fingers.

“I’m sorry, Lána, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Don’t be. Just promise me you won’t stay here.”

The warmth of her palm pressed against mine, her fingers clenched tight—my breath swelled in my lungs and swallowed my voice, leaving the two of us to walk along with only the warbling of sparrows and the rustling of squirrels as the oaks gave way to pines and we caught the first hint of Mount Vómakháll rising overhead. The Wandering Moon melted amidst the clouds around the peak, bathing all the land in moonlight.