Chapter Fourteen: Branches of the Ashen Tree

Khal let his voice taper down into a whisper then slip away entirely, his lips pressed and his gaze cast into the flames. A paleness passed behind his eyes, as veils drawn over the irises, painting their reflection of the tongues of fire in shades of grey that warped and melted into black. He rested his head in a hand.

Khal? I asked. His gaze flicked up to meet mine then fled back to the flames. You said that this was your last trip with your family. Did something happen?

Édara stood from her seat and knelt beside Khal’s. She graced his cheek with the back of her hand. You had best rest here for the night, she said. I do not believe he is feeling well. Please, speak to Liam. He will situate you.

I already have, I said. Please, forgive me. I didn’t mean to hurry you.

Khal opened his lips, and Édara flinched. It is not you, he said, though he did not lift his gaze. I am overcome sometimes. I feel… no, that would be too grim for your stories. Please, sit. I have the fire in me yet for another day on that path.

Please, do not censor yourself for my sake, I said, adjusting my situation amidst the pillows of my seat. Nothing is too grim. Nor too melancholy, if that is what you are worried for. I’d rather have the ugly truth.

I’m sure, in time, it will be obvious. Khal flicked at an ember swirling about his head. And I’d rather not waste what words I have left on such things. Please….

Of course. I wagged my quill at him. Continue where you were, if you’d prefer.

Khal folded his hands, one upon his lap and then the other, as a mother swaddling her child. There was that light—no, that absence—in his eyes, and his features hardened to marble as he lifted his voice to resume the tale.

The Autumn Moon seeped rosy hues into each leaf and stone along the trail, winding up and around the outcropping of granite that overlooked the clearing where our caravan had pitched camp. Wandering has always been a habit of mine, not always of my own volition, and though I certainly would have preferred the time to wonder what my parents’ conversation had meant, I found myself unable even to think about it with Lána at my side. It wasn’t that my thoughts were drawn to her. No, that would make too much sense. For me, it has always been the case that company kills introspection. It’s as if I’m worried that delving too deep, for even a moment, will reveal myself to them. All my precious locks and keys, circumvented. So as we marched between the pines, I kept my gaze on my feet, crunching across gravel and fallen needles.

Snow flaked from the branches of the pines and slumped in mounds about their trunks. Overhead, an owl wheeled in ever-widening gyres, around and around the ashen tree at the center of the clearing. After a few minutes, we scrambled up the side of the stones and strolled out to the highest ridge. Below, our parents tended a few campfires, sharing words and ale with others. Lána slumped down. I followed suit.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked. “You have that look.”

I tried my best to wipe whatever that look was with a quick hand, then leaned back and turned my gaze to the sky. A few stars pricked through the night. For now, the veil seemed an immaculate slate of grey, save where the sun had just fallen away—there, reds and oranges bled up as watercolors into parchment.

“Not much,” I said. “You?”

“Don’t give me that.” Lána bumped a fist into my shoulder. “You’ve got that look. Don’t say you’re not thinking about anything.”

“It’s nothing.”


“I don’t want to leave.”

Lána’s gaze softened. Overhead, several more stars pierced the night, reflected in her eyes, and the Autumn Moon warmed her cheeks. “You know, my mother wasn’t always part of our caravan,” she said. “She roamed. You could ask her about it.”

“Why did she stay here?” I asked. “She doesn’t seem happy.”

Lána glanced to me, and I could see in the light trembling along the white of her eyes that I had struck upon some open wound. Lána leaned over and rested her head upon my shoulder. Curls draped over my arm. A few stray hairs tickled at my nape.

“I think she stays for me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Lána lifted her head. “You should go, Khal. I know the world seems scary, but mother has told me a lot about Nychiour and the Hart. She even went over into Sevath once, when she was younger.”

I fit my hands under myself to ward off the nipping of the mountain air. “I hear they’ve cities that grow out of the stone. Is that true? And what about the Venerene?”

“I don’t think she ever met one of them,” Lána said, “but she did mention the Kairn.”

“What’s a Kairn?”

“I don’t really know.” Lána shrugged. “Maybe like the Venerene?”

“I want to see Sevath someday,” I said. “I hear it’s even larger than all the eastern realms combined. Father says you can walk and walk for years without reaching the sea.”

Lána chewed her lip. “That sounds pretty far.”

“It is.”

“Where would you stop?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, where would you live?” Lána patted a hand on the granite. “You’re going to get old, aren’t you? Where are you going to settle down.”

For a moment, I recalled Mother’s words and curled my arms about my chest. “Mother and Father never stopped. I guess I’ll just keep moving.”

Lána nestled her head against my neck. “You could always come back to us.”

“But won’t you go somewhere? Live in Vómakháll or something, I mean.”

“I like it here,” Lána said, “on the road. I like being with mother and the others.”

I studied her curls, perched on my shoulder. “But isn’t your father here?”

“He won’t be.” She rustled my sleeve as she shook her head. “Not forever.”

I moved to speak. Something in me caught the words in my throat, and I stared at Lána as she leaned on my shoulder. After a moment, I rested my head against hers and stared down at the leaves of the ashen tree below, and shifting beneath them our families preparing for a night of festivities.

A twig cracked behind us. I shifted in my seat, but Lána kept me from turning around all the way. Leaves crackled underfoot. This time, Lána eased off my shoulder and we both turned to look into the forest.

A shadow slumped between the silhouettes of trees—a lithe figure with a long gait. Its legs bowed at strange angles. Crude hands fumbled at the trunks. Lána snatched my arm, readying to slide down the stone. But just then the Autumn Moon crested over the trees and flooded the underbrush, illuminating a young woman as she came trudging out of the forest. Pale hair swept down to her waist, hair like silk, and her skin was the reflection of light across wine-dark water, paler than porcelain. Her eyes—copper irises studied the two of us. She grinned.

“Hello, ekínoni,” she said. Her voice reverberated, the song of a harp that bounded over the dirt and leaves. “You two are awfully curious, aren’t you?”

Lána leapt to her feet and shot a finger down towards the clearing. “Our parents are down there. We should be getting down now. Right, Khal?”

“Oh.” The woman held a hand with too-long fingers to her lips. “You have no need to fear, my girl. I’m only a traveler like yourselves.”

Lána squared her shoulders. “You’re not part of our caravan.”

“No, I am not.” The woman peered over the edge of the rocks, and I watched the light of the fires below crawl up her eyes, filling them with tongues of flame. “Please, I have just come down from Vómakháll. You wouldn’t have a drink?”

Lána fumbled for her waterskin and tossed it onto the stone before the woman.

The woman laughed as if bells had begun to sing her her chest. Her voice and now her laugh—it struck me that even her footsteps seemed notes in one larger song as she scooped up the waterskin and downed a swig.

“Quite kind,” she said, then stepped closer, extending the waterskin.

Lána winced back.

I stood and accepted the waterskin, then handed it to Lána.

“Courageous,” the woman said, then offered her other hand. “Mé ejim íli De’ejim. But you may call me Dema. I have come a long way, and it is good to meet you.”

“Khalkáth,” I said, taking her hand. Her knuckles were pronounced beneath taut skin, and her palm felt frigid to the touch. Yet something in her gaze perplexed me. I had to know what she had been speaking and where she was from. “You can call me Khal.”

Leaditíe.” Dema beckoned down to the clearing. “You are all Travelers then?”

Lána stepped forward again. “Khal and I really should be going. We’re going to eat soon. You’re welcome to join us, Dema.”

“Why don’t you go?” I turned to Lána. “I’ll be down after you.”

Lána flinched, and sharpness flashed across her gaze. She batted her eyes as if pleading with me, but I only nodded. “I just—” She glanced between Dema and I. “Fine, but mother will get worried if you’re not down soon.”

Lána trudged down the gradual incline of the stone’s eastern side, and I caught the crunch of leaves as she hopped down onto the trail and began back down towards the camp. Soon, her footsteps faded beyond earshot, and I turned to Dema, who stood at the edge of the rock, staring down into our camp.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “She just doesn’t like strangers.”

“And you are different?”

“Father told me not to be afraid of you. Of strangers, that is.”

Dema hummed to herself. “A strange woman climbs out of the forest and you don’t run back to the safety of your mother’s skirt. Ekínon, come here a moment.”

I steadied myself, remaining at a distance. “What is that language?”

Éked erélríl?” The way her voice lilted on the first syllable reminded me of the languages of the riverlands, but there was a sharpness to her tongue that was unlike anything I’d heard before. “It is a bad habit of mine. I am Dema én Kyr.”

“I haven’t heard of Kyr.”

“You wouldn’t have.”

“Did you really come down from Vómakháll?”

Dema glanced over her shoulder. “Why do you ask?”

“If you were coming from Vómakháll,” I said. “You would’ve come from there.” I pointed northwest, towards the coast. “But you didn’t. You came from the east. You’re coming down from the Westerlands.”

“Perceptive,” Dema said, “but you are mistaken. I came from there.”

And she lowered a finger to the ashen tree at the center of the clearing.