Chapter Twenty-Two: The Slow Departure of Beauty

When Theryn and Luin came to our wagon, I knew that I would go with them.

The two of them wore the same robes they had before, dyed a deep blue unlike any hue I had ever seen before. There was a richness to the fabric; it looked as though you could have felt the lap of waves and the dark cold of the ocean if you had pinched the cotton between your fingers. The clothes of our troupe had been bleached by the sun, or at least paled by years of wandering, and most villages we passed through were garbed in similarly worn clothing. Their cloaks were as close to noble as any I had seen then, and as they approached, I thought that one day I wanted one of my own. I imagined strolling into the sultan’s hall in Vómakháll with obsidian silk over my shoulders, my face obscured by the shadows cast by my great hood. What a sight that would be. To be like a shadow amidst the courtiers. Mysterious and powerful and full of thunder.

I suppose now I would call that dream childish. But then, of course it was. I was a child. Sometimes when I look back, its as if I was sitting there, the same as I am now. Older, though not entirely old, and colder, though not entirely white as snow. There is grey in my hair now, and my knuckles grow sore when I write. And my voice rattles in my throat. And there is an aching at the base of my spine when I sit. I’m told others still see themselves as they once did, in their younger bodies, when they look in the mirror. But when I look back to those days, I am grey and pale and aching. I am no older now than I have ever been.

I do hope you can forgive me for rambling on.

Theryn and Luin—yes, they came ambling up to the back of my family’s wagons with their staffs clutched in hand. Luin rapped a fist on the frame. I was garbed in a blanket, clutching my book with only a candle to light the page, when the soft tap of his knuckles against the wood trembled the tip of my page. I buried my book and hurried over, throwing aside the curtain to reveal the two old men waiting just outside.

“Tidings, boy,” Theryn said, and though Luin shot him a glare, he continued in the same grumbling tone. “How are you faring today?”

I held a hand to my brow to shield against the sun, hovering low over Theryn’s shoulder. The angle made the fibres glisten white, and a few of the grey curls of his beard shone as saffron with warmth.

“I’m well,” I said. In truth, I did not know what more to say than that. I had hoped they would begin with answers to my questions, but it struck me that I was not even sure what my own questions were. What is happening to me? Why are you here? But both seemed too blunt to blurt out now.

“Where are your parents, boy?” Theryn said. “Is your mother here?”

“She’s up front with the horses,” I said, and as if to answer I heard her give a short ‘hello’ around the side of the wagon. Luin waved, but Theryn tugged his cloak tighter and turned his gaze to meet mine.

“Luin, would you go talk to her,” Theryn said. “I will stay with the boy.”

His shorter companion hiked up his belt and gave a hooting laugh.

“Afraid of her now, are you?”

A sharpness passed over Theryn’s eyes, and he chewed the bottom of his lip and the few scraggly hairs that crept up his chin. “Fine, I’ll do it then,” he said. “Just tell the boy what he needs to know.”

Theryn swept past Luin and disappeared around the wagon. The crunch of his boots grit to a halt beside the horses, and I heard vaguely through the tarp of the wagon wall as he greeted my mother again and she let out a quiet laugh.

Luin shrugged to himself. “A poor joke, I suppose. I’ll have to apologize. But you—Khal, how have you been?”

Something in the way he asked made the tightness in my chest ease as I stepped down off the back of the wagon. “I don’t know,” I said, wriggling into my boots. “I still want to know where you came from though. Don’t think I’ll forget.”

“Oh, no, I would never,” Luin said, resting a hand on his belly and biting back a laugh. “We’re going to walk a bit, you and I. We’ve spoken to your father, you know. He’s a nice man. Seems to understand.”

“What’d you tell him?”

“You’ll see. Come on now.”

Luin beckoned me to my feet, and we set out down the line of wagons. We passed by Lewen’s caravan and then by Lána’s. Her mother waved as we passed, but Lána buried her hands in her lap and gave me a look as if I’d made friends with the wolves. As their wagon rumbled on in the other direction, Luin glanced my way.

“You two are close,” he said. “I used to have a friend like that, back home.”

I watched him close his eyes—though I could see in the curve of his lids, the irises moving as if he was deep in thought—and I expected him to go on, but instead he gave a low hum and shook his head. “The world turns,” he said. “That is something you will learn, in time, I am sure. What do you know of the world, my boy?”

I was not entirely sure how I was meant to answer. “I know it doesn’t always turn.”

“That is true. That is true,” Luin said, tugging at the curls of his beard. “But it always begins again, in the end. That is the sole certainty in this world.”

I took to winding the hem of my cloak about my fingers. “Where did you come from?”

“You’re a persistent one. Don’t you trust me? You’ll know, soon enough.”

A great host of clouds had flown in the previous night and bathed the mountainsides, drenching clothes left out to dry and dripping dew onto the tarps of our wagons so that they shone like the membranous skin of some sea creature, slick with droplets and the smell of the waves. We were close enough to the coast now that the winds came steady, hurrying south through the gorges and valleys beneath Vómakháll. A few trees raised leafless limbs and quivered at their passing. Cold licked at bark and beast—the breaths of the horses were thick as the fog, and their reins were stiff with frost. Luin stood a moment beside the last of them, near the end of our caravan, and smoothed down the hairs that stood on their necks. He looked small beside them with his head hidden beneath his hood. The bandoliers and belts binding his garb tight jingled softly as he turned to me and grinned.

“I hear you have a way with words, son,” he said. “Valqein khou?

The words in Valkon struck like a fist in my chest. “Father told you.”

“He was quite proud.” Luin patted my shoulder. “What’s that look now? You’ve got a quick mind, and I suspect a bit more in talent.”

“Mother worries,” I said. “She says others think I’m strange.”

Luin stopped me and crouched, though he hardly needed to in order to look me in the eye. “Your mother is wise. She knows others do not like things they cannot understand. It’s what has kept her alive this long. I imagine you don’t like what you’ve been feeling lately.”

I shook my head.

“Well,” Luin continued. “Soon enough, you’ll understand it, and there won’t be anything to be afraid of. Alright?”

He must have seen the look in my eye, for he stood back up and returned to walking down the road. “Your mother has the Travelers’ blood, no? She’s seen the way people treat strangers. Your father isn’t wrong to push you, but neither is she to keep you safe. That’s what they’re meant to do.

“We can’t know for sure,” Luin continued, “and it’s better I not put thoughts in your head, but Theryn thinks you ought to know and I’d agree. You’ve got a knack, Khal. We went around earlier and asked your family and friends. Everyone had a little story to tell. How you picked up your father’s lute and strummed out a tune without half a day’s practice. How you picked up the tongue of those southerners in just a few weeks. Lána told us a great many things. And just the other night, you mentioned that pain in your chest.”

I kneaded my sternum and nodded. “Dema told me it was a piece of the Otherworld.”

“In a sense,” Luin said. “It is a gift, Khal, and a curse. You see the world in a way few others can. But those few—well, you’re lucky we came along. We have a place for those like you in the north. Have you heard of the Hinterlands?”

“I think so.” I aimed a finger towards the coast. “It’s far though.”

“Yes, it is. Quite far. And quite dangerous. But Khal—” Luin cupped my hand in both of his and managed a grim smile. “There’s no use in lying to you. You’re intelligent enough. You’d catch it, and I imagine you’d realize sooner or later, if you haven’t already. That gift. The pain. The body is no vessel for a piece of the Otherworld.”

Luin smoothed down the wrinkles of my cloak. “Theryn and I—we want you to come up with us. We can keep you safe there. Without us, you would not be able to control that gift. It would not be safe for you. Or for your family. Your mother has spoken to you, yes?”

I nodded.

“Then this is not a surprise. That is good. She always knew how to approach these sorts of things. She was the best among us, before she left. Theryn would have had her stay, but then you were down here, and she had made her choice. I still don’t think he’s come to terms. Still wants her to return.”

I glanced up. “Could she not come with us?”

Luin grew a small smile and patted my shoulder.

“The road is long, my boy, and we need to be swift on our feet.” Luin rapped his staff into the dirt. “And if she would come along, I don’t doubt your father would want to as well. Six travelling is more than we can safely manage with the roads being what they are these days. Now, we should be getting back to see whether Theryn has gathered everything.”

I followed at Luin’s heels, back over the road as it wound along the inner curve of the slope. Below, the low brush of the coast swept over the slopes, down to the water. Waves lapped at the foot of a cliff, save where a sliver of tumbled stones formed a beach at their base. A promontory pronounced itself among the waves, forming a small bay; there, a few fishermen stood casting long rods out to sea. They whipped their silken lines out—hooks glinting as they flew—and wedged their rods upright in the beach. A few waved as our caravan rattled by on the road overhead.

Vómakháll spread itself out over the horizon—a snow-capped spire carving trails through those clouds that dared drift overhead—and along the northern ridge we could now spot the huddled silhouettes of temples and palaces and, somewhere among them, the university clinging to the slope. Houses sprouted like lichen over the stoney face, and a dozen smaller villages stood at varying intervals, following the central road down to Vómakháll’s base. As Luin and I reached our wagon, I wondered whether I would be able to see this place again. Little did I know then that I would have my share of time in that city upon the slopes. But for now, I tugged my attention back down to our wagon, where Theryn and Mother stood talking beside the horses.

She dragged a finger over the map Theryn was holding and shook her head. “You cannot seriously mean to head inland. There’re boats in Vómakháll who will take you up that way. Maybe not all the way, but close enough.”

“Ashfalls,” Theryn said. “If we’re caught out on the sea it’ll be our ruin.”

“Better that than caught by a—” Mother caught sight of us and gave Theryn a sharp look. “I just think you should give some thought to travelling by boat. It’d be faster, and maybe you could stop by the Isola. I know Khal has always wanted to see it.”

“If times were better.” Theryn shrugged. “But the road is our best bet.”

“Then follow the coast, at least.”

“We’ll try.”

Theryn nodded to Luin and I as we came to a stop beside them. Mother rustled my hair, and Luin took up the map, holding it before me to trace our path. We were meant to pass eastward—back along the road we had walked the last few weeks—then over the Véosá Strait and up into a stretch of lands labeled ‘Akhon.’ I knew very little then of the northlands, save what my father had told me of the bitter deserts below the mountains and the frigid coasts. It was a cold land full of cold people, so he said, but we were meant to pass yet farther north, into the Hinterlands.

I looked to Theryn and Luin. “When are we going?”

They traded glances. Luin reached for my mother’s hand, but she batted it away and tugged him into an embrace. He chuckled through his beard, and she grew a grim smile, burying her face into the folds of his hood. When they stepped apart, a hint of tears clung to both of their cheeks. Mother stepped over to me and knelt down.

“I know this is all happening so quickly,” she said. “But it won’t be long.” I shuffled my feet as she folded my hands in hers. “Be strong for us. It’ll be an adventure, I’m sure. I love you more than anything, Khal.”

I smeared tears into my sleeve. “I love you too.”

She stood, and Luin guided me by the shoulder as the three of us—Theryn, Luin, and I—turned our backs to Vómakháll and began down the road. I could already see Father waiting at the back of the caravan with Dema. They had three horses beside them, and as we drew closer, I stopped in my tracks. Lána stood beside my father. Luin nudged me along, and as we reached them, she stared at me with a look I still cannot name. It was not envy, nor grief, nor even sadness—I might even say it was hope, but there was none of hope’s glow, only a sharpness to her gaze that might be called acknowledgement. She saw me, and she knew how I felt. Lána stepped up and hugged me, standing at the back of our caravan as the wagons carried on without us, and I could feel her tremble with her arms around me, and her curls tickled at my cheek. And then she placed a most innocent kiss upon my cheek and hurried back towards the caravan.

I stood there with my arms wrapped across my chest.

“Khal,” my father said, patting the saddle on which Dema sat.

He helped me up, then gave me a sideways hug in my seat.

“I almost envy you,” he said with half a smile. “It’ll be quite the adventure. Just be sure to come back to us, eventually.” He laughed, but it died in his throat as he met my gaze. “Don’t be sad, Khal. I know this is confusing, but it’ll make sense in time, and you’ll get to see so many things while you’re gone. And when you come back, it will be like you had never left at all. It’ll be just like the old days. I promise.”

I managed a weak nod, and he patted my back.

“You’ll be the one telling me stories then,” he said. “Good luck, Khal. Odhé maín.

Odhé maín,” I said. “I will come back.”

Then Dema curled her hands over mine, clutching the reins, and Luin shared a few last words with my father before we eased our mounts into a slow walk, back along the ridgeland roads, through brush and forest, and my caravan grew small along the slopes behind us. I glanced back more times than I can remember. Each time, I hoped Mother or Father would be hurrying up behind us, laughing and calling me back, saying that this whole thing had been some misunderstanding, that I was safe and well and I could stay with them. But silence reigned over the slopes, and we rode beyond sight and sound of my family and my friends, and I never saw them again.