15. Till’s Journey into the Mountains

It is raining, and it is cold.

The last time they stopped was so long ago that Till can’t remember where they camped, and what time of day it was.

He remembers trees, and not being warm enough in his bedroll. Trees are all he’s seen for some time now.

How many days has it been? Three? Four? He can’t remember that either, only endless forests.

The trees look different here, not like the mild pines of his home. These trees are tall and forbidding, their trunks straight and huge and black, and their crowns so dense and high above the ground he wonders where there is room for birds to fly. Between the branches, he can catch zig-zaggy shreds of sky, always grey. They rode through hills a day or two ago, and since then, he has seen the sun only rarely, and when he does, it is not as warm as in Phoros.

The soldiers and Lord Osdath are very nice to him, and feed him as soon as he gets hungry, but he feels bitterly sad, and keeps asking for his mother and sister, and his father. Lord Osdath tells him that he may see them again soon. Till isn’t sure if he is telling the truth.

Lord Osdath always looks friendly, and he smiles a lot, though he never really laughs. Still, he’s a lot more pleasant than the man with the red belt—Hayrolf. That one never smiles, and although he does not seem to be angry at Till, he frightens him.

Lord Osdath says that Hayrolf is so stern because he is focused on his duty, that he is the commander of the troops that are with them. Till assumes that duty is what soldiers call work, though that still doesn’t explain why the tall man never smiles. Till’s his father works all the time and smiles and laughs a lot.

“That may be,” Lord Osdath says. “But Hayrolf’s work is more dangerous than your father’s, and men may get hurt if he makes mistakes.”

Till wants to point out that his father builds wagons, and that if he makes a mistake, people might get hurt as well. But he soon looses interest in the question, especially since what he really wants to know is why they have taken him. He can get no answer to that, except that he’ll soon be told.

They are riding into mountains. The Heavens’ Teeth, Lord Osdath calls them.

The trees still stand as densely, but they are shorter, and not as straight, and the road slopes upward, ever upward. There’s rocks everywhere now, and in the distance, mountains capped with snow. The wind is getting stronger, and it is colder than it ever gets in Phoros, even during the rainy season. Lord Osdath makes the horses stop and wraps Till in a hooded cloak lined with white fur. It is softer than anything Till has ever felt, and warmer, too, though of course in Phoros he rarely needs warm clothes. Fur is something he has never worn before.

“Does it snow here?” he asks Lord Osdath, who has taken him on his own horse for the time being.

“Always, in the winter. And as we go higher, we may see snow even at this time of year.” He looks up at the heavy clouds. “Rain seems more likely today, though.”

“How high will we go?”

“Not too high. We will arrive at the Sundrance by evening.”

“What’s a Sundrance?”

Lord Osdath smiles. “A Sundrance is a place where men live and study in peace.”
“Will I have to study there, too?”

“No, not you.”

“What will I do there, then?”

“First, you’ll take a warm bath, and then you will eat to your heart’s desire. Fresh soup, and meat, cooked in a proper kitchen, not the dry cakes and fruit we carry.”

“And after that? After dinner? In the morning, I mean, after we sleep.”

Lord Osdath keeps smiling. “Breakfast?”

“No.” Till sighs. Adults can be so frustrating! “What am I to do there?”

“We will wait. You will have a visitor. Perhaps in the morning, perhaps in a few days. I don’t know how fast the news has traveled, and how far. In the meantime, you can rest, and play.”

“Are there books? I like books.”

“You can read?”

“My sister is teaching me,” Till says. “I’m getting better every day. I love reading.”

“Then I will find some books that are fit for you to read,” Lord Osdath says. “Later, if fate wills it, you’ll see a grander library, in Fora Tanni.”

“Fora Tanni? Where is that? Is it like the Sundrance?”

Lord Osdath mutters something in his own language.

Till does not understand, but he is certain that it’s about him not knowing about Sundrances and this Fora Tanni place. He thinks of his mother and father and sister, who are always patient with him and never make him feel bad for not knowing things. His chest grows very tight, and he feels like crying again. But the feeling fades, and Till’s thoughts return to the pleasures he is being promised. Good food is always something to look forward to, as is a warm bed, after all these days of riding and sleeping in small drafty tents, or in a bedroll under the trees. Books are good, too, but most of all he wants to know about this visitor he is supposed to have.

“Who’s coming to visit me?”

“That’s not for me to tell you,” Lord Osdath says. “So do not ask again.”

He spurs his horse, and soon they reach the head of their group, where he starts talking to Hayrolf in their own tongue.

The wind picks up. The pines creak as they sway slowly to and fro. Raindrops blow in Till’s face. It is getting dark, too. Ravens caw among the pine branches. Their calls don’t sound friendly, more like threats, or warnings at best.

Till draws the thick cloak more tightly around himself. The cawing begins to sound far away, and it becomes difficult to keep his eyes open. A pleasant heaviness settles in on him. He forgets about being frightened, about the soldiers and the ravens.

The steady rhythm of the horse’s hoofbeats rocks him to sleep in his nest of fur.

NEXT: The Guardian’s Gaze

 

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