52. The Road Ahead

The morning is utterly miserable.

The fire has long gone out, leaving in its place nothing but a pile of ashes. A clinging mist hovers between the trees. Stellia’s limbs feel stiff as sticks. On top of it all, the first thing she sees as she wakes up is a spider, its body the size of a cherry, sitting in a new web where the fallen tree’s roots reach down nearly to her face. In the cold gray morning light, the creature no longer appears like a pitiable refugee from the fire’s heat, but every bit the spiky-legged predator Stellia has always loathed. She gets up quickly and moves away.

Tylvanor is nowhere to be seen.

He’s gone and slunk off, then, after all. But that doesn’t make much sense, after the trouble he went through to find her.

The knapsack with the rolls and bread is still there. As is his horse, waiting calmly next to Phylia. It’s a dapple gray stallion covered with white flecks the size of crab apples, a rather pretty animal. No doubt he’s stolen it somewhere, hopefully very far from where they are. In Taronnis, horse thieves are swiftly sent to the gallows, without exceptions.

Stellia strokes the horses’ heads for a while, warming herself between their large bodies.

Tylvanor steps out of the fog carrying a large goatskin.

“Water.” He jerks his head in the direction from which he came. “There’s a stream nearby, if you want to wash your face.”

He himself has clearly not done so; the grime and dust covering his features are as thick as before, if not more so. Stellia tries to imagine what he might look like if he were all cleaned up. He’d be far from ugly, but she can’t imagine ever finding him attractive. In an odd way, this almost disappoints her.

What a romance theirs could be, if she fancied him. She’s read a few love stories and poems, and though she’s never been in love herself, the idea of it sounds exciting enough. But most of these stories end badly, with the lovers separated, unhappy, and often even dead, by their own hands or those of others. It’s not very encouraging, and for two outlaws on the run—she must count herself as such, after all—the odds of ultimate grief are all the greater.

She goes to the stream and splashes the icy water on her face. After that, they eat some of the bread. It is stale now, and Stellia thinks wistfully of the warm fresh crust it had when uncle Ezriyon pulled the loaves from his oven the morning before.

By the time they ride back to the road, the fog is lifting, and the sun’s first warm rays drive the last chill from Stellia’s body.

They meet no one, and aside from the occasional bird call, the woods are very quiet. The road still winds through forested hills dotted with occasional outcroppings of rock. It is a landscape, wilder even than the forests of the Thorns. The trees are much taller here, and the familiar pines are increasingly interspersed with massive firs oaks.

Tylvanor carefully watches the ground as they ride.

“What do you see?”

“I’m no tracker,” he says. “But I’d say a large number of horses came through here. Your clergyman, perhaps, with his retinue. The tracks are faint now. Four, maybe five days ago.”

“I wonder if they passed through Godossas,” Stellia says. “My uncle and my cousin didn’t mention it, though.”

“The soldiers may have come to the village at night, and passed through without stopping. They wouldn’t have stayed at an inn.”

“Unless you are wrong, and they took another route altogether.”

“You said these other men were following them,” Tylvanor says. “And that they clearly stopped in Godossas. They would have to come this way. There’s no other road north from here, as far as I know. Certainly none that would take you anywhere near the Sundrance of Silence.”

“How well do you know these lands, really?”

“Not well,” Tylvanor admits. “But I do know that the shortest way into Hestia from this region is through the Pass of Talvain, and then through the foothills of the Heavens’ Teeth. The only other route leads around the foothills, farther south. It’d add days to the journey. At this time of year, the pass should not be difficult to traverse. Your clergyman went that way, which means the two men you want to find did the same.”

“I’ve never heard of this pass,” Stellia says.

“And why would you? I doubt you’ve ever traveled farther than that turnip patch your uncle calls home.”

Stellia wants to point out that she’s been to Maltaros frequently. No doubt that would only elicit more condescension from her companion. For a wandering thief, he has quite a bit of arrogance in him.

“In Baramond, everyone knows the Pass of Talvain,” Tylvanor continues. “It’s the only way to reach Hestia without traveling through Okast and half of Taronnis. There’s a town up there, Talvain, for which the pass is named. It would be the last place for travelers to obtain supplies, before heading through the mountainous land beyond.”

“You’ve been to this town?”

“I’ve seen it marked on a map. Supposedly, it got its name for some ancient stone outside the town. This road will take us there. I know that much.”

“But you’ve never actually gone?”

“Not yet.”

Stellia suppresses a sigh. “I would have hoped you’d be more of a guide.”

“I am,” Tylvanor says. “More of a guide than you, anyway.”

And that, after all, she can hardly dispute.

NEXT: Thieves and Villains

 

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