Wind breathes through the boughs, stirring leaves and needles with a million whispers.
The great trunks sway like reeds in an invisible current, creaking secret words with their wooden voices. Everything about the landscape strikes Stellia as wild and unwelcoming of human presence. The trail they follow winds its way ever more steeply up a forested slope, as though to wear down anyone desiring to climb it. Where the towering pines and firs don’t press close, thickets of yew and holly threaten to swallow up the narrow track and scratch the riders’ hands and faces with spiny leaves.
More and more often, rocks and cliffs peek out of the trees like jagged giants’ teeth. It is colder here, as well. The sky beyond the treetops is still largely blue, but dark clouds are fast moving in from the West, driven by a chill wind. The closeness of their surroundings is oppressive. To their right, trees and shrubs and rocks pile up as far as the eye can see; to the left, they descend with equal thickness along a steep slope. If only there was an opening now and then through which one could glimpse the landscape below, and the horizon.
“Where exactly are we?” Stellia asks.
“In the foothills of the Heavens’ Teeth,” Tylvanor replies.
He’s been riding ahead of her; presumably, the fact that he’s seen this trail on a map once makes him the guide.
“Down that way—” He points to the left, as though anything could be seen there but trees and more trees. “—lie the Wind Fens. They stretch from here to the shores of the river Rimmota, many leagues to the West, and to the border between Baramond and Okast, far to the South. To the North, they extend almost all the way to Ceriselle, our capital.”
“Are we in Baramond, then?”
“Baramond claims lordship over these lands,” Tylvanor says. “But it’s been many years since soldiers from Ceriselle set foot in the fens. There is little to protect or tax out here. In spring and in summer, the fens are a mucky bog filled with enough mosquitoes to drink a horse dry in minutes. In autumn they are flooded by rains, and in winter, locked in ice and hoarfrost. Winds coming down from the peaks of the Heavens’ Teeth howl across them year round. Hence the name.”
“So the fens are uninhabited?”
“Not entirely. There are herdsmen who tend to flocks of goats here during the milder seasons. The fens can be treacherous, and many outsiders who tried to cross them have been lost. But the mountain folk know to navigate them.”
“Mountain folk? You just said they live in the fens.”
“I said they bring their flocks here,” Tylvanor says. “Their dwellings are in the mountains. Most of them winter in Talvain, where we are headed, though I heard that they also maintain caves in the foothills where they stock food, fuel, and fodder for their herds over the year. They are a people apart, and keep mostly to themselves.”
“They are not Baramondine?”
“They are subjects of Baramond,” Tylvanor says, “but they speak a language no one understands, and they don’t look like Baramondine, nor Okasti, for that matter. Their hair is mostly flaxen or reddish, and their skin very fair, and most of them are quite tall. In Baramond, we call them the Min Melin, the Fair Mountain Folk. Some call them the goat masters, but that is meant as an insult.”
“What do they call themselves?”
“I’ve no idea. There are many stories about them, though. I’ve heard it said that they are the descendants of people who once lived amidst the highest peaks of the Heavens’ Teeth. Some people say that the caves where they winter go deep into the mountains, and lead to hidden valleys that are fertile and green year round.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Stellia says. “Why would they herd goats in the fens, when they could live in green mountain valleys instead?”
“Who knows? At any rate, they never bother anyone, and as long as they don’t challenge Baramond by proclaiming their independence, or Hestia by abandoning the Faith, they are left in peace. At least it’s been that way for a long time. Their traders come to the markets in Baramond, sometimes. I’ve never tasted better goat cheese, or stronger.”
After a short while, the road slopes upward even more steeply than before. The horses whinny in protest at the difficult terrain. Stellia is about to dismount and lead Phylia on foot when they suddenly emerge onto a natural terrace before a tall, smooth rock face crowned at its top with firs.
Stellia stares in amazement at the landscape before her.
The forest descends in a vertiginous plunge down the mountainside, the last of it spilling in verdant strands into a vast plain far below, where it gives way to a seemingly endless expanse of grassland. South, north, and west into the hazy horizon it stretches in patterns of pale green and yellow, dotted with countless pools of water that glint in the afternoon sun like the shards of a gigantic shattered mirror. The entire landscape moves in ripples and waves of light and shadow as the wind sweeps over the grass.
“The Wind Fens?”
Tylvanor nods. He seems equally affected by the magnificent vista.
“They are beautiful.”
Even as they watch, the dark clouds coming from the West move in front of the sun. One by one, the mirror surfaces of the pools are extinguished, their silver gleam turned to lead.
Tylvanor has climbed out of the saddle, and stands at the edge of the rock terrace, holding the reins of his horse and gazing into the distance where the Wind Fens lose themselves in the gloom of the advancing storm.
Is he truly just a vagabond? She finds that harder and harder to believe. And even vagabonds have stories, after all. The way he talks, the way he carries himself—even in his most truculent moments, he sounds arrogant at worst, never thuggish.
She dismounts, and stands next to him.
“What is it?”
He does not take his eyes off the distant landscape. “That way lies my home. In the West, beyond the fenlands.”
The horizon is dark, shrouded by gray veils where the rain is already falling. But even if the day were bright and clear, she would likely not see what he is seeing. “Why did you leave?”
“Nothing was left that would have kept me there,” Tylvanor says.
“What about your family?”
He only shakes his head, slowly.
“I’m sorry,” Stellia mutters.
Lightning flickers through the churning clouds. Moments later, thunder rumbles through the sky. A cold gust buffets them, and a chorus of sighs rises from the crowns of the trees. The wind is damp and smells like rain.
“That storm will be here before long,” Tylvanor says. “Let’s keep an eye open for shelter.”
They ride on in silence. Stellia spurs on Phylia, gently as always, but with more urgency than before. She takes care to look to her right into the trees for any place that might provide refuge from heavy weather. But what shelter can they possibly find in this wild and forbidding place? Soon the cold wind blows the first raindrops into her face.
It is bound to be a wretched night.