64. The Road of Crowns

Two more nights the Guardian’s company rides through the Gray Forest.

On the afternoon of the third day, they emerge from the damp and gloomy woods. Till is grateful to leave the brooding trees behind, and to breathe the open air again. The road runs through mild country now, lined by bushes full of dark red berries that look like tiny cherries. When he plucks one off a branch, Hargis tells him they are poisonous.

The sound of the horses’ hooves on the flagstones nearly drowns out the evening songs of the blackbirds perched in the bushes. Before them lie grassland and gentle hills, tilled fields, and cottages nestled between them. Far to the left, in the West, snowcapped mountains stretch all the way to the horizon, or rather into the gray haze where the horizon must be. They look tremendously tall, even though they must be very far away.

“Those are the Heavens’ Teeth,” Hargis tells him. “The same mountain range in whose embrace the Sundrance of Silence is cradled.”

“They must go on forever.”

“One might think so,” Hargis says. “They cut through nearly half of the Realms. None have ever crossed them. In the North, they descend into the Bitter Sea, and there the coast can only be rounded by ship. But those waters are treacherous, and many ships are lost there. The shortest way from Hestia into Baramond, without passing through Okast, is by the Pass of Talvain among the Southern foothills of the mountains, many leagues behind us. It is the road you traveled to the Sundrance of Silence with Lord Osdath, though you did not know it at the time.”

“That’s a long way to go around,” Till says. “Someone must have tried to find a way over the mountains.”

“Many tried, and were never seen again.”

“Truly?”

Till remembers the stories she’s told him about how the Parsons and novices at the Sundrance are afraid of strange people or dark souls inhabiting hidden places in the Heavens’ Teeth. He is glad that the mountains are so distant, and he wishes they were farther away still so he wouldn’t have to see them. He’d rather not talk about them, at all.

“Where are we now?”

“We are in Northern Hestia. From here, the Road of Crowns leads directly to Fora Tanni, the Imperial capital, with neither wilderness nor woodlands in between.”

“Fora Tanni,” Till repeats. He has heard the name often now, and knows that it is the greatest city in Hestia, and in all the Realms, really. It must be full of wonders. “How long till we get there?”

“A mere two days,” Hargis says. “We should be able to see Lake Amm Borod from our campsite tomorrow evening.”

“Will we go to the city?”

“No. We will follow the road around the western shore of the lake, and then take a ferry to my home on the Forbidden Isle. There, our journey ends.”

Till turns the name over and over in his thoughts like a dubious coin. Forbidden Isle, he murmurs to himself, and again: the Forbidden Isle. All these new names sound both confusing and strangely familiar by now. Only this one troubles him somehow. He has been looking forward to seeing this island, Hargis’s island, but the more he dwells on the name, the more he wonders if it is truly a place he wants to go.

But there’s little choice now, is there?

If he is ever to see his parents and sister again, it will be after he visits the Forbidden Isle with Hargis. She has promised that she would take him home, although he has not had the courage to ask her just when that will be.

What worries him most is that he’s been having trouble remembering the faces of everyone at home. It’s not that he’s forgotten what his mother looked like, exactly, or his father, or Stellia. But when he thinks of them, their faces seem distant and vague, like the faces of people he saw briefly along the road or in the market stalls of Heathensfall, or under the cowls of friars walking past him in the hallways of the Sundrance.

My father is a wainwright. His name… his name…

My mother…

I have an uncle… an aunt… and cousins?

My sister’s name is Stellia.

And I… I’m Till.

It’s getting harder and harder to remember.

It’s the Shard, he’s sure of it!

Before Hargis gave it to him, he did not even have to try to remember the faces and names of anyone back at home. When he traveled with Osdath to the Sundrance, he thought constantly of his parents and Stellia, and cried often at night because he missed them. Not once did he feel in danger of forgetting them; if anything, his memory of them became stronger as his grief grew keener.

Now, even the love in his heart has come to seem distant, as though it wasn’t he who felt it but some other boy whom he is only watching. It began after the morning when Hargis laid the chain with the Shard around his neck! Ever since, his memories and feelings started ebbing away. If only he could stop wanting to look at it!

He steals a glance at her riding next to him—and he has to steal it, because suddenly he is afraid of her again, and quite certain that she did something to him, that she made him dream the strange dream of swirling stars and took something from him while he was asleep—or perhaps she gave instead of took it. He can’t decide if he is less than what he was, or more: less the boy who would cry and miss his parents, or more like to a man who would rule his grief and hold his tears in check. He is frightened, that much he knows for sure, but he must not let her see that.

He tries for a little while longer to recall the faces of his loved ones.

Saddion. That is my father’s name. But no face comes and joins itself to it.

At last, he gives up. The desire to remember slips away into the shadows at the edges of his mind, as though it were eager to elude his grasp. In his despair, he silently says his sister’s name over and over. That at least still comes to him at once. And so he repeats and repeats it in his mind until evening comes and the sun is about to dip behind the distant mountains to the West, coloring their towering peaks a gold that is rich in color but devoid of warmth.

The birds have fallen silent, except for one undeterred blackbird that seems to follow the riders and is eagerly singing a welcome to the dark clouds approaching from the North.

It will rain again soon.

Till sighs heavily. He thought he’d gotten used to gloomy weather over the days of their journey. But on this evening the prospect burdens his heart more than usual. When he lies down to sleep, his hand strays at once to the Shard. He fights hard, and manages to overcome the desire.

But when he tries to think of his family, only two names are left him: that of his sister, and his own.

NEXT: Water and Sky

 

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