They come within sight of Talvain at dusk.
Here and there in the distance, windows light up as fires are kindled in houses half-hidden under snow. As they get closer, it becomes evident that Talvain is not a village, but rather a small town huddled against a mountainside. By the road just outside Talvain, they pass a tapering pillar of blackish rock at least three times as tall as Stellia’s parents’ house.
“That must be the stone for which this place is named,” Nevynne says.
“It is a dolmen,” Garroth says. “Talvain, in the local tongue.”
A band of letters or symbols snakes from top to bottom around the pillar, carved so deeply into its surface that snow has collected in the glyphs. They look utterly unfamiliar to Stellia. “What does the writing say?”
Nevynne shrugs. “I’ve no idea, nor have I ever heard of anyone who does. I’m sure the people here know what it means, but I’ll bet you a fistful of silvers that if you asked them, they wouldn’t tell you.”
“You’d likely win that bet,” Garroth grunts.
“Perhaps there really is no one left who can read it,” Stellia says. “It does look very old.”
“According to the locals, this dolmen has stood here since the days before any of the Realms existed,” Garroth says. “They claim that it is older even than Hestia itself.”
“That would mean more than two thousand years,” Stellia says.
“Over twice that, if you believe the people here. Now, whether none of them can read the inscription or whether they simply don’t want to talk about what it means, I don’t know, though I suspect the latter. All I could ever get out of them is that it is some kind of prophecy.”
Stellia can’t take her eyes off the brooding stone. “I wonder if it came true.”
“If it tells of four freezing travelers passing by here with rumbling stomachs, it most certainly did,” Nevynne says.
“Who knows?” Sedwin, too, seems spellbound by the mysterious dolmen. “What it predicts may yet lie in our future.”
Talvain consists almost entirely of sturdy stone houses with slate-covered roofs piled onto a sloping mountain side. In the North and North-East, behind and to the right of the town, massive peaks rise into snow-blurred heights in the dusk, while to the left, the westernmost houses of Talvain cling like swallows’ nests to a steep crag that overlooks brooding pine forests hundreds of yards below. The very sight makes Stellia shudder. Heights have never been something she enjoyed, and she was terrified when, over the last two miles, the road climbed upwards along that same crag, veering frightfully close to it in places. How anyone could bear to live overlooking the forested abyss below is a mystery to her.
Thankfully, the road soon swerves northeastward, away from the precipitous western edge, and slopes uphill through the middle of the town toward a marketplace divided into tiers. These tiers are bordered by wind-bent firs, and connected each to the other by a few wide stairs. Beyond the marketplace, the road resumes its northbound course through the upper half of Talvain and then past the last far-flung houses, to finally disappear in the gap between two nearly vertical mountain sides. The two rockfaces are massive and dark, with little snow dusting their steep sides, and their summits are lost in the evening gloom. The clutter of human habitations looks fragile and small below them, as though the mountains’ mighty breath might issue from that sinister cleft any moment to extinguish the town and every one of its warmly lit windows like so many candle flames.
“What you see here are merely the foothills of the the Heavens’ Teeth,” Sedwin says. “Beyond those two crags, the road travels downwards again, into the actual Pass of Talvain, amidst brooding forests through the southernmost parts of the great mountain range.”
“It feels like looking at the edge of the world,” Stellia says. “As though that cleft is the gate to a realm men were never meant to enter, and where only wind and snow and rock can exist.”
“In winter, that description would be quite accurate,” Garroth tells her.
For all the grandiose gloom surrounding it, Talvain is a lively place, even at dusk. Everywhere, goats of a hardy, long-haired breed roam the streets and alleys. As Nevynne pointedly remarks more than once, the entire town smells of goat, goat cheese, and goat excrement. Were it not for the occasional herder wading along in the streams of goats pouring through the streets, one might think that the entire population of Talvain consisted of the animals. So great are their numbers that Stellia cannot imagine how anyone could keep track of them, or tell which ones belong to whom. But soon she spots markings on their hides. Those with the same marks appear to flock together, and in truth, they do not roam quite so freely and independently as it first appeared. The various herds move in a more or less organized fashion, driven home to their stables from whatever faraway pasture they visited during the day.
Aside from the goat herders with their flocks, few people walk in the streets. They hardly look up as the four strangers ride by; most of them are in too much of a hurry to get indoors to pay attention to a band of travelers. Nevynne points out that Talvain is known in Baramond as the gateway to Hestia, and that travelers are likely to be a common sight in the town.
As a testament to the frequency of such traffic, Talvain boasts a sizable inn comprising numerous rooms as well as plenty of stables, all grouped around an open courtyard. Much to Stellia’s dismay, the inn is located at the western edge of town, overlooking the precipice that forms the natural border of Talvain. To make matters worse, the inn’s builders, unable to expand their construction horizontally in that direction, compensated by piling several additional floors onto its western wing. As a result, the entire structure looks nightmarishly lopsided, as though any sudden gust of wind might tip the whole thing over and send it tumbling down the mountainside.
Stellia prays that their room will be facing the street.
NEXT: At the Inn