Once upon a time, a boy most unexpectedly saved the world. He was young, and small, and had lived a peaceful life with no greater danger to be faced than the occasional sickness or wild animal, and no greater adventure than a walk to the river and back. But so such stories often go.
This boy was given the task of bringing an object of great power to its final resting place, and so he took it, and carried it with him over hill and under mountain, through places with and without names, through the lands of men and goblins and dragons and creatures stranger still, until at last he came to the desolate land that was his goal, and fought a terrible foe and won. Those who sought to use the object of power for their own ends were destroyed or scattered.
Few knew what he had done. He was forgotten before he was ever known. When his quest was done, he disappeared into the countryside and faded from history, leaving behind a world that did not realize how close it had come to destruction. Peace reigned. And so it was.
* * *
Miriel was following a hawk. It watched her with interest and without fear, but each time she approached it abandoned its perch of the moment and glided off to another farther ahead. She was out in the open, brushing the chest-high grass aside as she went. Each time she neared it, she would call out to it just before she thought it would fly away, and each time she called she raised the power of her soundless second voice. The hawk would not come to her. It took flight again. She remained patient, and kept walking.
She had lost track of time. They had probably gone more than a mile since she had first spotted it. She didn’t mind; she often went far from home, pulled along by some new sight or sound, or simply a desire to be in places she had not been before. She knew everything within twenty miles of her father’s house, and it chafed at her that she could rarely go farther. For its part, the hawk seemed content to be tailed. It did not turn off into the thicker forest where she would find it more difficult to follow, but always stayed at the edge of the meadow, in sight.
She called again. The hawk left its branch and wheeled down toward her—toward rather than away, for the first time—and for a moment she felt the joy of success, and raised her arm to it. It did not alight. It swung past her, one wing inches from her ear, talons uncomfortably near her shoulder, and let out a cry as it passed. It ended its arc on another branch, one that was thick and dead and bleached-white.
She would try no harder than that. It was not always difficult. She could call the buds on the trees to bloom early, or summon the worms up from the soil, or bring every mouse and squirrel within hearing to organize themselves in a circle at her feet and stare up at her with admiring expectation. But there was suggestion, and there was command. Some animals would not take suggestion, and no creature that ate the flesh of others would heed a command.
They watched each other, two of the world’s small wonders. Then she turned and went on, leaving it behind. She could still see it for a time, without turning back—a fact which had nothing to do with her own small magic, but was simply a part of being Merai. Spiff had never quite gotten used to her other eye; she still caught him off guard sometimes, seeing things that he could not.
She returned to the trail she had been on before meeting the hawk. Before long she met her father returning, as she had expected to. He was tall and lean, and his clothing—like hers—was satisfyingly garish, all in blues and reds and yellows as bright as they could find dyes to allow. He wore his hair in six braids. He was not smiling today.
There were people with him, a human couple in middle age. They both looked weary and worn. Their belongings were piled in a handcart, which her father was pulling at the moment.
They must be refugees. There had been others. She had heard about the goblin armies that had gathered to the north two years ago. Something had happened that had left them fragmented and leaderless, but they were worse now, her father said. They were scattered everywhere, a hundred warring factions and raiding parties and highway gangs.
“Miriel,” her father said, “We have guests. Would you run ahead and tell Spiff, and help him prepare?”
She nodded quickly, and jogged back the way she had come. The refugees stared at her eye until she was out of their sight.
She had not gone far, and it did not take her long to get home. The little house was waiting for her. Smoke puffed up out of the chimney. She dashed in. Spiff was there, watching the oven. He beamed at her as she entered. His smile stretched at the three scars that ran across his face in pale parallel lines. But he saw her worry, and his expression darkened a little.
They worked until the guests arrived, and kept working afterward. The refugees chattered nervously as the soup simmered and the bread baked. They were made more at ease by hospitality and the smell of food, but fear of the goblins still showed in their faces, and they kept glancing at the back of her head, and her father’s. They did not like the unfamiliar. Humans didn’t. If they had been nearer, and if it had been darker, light from the eyes would have highlighted their questioning features in gold. Spiff always said that Merai eyes were like fireflies. Only Spiff, of all the humans she had ever met, had not shrunk from the eye the first time he had seen it. His relief had been immediate and obvious.
When the food was prepared, they gathered around the small, round table to eat, and her father told the refugees all the ways he thought it might be safe for them to go, all to the south and southeast. They were not the first refugees who had found shelter in that house, just as they were not the first to be driven from their homes by goblins. But these were from Hanton, and Hanton was not far away. Miriel had been there. The goblin band had been small, and had not attacked the town directly, but had killed livestock, raided farms, and attacked travelers on the road into town. There were rumors of more in the area. It was much too near.
“It’s a wonder it hasn’t happened before,” said the man, who had been a tinker. “They’ve been farther south than this, even beyond the High Palace and the Four Cities, but never this far east.”
Her father only nodded at that. And when the sun had set and the candles were lit, he said, “I think that it is time for us to move on from here as well.”
She had known that it would come sometime. Her home had never been very important to her, or at least not the location of it. But she knew that her father was sad, and she felt his sadness with him. She did not know what to say to him.
“Where will we go?” she asked at last.
Her father stared at the grain of the table, lost in thought. She knew what he was remembering. He said, “Somewhere in the world, the Merai have a home.”
“Yes,” said Spiff. It was the first thing he had said in a long time. He rarely said much.
“You have been there,” said her father. “For me, it has been a long time, and I came by a much different way. I am not sure whether I could find it or not. If you are certain of the route, I would be grateful for the knowledge. If not, perhaps we could compare what we do know, and come up with some sense of its location.” He sipped tea slowly from his cup. To the refugees, he said, “There is no safer place in the world than that place. We can take you with us, if you wish.”
The man and woman looked uncertain, but it was Spiff who said, “I can’t go with you.”
Some part of her must have expected that too, because she was not surprised. The day was full of small upheavals that surprised no one.
He ran a finger over his scars where they ended at his upper lip. It was a gesture she had become familiar with. “I have to go…somewhere. I don’t know where. Not back the way I came. Not yet, anyway.”
She didn’t know where he had come from, or why. Something had happened to him. He had never told her what. She knew he had met the Merai, but not how, and that something had cut his face, but not what. That was all she knew.
Something had hurt him, and he wanted to forget it, but he couldn’t. She had sensed him growing more distant over the months. He was not happy staying in one place. He had been waiting, whether he wanted to believe it or not, for something to uproot him again, so that his goalless quest could go on. So that he could try to find something else to put his mind to rest.
Her father had gone out from his home once, years ago, with a baby girl on his back. He had loved the friendliness and beauty of the Merai’s hidden valley, but it was a place without change, and he could not bear to be there forever. As the years had gone on, he had grown tired of the troubles outside, and had settled and built their home, and had longed to return to his kind. But she had his blood, and she too felt the need to travel far. And Spiff…Spiff had no home.
“I will go with you, Spiff,” she said.
* * *
The next morning, they went their separate ways. The refugees went southeast. The land of the Merai was too far for them, and there were dangers on the way. All they wanted was a place that the goblins had not touched, and there were still places like that in the High Kingdom.
Her father went east. There were wastelands and swamps and bands of warlike men that way, Spiff said. He would have to go around or through them, but the hazards did not deter him. He said there was only one place for him now. He carried little with him. He hugged her, and told her for the fourth time how he would get where he was going, because he wanted her to be able to find it too. He said that he hoped to see her again someday, but the look on his face said that he knew it might be years before they met again, or that they might never.
She and Spiff would go south. It was the only way where the dangers were uncertain, where everything was uncertain. It was the direction of nothing that Spiff had seen before. They carried small packs of clothing on their backs. Miriel had a shortbow slung across her shoulder, and a handful of arrows. Spiff had his magic pouch and torch, so they would never want for food, gold, heat, or light.
The house she had lived in shrunk behind her. If goblins or anything else tried to search the little house, they would not find anything. Anyone standing in the field would see a shack that looked like it had been abandoned for ages. It always appeared that way, to people who did not know how to look. That was its magic.
It was already gone.
* * *
They were on their way, and the journey brightened her spirits. She had been south of her home before, but never quite this path, in quite this season. Everything changed so much, especially in the spring. Every time she looked, there were new flowers, new foliage, new insects, new birds. She took in the sounds and smells. By the end of the first day, they were beyond any ground she had ever walked on before.
The landscape was mostly fields, dotted with clumps of trees and the occasional larger forest. It went on forever. They passed a stream over and over again as it switched back and forth, simply jumping over it each time it turned back on their route. They found dirt paths sometimes and followed them for awhile, with the grass shooting up almost to the height of their shoulders on each side. The sun was up, and the sky was as blue as it had ever been.
Spiff said it reminded him of home. She asked where his home had been, though she had asked so many times before that she had lost count. The first time, he had said “far away,” and no more. This time, he only shook his head. She did not press him any more. The land was beautiful, and he seemed happy.
On the second day, they came to a town where everyone had died.
It was a small town, only twenty homes or so, and the buildings still stood. It sat in a wide circle of cut grass; Miriel and Spiff stopped at the edge of it. Most of the bodies were far away. They lay sprawled in the spaces between the buildings that had almost passed for streets. More must have been inside the houses. She could not see them through the windows, but in the empty squares of light she sensed a stiffness, like frozen screams. There should be movement in there, or warmth, but there was not. A few of the bodies were in the grass further out from the town, as though some people had tried to flee but had not made it far. They were not people now. They were logs of flesh. It was the inanimateness that she hated the most.
“Can we bury them?” Spiff said.
“There are so many of them,” she said.
“I wish we could do something…”
“If we find a patrol of soldiers,” she said, “we could tell them. They would come to bury the dead. But we can’t. It might take us days.”
They went on. In a matter of hours, they found a second dead town.
They kept far away from roads after that, and from any sign of habitation. Sometimes they saw smoke drifting up from somewhere, though they could not make out the source. They passed solitary derelict houses from time to time, but nothing more. The air was thick. She felt the danger, and the grief, coming from people out beyond where she could see. They went on for days through that pretty, unobtrusive morass of grass and sky, until finally they came to the East Road.
It was huge, bigger than any road she had ever seen, perfectly straight and perfectly flat and made of huge white stones. It was wide enough for twenty mounted soldiers riding abreast, which was how wide they would have ridden, if the High King’s legions were to march off to battle. But there was no one on the road that she could see, even though her view extended along the road for miles each way. Far to the west where the road narrowed to a point, she could see a tiny bar of white, the thousand-foot tall tower of the High Palace. But there was nothing on the road, not even dust. The pall hung there too.
They cut across the road quickly, and continued south. A few days later, they began to bear more westward, and by the end of a week they had reached the South Road, as pristine and arrow-straight as the East Road had been. There was a wagon far to the south, headed away from them. When she looked back up the road, she could not see the palace. All she could see in that direction was a signpost with a silver crown painted on it, so scratched and faded that she could barely make it out.
That was the end of the High Kingdom, and the end of the dreadful feeling that had been with her since they had come to that first town. She never saw another goblin on that road, or any more signs of their piecemeal war. All of that was behind them.
She wished them well, humans and goblins alike. It was an ugly time to be anyone in that land.
But on the open road, her heart lifted again, as it had when the two of them had first set out. The whole world was in front of them. She pranced on the stones, and laughed at everything, and pointed out each plant and animal she had never seen before. She asked the birds their names, and they called back to her dumbly in response, and she named them by their chirps and cackles. Spiff trekked beside her, watching it all with his usual reserve, but smiling with her more and more often as that first day on the road passed by. He was silent most of the time, but it was one of his lighter shades of silence.
The sun went down to the west at the end of the day, painting the vast plains golden-orange and the half-clouded sky a deeper red. The moon was rising on the other side of the sky, the little amber eye that watched over them always, and it gave her comfort as it always did. They stopped for the night and set up camp at the edge of the road. She felt that there was no danger of being attacked in the night. It was too lonely for highwaymen.
“I wonder where we’re going,” Spiff mused.
“Along a path that makes itself as we go,” she said. “People walk this road, but no one has known it. No one has believed it. Not until now, not until us. We’re traveling the forgotten way.”
She kissed his cheek, and pulled the blanket up over them, and fell asleep with the light still fading overhead.
* * *
He was somewhere else.
It was still dark, and clouds obscured the moon and hid most of the stars, but he could see that the southern plain was gone. He was in a clearing with trees all around, their thousands of twists and turns cast into greater and more brooding shapes by the flickering light of three fires. The fires were ringed with small stones. Two of them had all but died.
Goblins lay motionless all around. The nearest few were turned to face him with the light at their backs and shadows where their faces should be. The ground was damp and sticky with their drying blood. Nothing moved but the firelight.
A man sat on a wide stump by the one fire that still burned brightly. He was tall and strong and broad-shouldered, but nothing about his stature was truly remarkable. He had a beard, and long, wild hair spread down all across his back. He wore a steel skullcap with a nose guard, and a few odd pieces of hard leather armor. A spear lay across his lap, and a circular wooden shield leaned against the side of the stump. He faced Spiff, sitting without moving, elbows on his knees, hands knitted loosely between them. He smiled broadly within his beard, but it was the smile of a wolf. Spiff remembered Eyjolf grinning as he spilled a goblin’s brains across ground much like this. This man’s smile reminded him of Eyjolf’s, but it was more contained, and more thoughtful. Eyjolf wore his thoughts on his face; this smile hid everything. It was a wall between them, as perpetual and impenetrable as a line of mountains. From above it, the man’s eyes watched him. He could feel them inside his mind, flitting back and forth, seeking.
“You are smaller than they say you were,” the man remarked. “And you were younger then. Not much to look at, really. Not at all.” Still he smiled.
Spiff nodded. “I know. Where am I?”
“Asleep on the South Road,” said the man. “And I am still in the green forests of the kingdom. This place is in shambles now. But I’ll be down your way soon enough. I am Angtyr the Hunter. I trust that we are well met.”
Spiff had been a prisoner before. He knew what it felt like. This man was not going to let him go.
“Hardly anyone remembers the boy who bore the ring,” said Angtyr. “Even though it has been little more than two years since they scoured the countryside for him. Few knew what they were looking for, even then. No one knew you existed. You’re just a rumor, even to those who were there on the battle-plain. You came under their noses, and they still didn’t see you. Who would think to look for a boy so small? But there are a few who remember that rumor, and it is all they have left. They want you dead.”
There had been a time when everyone had wanted to kill him. He thought he had gotten free of that part, at least. It came back to him numbly. He was used to this.
“Who?” he asked. “Garraba Half-Troll?”
“The Half-Troll never left the battle-plain,” said Angtyr. “He never reunited his armies. Some fire or other swallowed him.” He laughed, but his face almost did not change. “You are wondering why I killed these goblins, when I accept payment from their masters. Gold means little to me. They were in the way. They thought too much of themselves. I kill a lot of people; a few are even worth the trouble. But no one will mourn the likes of these.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?” Spiff said. “Why did you bring me here?”
“I haunt your mind because I want to see what is in it. It makes you easy to track too, of course. But mostly, I do it because you fascinate me. And as for why I tell you? I am a selfish man who likes to see fear, and feel power. I want you to know what is coming for you. I want you to run. But I will catch you in the end.”
The clearing was beginning to stretch and fade. He could feel the sleep in his eyes.
“Until we meet again,” said Angtyr.
* * *
She was awakened by Spiff, who jerked upright next to her. She rolled over and sat up, laying a hand on his shoulder. Her other hand rubbed at her eyes.
“Someone is following us,” he said. She could see the way they had come, behind her. It was hard to tell in the dark, but her eye could see farther than his could, and the road looked empty and silent.
“You were dreaming,” she said. “You often dream about things that aren’t happening anymore. I wish you would tell me about them sometime. I wish I could help.”
He still stared north. She went back to sleep.
* * *
The next day, they began to pass people on the road. They saw merchants and vagabonds and troubadours traveling between towns, and sometimes passed through the towns themselves. It was said that the High Kingdom was the center of the world, and that there was nowhere that could not be reached eventually by way of the four great roads. Smaller dirt paths, and even the occasional cobbled one, branched off from the South Road constantly. The people they saw seemed not to be troubled by what was happening in the north. She wondered if they even knew about the wars, but most did not look as though they wanted to be asked. Almost no one hailed them, and those who did merely tipped their heads by way of greeting and passed on.
Late that afternoon, they overtook a woman and child. The woman had a sack of possessions slung across her back, and they both had the grim faces of refugees. The child limped, and the woman helped him along with her free arm.
Miriel wanted to help the boy. She wanted to call to his flesh and bones as she called to animals, to find and close up whatever hurt had lamed him. But the woman gave her a hard look, and almost shouted when Miriel reached down to touch the leg. She and Spiff went on.
The next day they passed three young men who were little more than boys, headed in the opposite direction. The men had scruffy half-beards and wore ill-fitting armor that looked like it had been scavenged; many of the pieces had not begun as armor at all. One had a rusting sword, and the other two carried makeshift polearms that doubled as walking staffs. They were very friendly.
“We’re going to the Four Cities,” said the one with the sword, grinning from ear to ear. “We’ll fight goblins with the best of them.”
“It’s terrible up there,” Miriel said.
“We know,” said the boy, waving her concern aside. They continued up the road, laughing at each other the whole way.
They heard nothing more about the High Kingdom’s troubles after that, and met no more refugees or would-be warriors. She began to realize that the further they went, the fewer people had even heard of the kingdom. Hundreds of years ago, it was said, the High Kings ruled the world. Every land was their province, and they received tribute from the most remote of cities in coins stamped with their own faces. But here they were only a dwindling memory, and she doubted that after a hundred more miles they would even be that. People here looked up the road and saw only endless plains and the unknown. The young would dream up adventures and fairy-tales, and as they grew up into almost adulthood, they would lie in haylofts with the moonlight shining in or look out their windows at the eternal line of white stone, and they would tell their friends that someday, they would go up the road and find for themselves what dwelled in the wide world outside of their homes. Then they would become farmers and tradesmen, and constancy would become their wisdom. But until then, there was possibility. Endless plains and the unknown—just as she and Spiff saw, looking south.
Some days it rained lightly, and they went on through it, letting its coolness touch them; she loved feeling the drops running all over her. Some days the sun shone exuberantly and dried them out again, and it was not hot but only warm and soft as spring should be. Some days the wind blew across the plains, whipping the grass all in one direction, and the pale clouds flew by overhead faster than they could ever run. She felt herself growing stronger all the time from constant walking. Her step felt light. Spiff seemed to feel it too, but there was still a hint of trudge in his movements. His past still weighed on him. He was expecting something, too. She could tell that much by looking at him, but could get no more out of him than that. And whether what he was expecting would come to him tomorrow or at the far ends of the earth, she couldn’t say.
“Spiff,” she asked him once, “What do you think we’ll find at the end of this road?”
“Well,” he said, “That’s what we’re going to find out, right?”
“But you’re looking for something,” she said. “How will we even know if we find it, if we can’t say what it is?”
“I don’t know,” Spiff said. “It’s just such a strange world. I want it to make sense, I guess.”
She laughed, but he didn’t laugh with her, and she stopped. “What could make more sense than this?” she said, sweeping her arms out to either side, indicating everything ever.
“The villages full of dead people didn’t make sense,” he said. “A lot of things don’t. It doesn’t all fit. Maybe if I see all of it, I’ll understand.”
He had never told her so much before. She grew more daring, and decided to press her luck. She wanted to know so badly. “Spiff, what have you been through? What made you so sad?”
He swallowed hard. His step faltered, but he didn’t stop. “Please don’t ask me that, Miriel.”
She closed her eyes and held back a sigh, and turned away from him and kept walking. She ought to let him find what he was after in his own way, in peace. The beautiful things they saw every day were good for him, and she ought to leave it at that. But she was Merai, and she cared for him, and his secrets did not sit well with her.
The road went on. The landscape was beginning to change gradually. The flat plains were rising up into gently rolling hills, though they were still mostly covered in grass. In the distance, she saw what looked like low, green mountains.
She would reach out sometimes and sense the living things of the fields, the forests of grass stalks and the things that hid in them. She would call to animals who seemed interested in her. Once, she managed to get a fox to follow her for a ways, but it ran off when it smelled someone else coming toward them, and she could not call it back. Another time, she summoned a woolly, knee-high creature that looked like a deer, and fed it nuts from Spiff’s bottomless magic pouch. She befriended a few animals each day, but they would not come far with her, especially not with
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Text: Aaron Redfern 2008
Images: Aaron Redfern 2012
Publication Date: 05-19-2012
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