If I thought the tale she had told me the night previous was the spawn of imagination, the story that she told me now was even greater in the direction of fantasy. I remembered times as a child when Miranda and I would sit on the floor of our humble home in Coere Ghante, listening to tales of terror, love, and adventure. Mother used to tell the best stories, but that’s just what they were… stories: fantasy the mother and imagination the father, giving birth to such great tales of adventure. They were believably fiction, and the story I heard that day was much the same, filled with things that could not possibly be real… but they were. It was not the substance of the tale that made it different from mother’s, nor was it anything about the story itself. How did I know it was truth? Kyra of the Tallri told me the story of her life.
She talked of a forest which I was somewhat familiar with, having travelled through it myself just recently. She talked of wolves and ravens, and beast of every kind that roamed in those woods, but more importantly… of the Tallri: her people. They originated from the southern swamps of Coaniariam, but through the years had migrated elsewhere. Her tribe had settled in the Mhoarid forest just north of the walls of the great city. They was very religious by nature, all their directions given by the voice of Riul herself. She guided their every thought, desires, and actions. Those who refused to submit to the voice of Riul in all things were cast out of the forest, the Taint overtaking them. Kyra was one such Tallri.
“Does Riul look down on those who commit crimes of thievery?” I said, half in jest.
“Riul cares not for the things of men, their cities or possessions. She cares for her people and their home: nature. She does, however, look down on those who refuse her will.”
“And what is it that you refused?”
She looked at me bitterly, “That is for me alone to know. What would it benefit you, knowing my crimes?”
My curiosity desired an answer, but reason overtook it. She had a point. What business of mine was her past? I decided that it would be best to stick to the matters at hand. “Fair enough. I suppose everyone can have their secrets. One secret you cannot have is this: why do you stay with me? Was it not enough to leave me alone last night? Why return to feed my belly and dress my wounds?”
Her eyes responded before her mouth. That same look of awe remained, but was coupled with bafflement. “You direct the voice of Riul like none other has for generations. It would not be right to leave someone so blessed by Her behind…” She paused for a moment and I saw her lips curl upwards slightly, showing the pleasure she drew from her next statement. “…even if arrogance does dampen your appeal.”
Her smile was mirrored by my own. “I see that all pleasantries are set aside. I am arrogant again. Very well, if you persist with such a title then I will forever call you the Thief.” She said nothing in reply and we both remained in awkward silence for a time. Her previous awe of my ability to direct the voice of Riul was as unexpected as the pleasure I now received by her company. A thief she was, and that she would remain. I trusted her no more than I did before, but I no longer viewed her with the same hostility. I’m not sure whether it was the awe she now held for my “power over nature” or that she felt free to share her life story with me that caused this change in my demeanour, the root of these changes remaining obscured. It was, perhaps, because of such changes that I addressed her as Thief. “As it stands, Thief, we seem to have travelled further north than I had intended. Do you know anything of these mountains?” My travels had never carried me further than the northern edge of the city, and I only knew of Dete Plych because of Sir Reuben. Never had I visited it nor known anything of the road ahead.
“These mountains separate Glanderxe Coessarde from Keltone Coessarde. The frozen wastes of the north lay before us if we continue north through the mountains.”
I had no intention of travelling further north. Cold had never been favourable to me. “The great River West is my destination, not a wasteland.”
“There is more than one way to reach the Great River. The river does not run north to south, but turns to meet a frozen lake in the north. The great road might prove more favourable if climate is your only consideration. If your time be of greater value, the northern route would be best.”
I considered her words before formulating a reply of my own. Could she be trusted? She was the still same thief I had met only days ago… but I knew nothing of the world around me. Whether she spoke truth or deception was as great a mystery as the mountains themselves. If things were as she said, I could relay the queen’s message in due haste and thus end this fool’s errand I had accepted. “Very well.” I said, hoping the words sounded more convincing out loud than they did in my head. “If the route is shorter by travelling north, then north we shall go.”
She got up from the place that she had been sitting, as if to begin the journey without delay. I was no fool. “It may be best, however, to return to road, if not simply to gather supplies for the journey. The fight last night not only took the lives of many wolves, but also my pack of supplies, hidden behind a wall of fallen rocks in a location that is now a mystery to me.”
Kyra laughed a little before responding in turn. “You forget, Sir Mert, that I am Tallri. Riul has blessed us all with an attunement to nature unmatched by men. It will be nothing at all for me to find enough food, water, and firewood to last us for months in these hills.”
Months. The thought was daunting. “I pray we won’t be travelling for that long.”
“No need for prayer. The journey will be much shorter than that. May Riul bless us with the speed of the wolf and eye of the hawk as we traverse these lands.”
The nights were colder than I was used to, but the beauty of the stars made up for it. Whether in my shack at Coere Ghante, or my chambers in the castle Glanderxe, the night sky was not something I enjoyed as much as I should. In the Great City, every night was the same. I would enjoy pillows fit for royalty, finding comfort in the soft feathers against my cheeks while being cocooned in thick blankets made of fine silk. Few stars could be seen out my window, but many lights of the town shone bright as others traded the comfort of pillows for that of strong drink and companionship. Out in the wilds, every night was different. Some nights the sky was clear and the fresh crisp breeze came down from the mountain tops, sweeping over our camp like a maiden’s kiss. Other nights, great puffs of inky darkness would cover the sparkling sky diamonds and shroud the moon in blackened garments.
I imagined fire erupting from the great mountain peaks around me, mixing with the clouds to form a great obsidian canopy, speckled with more diamonds that I had ever seen, dotting the clear night sky. Their beauty sparkled true, shining bright against the molten rock which held them suspended against the will of gravity. Overhead, I saw a host of ravens, extinguishing the stars with their mighty wings. The flock grew as they circled above me, birds coming from all directions. They flew faster and faster as I watched them, circling like a mighty tornado. Soon there were too many birds to count and their locomotive speed denied my eyes from distinguishing one from another. They became like an opaque black spot in the sky before descending. The moon in the sky and the black spot aligned, making it seem like a pupil in the eye of the white moon. It came alive, blinking once, then twice, as it descended on my position. Fear paralysed me as I watched the mighty eye move closer and closer. It hung over the camp site like a drifting shadow, darkening my surroundings.
Ravens burst from the centre of the eye landing on the outskirts of the shadowed circle surrounding me. As they landed I saw them lose their wings and morph into beasts with fangs, their talons being replaced by wolves’ claws. Their voices rose in unison, calling to the eye-moon from which they had come, before commencing their prowl. The circle of wolves around me shrank as they drew closer, stalking me like prey in the night. I had nowhere to run. No hope. All I could do was wait in horror of the vicious death which would soon claim me. Reaching for my belt, I answered the wolf call with one of my own from the Horn of Riul. The wolves drew ever closer as I blew again and again, hoping for salvation. In unison, they sprang from the ground, taking on raven wings, before landing on my chest in one mighty blow. I could feel their teeth digging into my skin, legs now raw and bleeding. Looking to the sky, from beneath the wolves, I saw the eye-moon descending, changing to a mighty boulder as it drew closer, falling by gravity’s aid. The eye-moon boulder landed on the wolf pack, giving me relief from the knife-like fangs which had pierced my skin. Dust rose from the ground as the boulder hit, obscuring my vision. As it cleared, I saw what remained: one lone-wolf, leg pinned under the mighty stone…
I woke with a start, checking myself over to make sure that the dream had not spilt over into reality. Letting out a deep sigh, I was relieved, though still a bit on edge. I had not been sleeping well lately, not that this was a change from the norm. My twilight hours had been haunted by memories of the beautiful Farah Bailey, which I cherished now. Her face was comforting, though it always left me a little sick, thinking of her parting words to me that day. Despite this, I would trade the wolves which now haunted my dreams with the sight of her face in a heartbeat. A fortnight had passed since the wolf attack that first night in the cave, but the night would not let me forget. It’s memory stuck with me like an unwanted companion, desperate for my attention.
I had not shared my night terrors with Kyra of the Tallri, but it would not surprise me if she knew of them. She had noticed my lack of energy by day and wasted much of her own informing me that a loyal knight of Glanderxe should sleep at night to better prepare for vanquishing all manner of evil which may cross his path by day. I responded to this jest with one of my own, saying that the Thief must be in league with the cold, for it did not rob me of coin, but of sleep.
As a resident of Glanderxe, I was not accustomed to the harsh weather of the Keltone Coessarde. I thought the mountains to be hard on the feet and desired to be done with them as soon as possible. Once we had reached the end of the pass, however, I wished to be in the mountains once again. They provided some protection from the mighty gusts which kicked up the snow in all directions, causing a swirling mass of icy chaos to be our constant companion. Out in the frozen wasteland of the north, past the Keltone mountains, the days were long, but the nights were longer. Sometimes we were lucky and managed to find a small cluster or spruce before nightfall, but this was more the exception than the rule. I had heard it said that Glanderxe Coessarde was unlike all the others. The swamps of Coaniariam and the frozen mountains of Keltone held fewer inhabitants, and even fewer cities. Though I knew this before the journey, I expected fewer to mean some, but we had encountered nothing… no one on this frozen road.
If this was the shorter route, I hated to think of the route we had taken at first. I was more than ready to reach the River West, if not to be done with this quest, simply for the sight of civilization once again. We passed by many rock formation, seemingly man-made, yet no men around who could have fashioned them. Once I asked Kyra about them, and she responded simply by saying, “It is the way of the north.” The only hint of life that was common were the purple flowers which managed to poke their heads out from beneath the snow. Kyra always stopped to collect a handful of these before continuing. She found incredible uses for all sorts of plants and herbs which I would not have imagined.
Our staple meal in the north had become a soup which she made by melting snow in a pot she had fashioned from a hollowed out log of spruce. She kept it from burning up in the heat of the fire by rubbing it with the petals of the purple flowers. The leaves from the plants she put in the pot for flavouring and sometimes added a few pine needles, if we had happened upon a spruce grove recently. They gave the water a bitter taste, but added much nutritional value to the otherwise bland meal. When fuel for a fire was running low, we chewed on the stem of the purple flower plant instead of boiling them in a stew. It was less appetizing, but I leaned to appreciate the bitter-sweet flavour when my stomach called to me and my legs grew tired from lack of energy.
Day after day we trudged through the snow with little change in scenery and less change in food. Though my body received life from the plants, my soul did not. The constant bite of cold and never ending bitter taste from the plants left me weak and disheartened. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I had been particularly chosen for this mission. Out of a great host of noble knights, I was hand-picked by Sir Kherine, captain of the guard at Glanderxe. I had not thought much of it then, but now that I found myself trudging through the snow facing all manner of mental fatigue, I held onto a sense of pride. Sir Reuben knew that the trek would be long and hard and must have advised Sir Kherine of this. I didn’t grow up in the great city, and so had the upper hand on some of my brother’s in arms when dealing with all manner of beast and climate that little effected those within the high walls of the capital.
Despite the brief joy I received from such thoughts, the tree-line which soon appeared before us was the most favourable sight I had seen in weeks. This didn’t look like a small grove of spruce, but rather a long line of greenery stretching across the horizon. Kyra had been watching my demeanour fade as the days dragged on and comforted me now with these simply words. “The Keltone forest.”
I had never been more happy in my life to hear that word: forest. Trees. Life. It may be that luck would yet again play a cruel trick, the forest being as uninhabited as the rest of this Coessarde, but I hoped otherwise. Holding onto this hope I posed a question to Kyra, the Tallri. “What do you know of this forest? Is it anything like the Mhoarid of the south?”
She laughed as if what I had said was the funniest thing she had heard in a while. I did not understand the cause for such an outburst, but I wouldn’t be surprised if anything would sound funny to her at this point. I couldn’t be the only one who had been taxed mentally over the past weeks amongst the snow. Her laughter made my hope sink a little while I waited for her response, but when it came, it was not what I was expecting. “The Mhoarid is not south, though I suppose by perspective it would seem to be. Coaniariam is south. There you will find great forests teaming with all varieties of plants and animals. The Mhoarid is a mere spot of green on the map compared to the Coaniariam of the south.”
“My apologies.” I replied, exposing my lack of sincerity more than I would have hoped. “I did not mean to insult you geographically. If I ever find myself in the teaming woods of Coaniariam, then would be the time for tales of the life therein. Now, however, I find it more profitable to discuss the forest at hand. What of the Keltone forest? I do not suppose it is as lush as the Coaniariam, or perhaps even the Mhoarid. Lack of knowledge is a great crime indeed which my intrigue seeks to pay for, if you would so indulge me.”
“Alright, no need for defensiveness. I swear you are a true knight on the outside, but also within, for you hide behind whatever shield you can conjure up in conversation as well as in combat.” After this insult, which I chose to ignore, she continued. “The Keltone forest holds more life than the great plains we have passed through, yet it takes a keen eye, and greater wit than most to recognize it. The trees provide greater protection from the elements, thus much of the north make their home under its great canopy. The common traveller would, however, find nothing more than the rustling of leafs to accompany their stay.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be hopeful that the forest held inhabitants, or whether to let luck win this battle of the mind. “A forest for hermits.” I said, almost under my breath.
“It is not the recluse, but rather the sly who make their home in the forest. Follow my lead and perhaps we will be lucky this day.”
Lucky… From what I knew of luck it was far from in our favour. “What, pray tell, would you hope luck to fortune us with.”
No words had ever sounded sweeter on the mouth of Kyra, the Thief. “I hope, Mert, to catch us some meat. We are going hunting.”