8.2

Stray spent the first day traversing the pitted, cracked fields to the east of the Denorian settlement, his journey landmarked by groves of bare trees and the gentle rise and fall of the Pastures’ contours. Cragstep Road and the Prospect River were twin katsun blades, cutting through the fallow, brittle Pastures, like slicing open a butchered huskin. Every few hundred meters, a grove of orebarks clung to the riverbank, and in the distance, the lean, lofty witherleafs guarded the horizon where the overcast sky met the rolling landscape. The whole morning and early afternoon – from those fleeting hours after dawn, until the vast empty stretch after his stomach started aching – the sky was overcast, spreading the light evenly over the landscape, shadowless; Stray felt exposed, as though the clouds were leering at him, bitter and ill-tempered.

When he was out of sight of the settlement, Stray pulled off his brivsa, exposing his ears, hair on his neck bristling with the chill. There was no sign of human traffic, on foot or by horse, and animals were scarce, presumably sheltered from the cold and nursing their young. Birds flew overhead from time to time, surveying the pastures for small prey, and Stray saw one banklite swoop down and alight on a fallen tree across the Prospect River, scanning the water hungrily. His only other wildlife sighting was in his third hour of walking… a small family of bounder passed him going east, perhaps returning to their wintering territory, each springing step a pulse of graceful rhythm in the mortal stillness of the empty fields. Stray felt himself dissolve into the featureless terrain as he walked, his consciousness becoming a frigid squall plunging eastward.

In his reverie, Stray felt as though the sounds of his surroundings were originating within him, echoing through his body and escaping through his sensory organs. He felt his head immersed in a billowing, rushing din as the wind blew past him; occasionally, it was punctured by the shriek of a raptor flying overhead. These resonant sensations were tactile, as much as aural, and Stray shuddered with each sound in turn, internalizing the sonic landscape. He began to feel dizzy, overwhelmed by his sensitivity, and finally he compensated by drawing up his brivsa and wrapping the scarf tight around his mouth and chin. This seemed to fix the relationship, exiling the sounds from his head and returning them to the landscape. His walk became steadier, more confident, and he indulged in some idle meditation as he trudged eastward.

Stray’s consciousness kept cycling back to the people he had left behind: first, Elkansa, and that difficult discussion at the gathering room table, where she had asked him,

“Why? Why would you want to leave the tribe that has raised you and taken care of you?”

And he remembered his response, which had been as earnest as he could muster: “I’ve realized I can never repay your kindness. The tribe’s kindness, I mean. So I’ve decided I’d rather devote my life to something honorable, to make my life worthy of all the love you’ve given me. I think the Order of the Caesura will allow me to do that.”

He didn’t mention his sense of permanent displacement, his disillusionment with his status as a voraish… his desire for a community that would accept him without reservation. Elkansa, for her part, seemed skeptical, but Stray advanced the only argument that had a chance of persuading her: he became a paragon of confidence and determination, demanding respect, so that she couldn’t dismiss or demean him.

He thought about those final difficult months with Ghada, who seemed to oscillate dangerously between despair and stoic self-sufficiency, and who refused to admit the loneliness and abandonment that Stray had inflicted.

Finally, he thought about Edzie, his lifelong mentor and confidante, from whom he had kept such a vital secret, leaving her to her perilous reconciliation with her tribe. He knew she would be furious with him at first, and he imagined that her anger would either dissolve into acceptance, or harden into a permanent estrangement from him. He dearly hoped for the former, but Edzie had rarely behaved precisely as he preferred.

Stray walked alone, seeing no sign of human life, through the whole length of daylight. It was nearly dusk when he finally reached Marker’s Perch, a rocky outcropping over the river, and the highest point between the settlement and the foot of the Crag Mountains. By that time, the gray clouds had broken up, making space for the piercing sunlight and the frigid air that turned Stray’s breath into little puffs of fog. He paused at the marker for a few minutes, catching his breath and pulling his brivsa up over his head… the marker was a score of meters off the road, a slab of granite nearly as tall as Stray himself, marking the resting place of some forgotten traveler whose companions buried him overlooking the river. Turning back, Stray could barely see the eastern watchtower of the Denorian settlement, and turning forward, he could see an advance guard of woods and ridges that heralded the Crag Mountains another hundred kilometers beyond.

Stray kept walking as dusk turned to twilight, and all the daylight seeped out of the sky, and suddenly it was barely light enough to watch the road for ruts and tree limbs. Stray scanned the features near the road by moonlight, and finally, at the bottom of a modest hillside, he found the road turning right to circumvent a sudden rise in the landscape. He moved off the road, gathered some fallen brush and twigs, and spent half an hour building a small fire, his fingers and face growing disconcertingly numb as he worked. After some patience and coaxing, the flames sprang to life, and in the flickering light and admirable warmth, Stray unrolled and constructed a canvas fly tent, spread his spare outfit on the ground, and gave himself over to his exhaustion.

Every few hours, Stray awoke in the frozen air and scrambled to throw more splintered tree limbs on the cinders of his fire. On the fourth cycle, he finally awoke to the first hint of sunlight, a drab blue pall over the bare trees around his clearing. He gave his fire some extra attention, making sure to warm his hands and body thoroughly, and then he scoured the ground around his campsite for something edible. Ultimately, he assembled a lean breakfast of raw Concord Mushrooms and Pungentroot. By the time the sun had fully risen, he was back on his feet, starting his second day of travel.

For the first three hours, the scenery was the same – rough, undeveloped earth, patches of leafless woods, a gradual slope down into a barren vale. At the height of the day, Stray passed the little split in the Prospect where the Drake River flowed into it from the north. Along the bank, he discovered a grizzled, panting cranaste tearing apart a boundeer carcass, its fawn lying, disabled, several meters away. Stray poached the fawn from the lurking predator, and because Stray was a fairly large competitor who didn’t seem interested in the main course, the mangy canine bristled and growled, but left him alone. Stray carved the flank of the boundeer, hung the strips of meat from his backpack to freeze, and continued walking east.

A few hours later, Stray reached the Bravasturn Bridge, which crossed over a southward dogleg in the Prospect River. The bridge was formed from wooden struts reinforcing a stack of stone blocks, its surface a tight assembly of orebark planks designed to hold the weight of a wagon and the oxen pulling it. When Stray stepped out over the water, an oppressive, icy wind pressed on him from the north, and he ended up jogging across as fast as he could. Cragstep Road continued on the north side of the Prospect, and Stray walked for another half-hour before he paused to eat some of the pungentroot left over from that morning.

As Stray walked, the ground grew rockier and less forgiving, and the sunlight turned orange, and then blue. He continued trudging onward, wishing he could see the sunset behind him, until he reached a split in Cragstep Road. There was no sign or marker, but Stray surmised that this was where Cragstep met with Chisel Finger Road, the last longitudinal road before the Crag Mountains. He continued past the fork, bearing right, and almost immediately found himself before a facade of evergreen trees towering above him. The dark was almost absolute… only a trace of dusky glow from behind, and a trickle of moonlight from ahead, allowed Stray to see the homestead tucked into the trunks of the trees.

Just beyond the first line of trees, Stray found a single house, modeled on a dromo but larger and more permanent, with a soft light burning in the front window. Alongside the house, easily accessible from Cragstep Road, there was a large, artificial clearing. It was obviously cleared away for use by travelers… it was large enough for a small caravan and its bivouacs, and it had a massive fire pit in the center. Stray also saw, to his delight, a small wooden lean-to, big enough for three or four people. Stray imagined that this place was an extraordinary luxury for travelers during the summer months, and there were probably fights over the space. Now, in the middle of the winter, it was deserted. Stray pitched camp, made a fire, and cooked his meat. Whoever lived in the homestead stayed inside, leaving him in peace.

 

The larger fire and the better dinner led to a deep, uninterrupted sleep. Stray woke fully refreshed, warm in his layers of winter clothing, and only a bit sore from lying on the unforgiving earth. He cooked and ate the last of the meat from the previous day, assembled his belongings, and started eastward into the evergreen woods looming before him.

The air had warmed a bit since sunrise, and moisture had descended from the north, so a blanket of mist had settled around the trunks of the trees. They weren’t as dense, Stray discovered, as they had appeared from outside… as he walked, they seemed to gather for a few meters and then disperse again, creating small alternating spaces where the sunlight could infiltrate the woods. His nose was dry and brittle from the cold air, but he could still smell the potent forest aromas.

The Cragstep Road wasn’t a spectacular highway, but for the previous two days, it had at least been even and level, ground down by frequent travel and impromptu maintenance. However, once you passed the fork where Chisel Finger Road met the Cragstep, the road suddenly became much rougher, sometimes practically disappearing under brush and ground cover. A road was still a road, and this one still had to support occasional pilgrims’ carts and diplomatic parties, but there were stretches where the rocks punished Stray’s feet, or where he had to scramble ten meters off the path to circumvent a deep muddy trench. Stray couldn’t imagine how a set of wagon wheels would have traversed this degenerate trail.

Here, at least, there was more variety to the scenery. The road, still following the Prospect, passed ridges and crevices in the landscape, bluffs with the loose stone sheared off, small cliffs and frozen creek beds and unpredictable shifts in the terrain. Stray also spotted a few boundeer, springing past him on his left, making soft rustling noises when they touched the forest floor or brushed against the needled branches. These sights entertained Stray for several hours as he walked, corralled and protected by the stoic evergreens, path lit by sunbeams shining through their limbs into the mist.

The sonic landscape of the woods had its own signature rhythm, a slow tide of rises and swells that reminded Stray of his tribe’s music. The evergreen needles didn’t rustle like leaves, but they still whispered in the subtle breezes, and it didn’t take long for Stray to learn their cycles. It also didn’t take him long to recognize an outlier, a pattern of sound that was decidedly non-arboreal: crunches of dead foliage being compressed, rustles and stresses of wood being pushed aside, a distant aural imprint that resembled his own: footprints and path-finding, unmistakably alien, indubitably human.

Stray’s pursuer kept her distance, managing to be silent for impressive stretches between the betrayals of fallen twigs and loose dirt. Whenever Stray paused to listen, the sounds stopped, and when he turned to look back, he only saw the phalanx of tree-trunks, austere and immobile for kilometers behind. It obviously wasn’t an animal, because it was following him with ruthless, calculated restraint, keeping just out of sight. Stray bristled at the asymmetry of this game, but he had no reason to run or fight back. As far as he could see, he wasn’t at a disadvantage.

The road was pitted and ill-maintained in this wooded stretch, and Stray had to climb over more than one fallen trunk. He was loathe to slow down, but there was no other option… he certainly didn’t want to lose track of this lurking presence, whatever its motives. At some point, he was sure he heard a second set of footsteps far to his left, and then he thought he heard something in one of the branches, as well. He imagined a small army suddenly appearing from the evergreens and falling upon him, and he laughed to himself at the notion, releasing a little of his anxiety in his private joke.

It was almost an hour of fitful vigilance before Stray decided he was tired of this game. He was still hearing the pursuer behind him, and there were still sounds off to his left… if there were two pursuers, Stray reasoned, the one on the left was probably more skilled, because their sounds were infrequent and irregular.

Stray calculated carefully, and finally settled on a plan of action. If the pursuers were tracking him by the sound of his footsteps, as he was doing to them, he could undermine them by getting closer to the Prospect River… the bank was overgrown, but the waters were shallow, and the riverbed appeared to be composed of flat stones. Stray veered to his right, trying to make a fair amount of noise… he wanted his pursuer to know he was masking his noises… and at the water’s edge, he squeezed between two tree-trunks and surveyed his surroundings for some sort of obscure vantage point.

The best Stray could do was to climb halfway up a rotting resipine trunk and situate himself behind some brush. It wasn’t perfect, but he had a reasonable view of Cragstep Road, and he could keep watch over the bank of the river in both directions.

He waited in the tree for half an hour, his fingers and face growing numb. Just as he started thinking that perhaps the pursuer had given up, he heard a series of rustles and splashes on the far bank of the Prospect, and he jerked his eyes toward the source of the sound. There was a swaying of underbrush and a disturbance in the icy water, but still, no figure was visible. He kept his eyes fixed on the spot, remaining motionless.

All at once, there was a rustle of leaves much closer… a mere two or three meters away, just up toward the road… and he whipped back around to face the sound. He turned just fast enough to see something rushing toward him – a bulky, limp object, like an animal flung from a catapult – but he wasn’t fast enough to avoid it, and it struck him full-force in the face. He grunted, suppressing a curse, and leapt down from the tree to draw his katsun.

Laughter followed the thrown object… familiar laughter, a rustling and parting of underbrush, and a female figure drawing up to full height, her brivsa flopping around her shoulders and her scarf wrapped around both arms. Edzie extended her open palms as she spoke.

“Look at that! All this time, it was just a silly shade hare, following you all this way! And then it got you, despite all your cleverness!”

It took Stray a few seconds to register Edzie’s identity and lower his katsun. “EDZIE! By Dissadae, what are you doing here?!?” His voice wavered, caught between relief and confusion and outrage.

“I followed you, you redge!” she exclaimed, picking up the shade hare carcass that she had thrown. “You think you can just run off to join some ancient Order, and leave me with that tribe of murts? You left me out of options!” She hitched the shade hare to her pack, and when she turned back toward Stray, her expression was more solemn. “Of course, I could barely believe you’d actually go without telling me. I thought you had more substance than that.”

Stray groaned. “Uuuggghhh, Edzie! This is exactly what I was afraid would happen! They said I have to go alone, undertake this task as a solitary tribute to Dissadae! You have to go back. You need to fix things with the rest of the tribe.”

Edzie leaned against the resipine trunk as she spoke. “Oh, you can keep your angst and reconciliation. I’m not petitioning for the tribe’s favor any more, and cause of all that, the tribe’s not interested in me, either. Our goals may be different… you may be looking for a home, and I may just want to lose one… but it’s put us on the same path. Or road, I guess, so to speak.”

Stray’s fingers tightened around the handle of his katsun. His voice rose, only slightly, but he felt an unparalleled frustration rising as he spoke. “That’s all fine for you, Edzie, but you’re going to ruin this for me! This is my pilgrimage! It’s not yours to take!” He fought with himself for a moment, and then clarified his position. “You have to go HOME. You have to find your own path to follow. GO. By Dissadae. GO.”

A small shock of rejection struck Edzie… she hadn’t expected so much resistance… but she kept her composure as she rallied. “Fine, Stray. You know I wouldn’t join the Order anyway. I’m not the type. So if your big plan was to shut me out of your life, you’ve already got it covered. When we get to the mountain path, I’ll turn around and let you go on alone. But I still want to make the trip. I want to see the road, so when you’re a monk and I have to come visit you, I can find my way to the temple.” She sniffled, starting to feel the effects of the still air hanging over the Prospect’s gurgling waters. “And also, they’re not going to cast you out because some bored sibling followed you. You’re, like, the best Prospect the Mistras have seen in years, right?”

Stray was justifiably skeptical. “You’ll leave before we reach Gryffepeak? … Will you go home?”

“Maybe. Not inclined to it right now, but who knows. I’m sure there are other places.” She looked up, sensing his determination fading away with his anger. “And anyway, if you don’t let me accompany you, I’ll just follow you anyway. And I might find a way to make real trouble for you, instead of just this moral angst you’re feeling now. I’ve already cost you, what, almost an hour’s worth of traveling, altogether?”

Stray groaned again, feeling like an older sibling beset by a clingy little brother. “Probably so,” he said, and Edzie thought she could see the moment when the outrage in his eyes was replaced by resignation. As if to confirm it, he sheathed his katsun and started clamoring through the brush toward the road. “So can we get going, then? We’ve already wasted the whole morning.”

Edzie checked her bag, caressed her katsun, drew up her brivsa over her ears, and fell into step behind Stray.

 

The woods were light, but went on, unbroken, for several more kilometers. The bitter cold air kept the aroma to a minimum, but it was still there, sharp and unmistakable: trampled earth, resipine and pitchfir needles, the soft cloak of evergreen sap. Afternoon clouds had obscured the piercing morning sun, and the sky was now a flat light gray above the treetops. The mists had dissolved, as well, so visibility was good, both along the path and between the trees on either side.

Edzie kept a few paces behind Stray at first, knowing he needed his space, but after a couple kilometers, they both had to clamber over a fallen tree trunk. After that, she kept apace with him, waiting for his mood to soften, just as the light in the forest had done. It wasn’t long before she ventured a question.

“So how close would you say we are?”

“Well,” Stray said, “we’re half a day past Chisel Finger Road. I’m a little concerned that we haven’t reached the rapids… it takes almost two full days to get across the Andromous Front, those rock faces along the water below Gryffe.”

Edzie looked confused for a moment. “Two fulls days? Are you planning to the take Cragstep straight over the front? Come on. You’ll barely make your deadline that way.”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m concerned,” Stray said. “There’s no other way to the ruins, or Gryffepeak. It’s going to be a long day, if we’re going to catch up.”

Edzie laughed. “Well, I have a suggestion. How about we don’t do that? … If you’re right that we’re getting close to the Andromous Front, then we should start looking for Assay’s Cut. It should be right along the western edge of the rock face when we get to the front.”

Stray looked at Edzie as they marched over the carpet of needles, his eyes narrow with skepticism. “What’s Assay’s Cut? We don’t have time for detours.”

“It’s not a detour, it’s a shortcut,” Edzie said, her voice full of flippant confidence. “I saw it mentioned in Mistra Septa’s guide… hardly even a sentence… but I was curious, so I asked her about it. She had to look it up in one of her older books. Turns out there’s a pass around the back of the Andromous Front, like a little ravine between the bluffs. It was kept secret, specially reserved for Concordance tribespeople doing the Caesura Prospectus… gave us a little bit of an edge over pilgrims from outside the tribes. It bypasses the winding, rocky part of the Cragstep, and then meets back up with it before it turns north to Gryffe.”

Stray was already shaking his head. “Come on, Edzie. We can’t waste time on old rumors about shortcuts that aren’t on any maps from the past twenty years.”

“Hundred years,” Edzie corrected. “That’s how far back in Mistra Septa’s literature we had to go to find a detailed description.”

“Great. Hundred years. Anyway, I can’t jeopardize my arrival like that. There’s no way we could get back if it was wrong, or if the trail was blocked, or whatever else.”

“Stray!” Edzie’s voice was humorless and insistent. “I’ve already lost you hours of walking. Also, what have you read about Andromous Front? Can we even make camp there?”

Stray groaned at Edzie’s point. Mistra Septa’s travel guide said Andromous Front was a narrow, tightly-coiled section of the Cragstep, bordered by jagged bluffs and bare rock faces. He was hoping to get past the Front, all the way down to Fraternus Island, so that he could make camp in the woods there, but he was now significantly behind that schedule. Camping along the front would be brutal, perhaps even dangerous.

“Edzie,” Stray said, trying to sound as serious as she did, “I refuse to be thwarted in this journey. If this is an attempt to slow me down and keep me from the Order…”

Edzie scowled and turned her eyes away from Stray. She knew her personality and reputation, and she knew he was right to be suspicious, because she felt, deep down, a genuine flicker of despair that Stray would be leaving her side. Even so, she was hurt that he would trust her so little… she had always been his protector, his mentor, and… as Elkansa had once demanded… his first friend, and his best. She still felt, looking at Stray, that glowing ember of devotion and admiration, and at that moment, she felt the need to honor it.

She controlled her tone as she responded. “Stray,” she said, “I know I can be mean and stupid, but I see that you’re determined to do this, and I promise you… this is for your sake, not mine.” She thought about that for a moment, and Stray, sensing that she wasn’t finished, allowed her to continue. “Actually, maybe it’s also for me,” she admitted. “Maybe it’s cause this might be the last time I see you for a while, and I guess I want to leave you with something worth remembering. So this can be my chance to prove myself.”

Stray kept his eyes on his feet for another moment, and then put his arm over Edzie’s shoulder. “Okay, Edzie,” he said. “So what is it we’re looking for?”

 

The instructions for finding Assay’s Cut were straightforward. At the western end of the Andromous Front, the road would run into a rock face and turn sharply to the right, sidling up to the bank of the Prospect. The Concordance traveler would turn left instead of right, following the rock face into the evergreen trees, and within five hundred steps, they would reach a gap in the wall. This is precisely what happened… Stray and Edzie turned off the road, navigated through a few thick groves of trees, and found what appeared to be a wide ravine in the rock face, perhaps fifty meters across.

Stray was ready to head into the breach when Edzie informed him: this was a false cut. It would lead directly back to Cragstep Road, half a kilometer further along, and they would be stuck on the same path he was planning to take. The original instructions, a century old, told them to bypass the gap and follow the rock face until another path appeared, this one curving northeast around the back side of the bluff as it gave way.

It took some close observation, and some encouragement from Edzie, before she and Stray found this second, smaller path, now overgrown with brambles, blocked by generations of harassing tree-limbs, covered ankle-deep in dry needles and decaying moss. They clambered along it for several hundred yards, pressed up against the landform’s grimy, spongy mineral flesh, and then it opened up into a forgotten walking path, girded by brush and pine trees, taking a gentle northeasterly contour around the flank of the Andromous scarp face.

Stray sensed another rock face approaching from the north, hearing his footsteps resonating against it long before it came into view. To Edzie, it seemed to appear out of nowhere… one moment, there was an impassible cliff on the right and naught but light woods on the left, and the next moment, she and Stray were walking between two massive mountain walls, humbled by the shadows at the bottom of a daunting ravine. The space wasn’t narrow… they had thirty meters berth, more than enough for trees to grow on either side, and the path kept approximately in the middle… but it still felt as though they were being hemmed into a channel by the local topography.

The sound of the Prospect River was entirely gone now, and Edzie and Stray could hear their breathing and footsteps, loosely synchronized in the late afternoon air. There was a distant whistle of wind, but the air along the path was absolutely still, and the tree limbs were motionless.

Stray and Edzie walked through the afternoon, and were still making steady progress as the evening shadows started rising on the southern cliff wall. At one point, the ravine spread out into a secluded field, lined with an array of evergreen trees, hemmed in by stacks of boulders fallen from the ridge above. Stray slowed down long enough to climb one of the boulders along the south wall, where the rock face seemed to part, and he found a gap wide enough that he could squeeze through… a cleft in the front leading to a tiny precipice halfway up the cliffs. From there, Stray could look down over the Cragstep Road, rutted and uneven, desperately clinging to the embankment overlooking the Prospect River. Here, the river flowed rapidly, loudly, over a treacherous course of rocky protrusions, and the road above it didn’t look much safer.

Squinting in the twilight, Stray could see a distant figure struggling up the road, dragging a tiny cart holding a modest collection of personal effects. The lone traveler wore a heavy fur garment, and their head was wrapped in a scarf from crown to shoulders; Stray couldn’t even tell the gender, much less the features. He felt a glimmer of solidarity, recognizing the figure as a likely fellow Prospect.

When Stray returned to Edzie’s side, she remarked that they could camp anywhere, really… the space was wild, empty, and sheltered, and she still had her shade hare, so they wouldn’t have to hunt for a meal. Stray actually felt liberated by this news… if they could stop anywhere along the Cut, then he was comfortable pressing on as long as possible, until exhaustion and pitch darkness claimed him. Edzie grumbled at his ambition, but she indulged it.

The dusk had given way almost entirely to moonlight when Edzie found a hollow in the cliff on the south side of the trail. After several cracks and folds in the mountain, they came to an open grove of evergreens, grown further apart than the ones lining the cliff face. In the space between the trees, Edzie saw a pile of ancient, rotten logs and debris, sprouting moss and thorny underbrush, that seemed arranged intentionally, to obscure a section of the cliff wall. Stray stood back, hesitant, and Edzie investigated, prying limbs loose and kicking aside old wood. Behind the overgrown barrier, she found a cave, human-height and perhaps five meters wide, protected on three sides by a foundation of impermeable stone.

Working hastily, they fashioned a torch from some of the wood and dried ground cover, and Edzie lit it using a starter she was carrying in her pack. With this small flame as their vanguard, they advanced into the cavern, and to their surprise, they found signs of former habitation: a fire pit near the open wall, a single primitive stool carved with some skill, and a makeshift table and cupboard littered with personal effects. These were dry and dusty, obviously untouched for decades, and as Stray and Edzie penetrated further in, they discovered the floor was strewn with trampled sheets of paper, all apparently covered in script, scattered so widely about the space that it seemed a hurricane must have distributed them.

Edzie struggled to wedge the torch into a crack in the nearest wall, and then she scrambled to find kindling for the fire. Stray, meanwhile, made a closer investigation of the furnishings and debris. He tapped the stool with his foot, and found it so brittle that he was compelled to put it out of its misery, crushing it under his heel. Moving some of the scattered papers and stiff scraps of clothing, he discovered the abode’s previous owner, propped up against the wall beside the old table: a blackened skeleton, its skull drooping to its shoulder, picked clean by vermin. It had been totally dismantled by foraging animals, and was now missing both legs below the pelvis, one arm below the shoulder, and several ribs.

Edzie had gotten the fire started by then, and the torch was extinguished and placed near their belongings for possible future use. The travelers, reeling a bit in the smoky air, took a few minutes to clear out the entrance for ventilation, and they checked all around the interior to make sure there were no other residents – no hungry drolves or canastes – agitated by the influx of visitors. Feeling confident in their privacy, they prepared for a relatively comfortable evening.

Edzie volunteered to skin and cook her shade hare, largely out of contrition for imposing herself upon Stray. Stray, meanwhile, checked some of the papers that were scattered like autumn leaves around the floor of the cavern. They turned out to consist almost entirely of personal correspondence, and he ended up reading twenty-five different letters without finding any sort of pattern… no common sender or recipient, no consistent place of origin, no similarity of content. A few were from monks of the Caesura to their families, or to diplomatic contacts in other cities… one was from a husband living in Dror, fishing for reassurance from a long-absent wife in Evarelay… one was from a merchant in Bhijanica to a supplier in Tarrytoil, demanding compensation for a lost shipment of praycock feathers. Stray and Edzie puzzled over this for the greater part of an hour, and the only answer they could come up with was that this hermit had been collecting correspondence from passing travelers and hoarding it, perhaps simply to assuage his own loneliness. Whether he stole it through trickery, or bargained for it, or whether he brought it all with him from some archival vault, they couldn’t determine.

At the very least, the letters allowed the travelers to place the hermit chronologically. No letter was dated before 3263, and none was later than 3281… the resident seemed to have been reclining here, mercifully undiscovered, for three score years.

Edzie and Stray settled at opposite sides of the fire, doing their best to keep out of the lingering smoke. They were both famished, and the shade hare was gone in a few short minutes. Both had filled their waterskins shortly before they left Cragstep, and they drank enough to flush down their meals and hydrate their muscles. The light from the fire played off the cavern’s uneven walls, folding and unfolding the stone like crumpled silk being molested by the wind. The cavern grew warm, the air grew heavy with the smell of burning orebark, and the anonymous tenant stared, lifeless, from behind the two visitors.

Edzie spoke, finally, over the fire’s hissing and crackling. “So, you’ve talked to Ghada?”

Stray nodded. “A couple times. He wasn’t real available.”

“He’s going to be okay?”

Stray scowled a bit at this inquiry, but after a moment’s consideration, he realized it was unfair to weigh Edzie down with endless disapproval. When he replied, it was fully earnest. “I think so, eventually. He says he knows there’s a path forward, even though he doesn’t see it. That’s all we can ask of him right now, I guess.”

Edzie nodded, and then immediately shook her head, as if she was staging an interior debate. “What a goddamn waste,” she said. “So much promise thrown away, and for what?”

Stray scowled again, and this time, he couldn’t talk himself out of his bitterness. “Well, nothing that happens is truly a waste,” he said, almost accusatory in his tone. “At least there was a lesson in it.”

Edzie paused for a moment, and then looked up at Stray with steely contempt in her eyes. “Isaja ilmis privjiy? (Is that so?)” She paused again. “And what lesson was that, Mistra?”

“If you don’t know, you’re not looking hard enough,” Stray said, feeling suddenly under siege. “For instance, you might have learned that wanton cruelty is forever returning, always hungry and wild, never satisfied. That your vain katsun-stroke opened our dromo to calamity. The universe trades in reciprocity.”

Edzie sneered at this, but didn’t speak immediately. She had a great deal to think about. Finally, she gave a short rejoinder: “That’s a fine lesson, Stray. I think I learned a different one, though.”

Stray knew she was baiting him, but he had no qualms. “And what was that?”

“I learned that there is no sanctuary… not in a tribe, or a family, or a romance. No matter where you are, no matter how strong your bonds, there will always be predators ready to descend on you. Life is struggle, solitude, and ultimately resignation.”

This proclamation precluded any further conversation for a few minutes. Edzie and Stray both poked at the fire, heedless of the war between the flames’ heat and the cold wind seeping in from outside. Luckily, they shared too many years, and had survived too many petty arguments, to let the strain of this disagreement come between them. After a few minutes, Edzie asked Stray if he remembered the story of Misvillia, the witch-hero who could enter a cave in the Crag Mountains and step out in the Buckles, halfway across the world. Within a few minutes, they were sharing familiar stories, repeating the Mistras’ words verbatim over the hush of the fire.

Their conversation carried them deep into the black hours of morning, and when they finally retired beside the waning flames, sleep pounced on them like a hungry grasscat on a mouse that’s come skittering into its paw.

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