For the Denorian settlement as a whole – its influential families, its open community, its excited adolescents – the Festival of Release proceeded as it always had, with victuals and distractions and visiting friends and family. The outsiders trickled out over the course of three days, and many of the traveling merchants remained for another day to handle lingering business concerns. It was so unremarkable, so banal in its celebratory rise and fall, that Edzie found the whole denouement almost insulting. For her, a vast, irreplaceable fulcrum seemed to have collapsed, and the settlement that was emerging from those tumultuous days had a different aspect from the one that had entered.
The trackers who had been sent after the criminal returned empty-handed, with only the thinnest scraps of news: he had gone directly west, diligently avoiding the Aerimus, and had apparently picked up a steed at one of the roadside enclaves, because his tracks ended abruptly. A few of the travelers had seen him, but he had given each of them a different story about who he was and where he was going. The trackers had no better information than the account given by Ifris, who suspected he was returning to the westerly cities.
As for Ifris and the other Hexcalor, they gave Thistleroy an extra day to recover, and then fixed him to a specialized litter that stabilized his leg. They commissioned a pony... a rare rental for the unriderly Concordance tribesfolk... and began their toilsome walk back southwest, toward the Range River and its tributary, the Huskin Draw. Their parting was stiff and formal, but the tribal relations were only raw, not ruined beyond the power of time to repair.
In the ten days after the festival, Edzie tried to explain her behavior to Stray, going over the events of the exhibition match several times. At first, she thought she would simply describe it as an angry outburst, and he would understand and sympathize. In the course of their conversations, she quickly realized this wasn't the case... she and Stray harbored very different violent impulses, and when they talked about the emotions beneath their rage, they seemed to be speaking different languages, or the same language learned with entirely different denotations.
Edzie learned, in particular, that Stray seemed to regard his anger as something wholly outside himself, like a dark stranger following him through his waking life. He fought the anger in his dreams and in his meditation sessions, so that he could maintain his dominance – his stalwart, sympathetic reasonableness, the statesman's demeanor for which he was now so admired – without his psychic struggles ever appearing on the surface.
Edzie herself, on the other hand, did not separate herself from her temper, or even see it as a burden. Her attack on Thistleroy had been a decision, a show of force and an assertion of control, that she'd felt was justified in the heat of the confrontation. She certainly didn't begrudge herself that decision, or feel compelled to regret it. She didn't need her own forgiveness, nor that of the tribe as a whole... for some reason, only Stray's blessing seemed to carry any weight, and in the dark days after the mishap, he wasn't inclined to offer it.
Elkansa's reaction to the incident was severe, though not unexpected. Within days, she looked like she had aged considerably, and she often fell to silent, vacant rumination, trying to sort through a sudden abundance of anxieties that wasn't traditionally her style. Her relations with Edzie remained cold, and in this mood, she orchestrated a numbing punishment: She ordered Edzie to spend her days with the Mistras, either attending lessons or helping to conduct them, and she further demanded Edzie be home for dinner every evening, and that they spend two hours every night practicing her forms. This was intended as a program of disciplinary habit and social engagement. To Edzie, it seemed like retaliation and persecution.
While Edzie fought against her mother's sanctions and her own resentment, Stray kept his schedule, attending two regular Mistras’ lessons each week, and logging an additional four hours in his private sessions, plus at least an hour each day in private meditation and exercise. During private meditation, he practiced visualization and immersion; he only thought about his own life, his emotional state and his plans for the future, while his hands were busy doing chores, his muscle memory caught up in the mundane and repetitive. These times were productive, but his conclusions were always tentative and indistinct, caught in a limbo of indecision until he let them out into the world by talking about them to a friend or acquaintance.
A week after the disastrous Festival of Release, Stray walked across the settlement to Ghada’s dromo. It was one of the first truly wintery days, chafing under a frigid wind that kept threatening to yank his brivsa off his head. He wore a light deer-skin and a pair of lined sleeves, tied over his shoulders, and he kept his hood down and his scarf tight, doing his best to keep the gusts out of his eyes. It was early morning, overcast, like the sky was scabbed over, nursing a wound.
Stray was acutely aware of the sensitivities he might trigger by visiting Ghada. Treya, Kosef, and Bellaryn were still caught up in an emotional crisis mode, and though they knew Stray was innocent of wrongdoing, they were too protective of Ghada to let him get near. Edzie's transgression had tainted him, marking him as a threat by proxy, just as Stray's misbehavior had once done to Edzie in the eyes of Boyle's parents... and like Edzie, Stray was forced to play the role of the fugitive, approaching from outside Ghada's window to avoid the family's attention.
Stray had to pull himself up a few inches to see through the window. Ghada was invisible from his vantage point, but he could hear the shifting of weight and fabric outside his field of view. He pulled himself up high enough that he could poke his head further in, and in a voice between a whisper and a rasp, he called Ghada's name.
“Stray?” Ghada's voice caught in his throat as he suppressed his volume.
“Yeah, it's me, Ghada. I came to visit.” He paused, sensed Ghada's hesitation, and reassured him: “It's just me. No Edzie. How about some company?”
Stray heard Ghada stand up and take a few tentative steps toward the window. The air in the room shifted, and Stray suddenly sensed the boy's position and proximity, his pulse and presence a few meters away.
“This probably isn't the best time,” Ghada said, and then almost immediately corrected himself. “Well, I guess there won't be a best time for a while, and you're probably right that I could use some company.”
Stray rested on the windowsill, his legs still hanging out into the empty air behind the dromo. He was suddenly short of breath. “So, should I come in?” he grunt-whispered, feeling momentarily awkward.
“No, best not. I don't know if mom will hear us, but Bellaryn definitely will. Safer for me to come out there, I think.”
Ghada appeared suddenly, directly in front of Stray, and shoved his hands at Stray unceremoniously. Stray twitched with shock, seeing the hands bound in linens... they didn't look much different from normal hands, wrapped too tightly to count the digits. Still, something in Stray's mind was aware of their incompleteness, and so he reflexively visualized the bloody stumps of the thumbs, and recoiled from the image. Momentarily, he realized Ghada was just asking for help in getting through the window.
Stray braced himself with his left hand and reached out with his right, grabbing Ghada's opposing wrist. “It won't hurt?” he said as he tightened his grip.
“No, it hurts,” Ghada said, grunting out the words as he pulled himself up against Stray's weight. “Hurts... every second... and almost... unbearable... right now, ... doing this.” He struggled for a few more seconds, and then finally got his own weight into the window, and used his arms and upper body to pull himself out, jerking and wrenching himself over the threshold. Finally, he landed in a crouching clump, tipping over onto his right arm. He managed to take a deep breath. “It's okay, though, it's all part of healing it up.”
They arranged themselves against the exterior wall of the dromo, the coldness of the dirt penetrating through their pants. They sat in silence for a moment before Stray finally spoke.
“Is it healing, at least?”
“Well...” Ghada considered this, and then answered with uncharacteristic honesty. “That question doesn't even have an answer yet. They're cauterized, but they still bleed every day, and Greya has to change the bandages and apply salves and remedies.”
“Does it help?”
“I mean, they must be helping, but not that I can tell. Most of the time, it still feels like my hand's just been torn in half. I get a little relief when I can distract myself, but even then, it's wickedly painful.” He glanced at his left hand, but looked away almost immediately. “I can keep telling myself that the pain's going to go away, and that helps, but that just makes room for something even worse... for all the fear and disgust to come along.”
Ghada looked at Stray, and Stray noticed that his eyes were red and sunken. Concern washed over Stray, but he had nothing to say, so he waiting for Ghada to continue.
“I slept for the first time since that redge attacked me,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “For four days, I couldn't sleep, mostly because of the pain. Then last night, I finally got some sleep, but it was only for a few hours at a time, cause I kept waking up. First I woke up thinking I could hear someone in the room, and I almost screamed, but I couldn't even draw enough breath for it. Then, later in the night, I woke up again, this time having groggy dreams about holding things... clothing, sewing needles, greasepaint pens... and having them disappear when I tried to use them.” His voice cracked, and suddenly he was wrestling with whispers and sobs. “I woke up thinking it had been a nightmare, and the scariest part of the nightmare was that I had somehow lost my thumbs, and then I looked down and remembered that it actually happened, and I...” He closed his eyes. “I couldn't sleep any more. That's all the sleep I got for the past week.”
Stray reached out and took Ghada's hand, indifferent to the wrapping. Ghada hadn't expected this, and he tried to jerk it away, but Stray kept his grip on it. “Ghada, I'm sorry,” he said. “I know this doesn't mean shit right now, but I want you to hear it anyway: you'll be okay.”
Ghada's face contorted into something vile for a moment, and then relaxed a bit as he controlled his grief. “I know. I mean, I don't see how... I can't do regular work, I can't cook or sew, I certainly can't fight like before, and as soon as people realize I'm missing half of both hands, it won't matter how sophisticated I sound... they'll forget everything but pity for me. But... I don't know. What's left to do but wait?”
“Nothing,” Stray said, shifting closer to Ghada. “For now, do nothing. Let the future come on its own. Your katsun and your tailoring were just decorations. You'll be okay because even without them... even without thumbs, even if they'd taken your arms and legs, you'd still have the love and faith of this whole tribe, well-earned and deserved.”
Stray was starting to cry now, just a little, so he retreated into his meditative space for a moment, smoothing out the folds and fissures of emotion in his psychic topography. When he opened his eyes, he found that Ghada was leaning into his space, hoping for an elbow, a caress, a bit of physical affection. It was bold – almost desperate – and though Stray had been inviting it, he hadn't expected Ghada to make the move so suddenly.
Stray put a firm arm around Ghada and let Ghada's head come to rest on his shoulder. When Ghada tried to raise his head toward Stray, looking for Stray's lips, Stray recoiled, embarrassed, as though out of shyness. Ghada looked back down, eyes tired, mouth numb, mired in self-loathing.
“Ghada,” Stray said, trying to be gentle, “I'm sorry, but this isn't the kind of love you need right now. You need to recover on your own, with the support of your family, and figure out how to move forward.” Ghada didn't react to this assertion, so Stray continued. “And you know how impossible it would be, after you and Edzie were so close. I can't just step into the shadow of that relationship, however cursed it turned out to be.”
Ghada didn't move, but Stray felt a tear – or a drip of snot – seep through his tunic. They stayed there for a few more minutes, silent, as Ghada processed Stray's wise, cruel rejection. He didn't move, but Stray imagined he sensed a nod of assent, or a breath of understanding. It gave him the courage to deliver his next bit of news, having no idea how it would land.
“Ghada, I thought I should tell you... you first, before anyone else... I'm going east after the year changes, to be a Caesura Prospect. Maybe I'll fail the tests... maybe I won't even like it. But I want to see what the Order might be able to offer me.”
Ghada didn't move his head, but he breathed in and out. Finally, he said, “I kind of want to vomit right now.”
Stray just pulled his deer-skin off his shoulders and put it over both of them, though it was only large enough to cover their abdomens and half their legs. They sat there in silence for a few more minutes, cursing the cold air, but largely indifferent to it.
“Edzie. That’s not attack form two. It’s not one of our forms. I don’t know what it is. DO ATTACK FORM TWO.”
Edzie shook her head. “Mom, I AM doing it. I can do the attack forms as easy as blinking my eyes.”
“Edzie, I’m telling you… STEP FURTHER. The point is to advance on your opponent.”
“It’s an attack form! The point is to deliver the payload! I need both feet on the ground!”
Elkansa rolled her eyes again, for the third time in the last fifteen seconds. “Well, you need to be lighter on your feet. Edzie, I’ve been doing this for thirty years. Stop fighting with me over every little detail.”
“I’m not twelve anymore, mom! I know how the forms work! If you came at me with that long step, I'd have you on your back in a split second.”
“With your forms looking like this, I could skewer you before you could even reach me.”
“Mom, I can go blade-for-blade with any redge in this village. I’d have you disarmed in thirty seconds.”
“First of all, Edzie, have a little respect. Second, I wouldn’t let you near me with that katsun. For all I know, you might cut my arm off, just out of carelessness.”
“Mom, I’m not CARELESS. My forms are PERFECT. If I cut somebody, it’s because I WANTED TO CUT THEM.”
Elkansa looked down, arms crossed over her breast, shaking her head. “Your arrogance will get people killed, Edzie, and then it will get you killed. I know you’re just going through your hardest years, but I’m honestly getting very tired of it.”
Edzie sheathed the katsun and yanked her brivsa hood off her head. “I’m getting tired of… I’m getting tired of it, too, whatever it is.”
“What are you doing, Edzie? Stowing your weapon in the middle of practice?”
“Come on, mom. It's well after dark. I think we can be done.”
Elkansa turned away, restless and defeated. “Fine, I guess you're the one who decides that now. I hope you're more respectful to the Mistras than you are to me. It's humiliating.”
“Feel however you want about it, mom. I need some air.”
Elkansa said something about the cold weather, and about having to get up for household chores the next morning, but Edzie wasn't listening. She picked up a furry brivsa from the gathering table and pulled it on over the lighter brivsa she already wore, and then she stormed out the front door. Elkansa, stewing in disappointment, turned toward the storage cabinet to find something to eat.
It had been cloudy a few days prior, but a deeper cold-front had pushed the clouds away east, so the night air was sharp and crystal-clear. Edzie could walk briskly by moonlight without stumbling over anything, and she didn't have to think particularly hard about where she was heading. She passed Boyle's dromo and crossed the Splitmouth, making a concerted effort to keep her wrapped feet out of the freezing water, and then she turned right and headed along its bank. She would pass the grove of orebarks shortly, and she had to decide where to go from there.
These walks were becoming very frequent, now numbering four or five a week, including the ones late at night that Elkansa didn't know about. Edzie was supposed to be at the Mistras' sessions every day, but every second or third day, she would skip a few lessons and go take cat-naps in the empty dromos near the eastern storage buildings. It was getting too cold for this, but she could usually keep warm enough by huddling in a corner.
In the two-score days since the festival, Edzie's attitude toward the settlement as a whole... its hoary elders, its tight-knit politics, its Caesura missionaries... had soured, and it hadn't even started recovering. As she walked, watching her breath condense into little puffs, she thought about the other Concordance tribes, but she had seen their towns and their representatives, and they already seemed like familiar faces, as stale as her own mild-mannered neighbors. Her thoughts ranged further, and she thought about Resine, and wondered what kind of life... what kinds of lives... she could discover in a city that big, where so many roads crossed.
The feeling of discontent she harbored was troubling, considering her only reassurance, the only light that shone within the wide shadow of her resentment, was Stray. They had grown subtly apart, especially since the fiasco at the festival, but she still kept a tight hold on her memory of more carefree, intimate days. She expected that her younger, more naïve attachment to the tribe was gone forever, but she felt she could reforge her relationships and learn to tolerate this lifestyle again, as long as Stray was a part of her life.
It would help, she hoped, that the tribe had finally decided to move. The new herd of huskins was skittish, and there were wide open spaces to the south and west. It hadn't even required a council of the elders this time... the consensus came easily, and they had already sent out the scouting parties to stake out new territory for a springtime migration. It was possible, Edzie thought, that a new settlement, a new landscape and scenery, would make it easier for her to embrace life as an initiated tribeswoman.
She wandered through the orebark grove as these thoughts faded and flickered through her mind, echoes of joy and anger and fear that were still resonating in her subconscious. In the dark of the night, she could barely see the stump she had once occupied, but she remembered vividly: herself sitting there, Stray and Boyle trading blows in the open clearing, the whole grove charged with the sound of his voice trying to replicate a Caesura chant. Edzie let herself imagine, in a moment of willful fantasy, that the grove would still look exactly the same when the sun rose the next morning.
Edzie considered sitting by the orebarks, and then she thought about taking a quick detour to the north, to curl up in one of those empty dromos. She considered going further, past Ghada's house, just to see if his light was still on. These all sounded preferable to being trapped in her own residence for the rest of the evening, but eventually the cold won out. Edzie started trudging back along the Splitmouth, walking slowly, listening to its noises. Aside from a couple skittering animals – probably swimcats or shade hares – the settlement seemed entirely deserted, and this was a solemn relief for Edzie, who would have felt a poisonous pang of resentment at the sight of another late-night pedestrian.
Boyle's parents' light was on, but Boyle's was off, so either he was sleeping, or they were doing something together in the gathering room... or perhaps he was staying later at Varda's dromo, now that she had earned some of Alynn and Dredda's trust.
Edzie guessed she had been gone for an hour and a half when she finally passed through the front door of her dromo. In the light of the thresh lamps and the dim glow of the fire, she could see that Elkansa was sitting at the table and Stray was across from her. Elkansa had an half-empty dish of food in front of her, looking limp and cold, and they both had their eyes turned towards Edzie. She sensed that she had interrupted a sensitive conversation.
“Hey, Edzie,” Stray said, watching her take off the winter brivsa and unwrap her feet. He looked back at Elkansa presently, and she reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. When this cryptic gesture was finished, Stray stood up, picked up Elkansa's dish, and stowed it away by the counter to be washed the following morning. He then gave Edzie a polite apology – sheepish and suspicious, Edzie thought – and headed for his room, apparently wanting an early sleep.
Elkansa followed a few minutes later, leaving Edzie to pace, and try to read, and warm herself by the dwindling fire.
On the third day of the year, early in the morning – amidst a parched and bitter frost – a small gathering of Denorians stood on the pitted earth of Cragstep Road, just across the Twilit Bridge, a refreshing walk from the settlement's residential centers. Most had come from the western quarter of the settlement, but there were also a few from the central dromos. They had made a small circle around one particular individual, and now they were variously rubbing their hands, tightening their winter brivsas, and holding one another by the hands and waists and shoulders.
Stray felt a certain stable energy, a calm, unfamiliar warmth, emanating from the gentle, melancholy gazes of his friends and family. He was the one in the center of the circle, and he was dressed more warmly than any of the others. His brivsa (a gift from Rodra) was made of layers of fur and wool, and his coat had been taken from the tribe's shared cache, in exchange for some significant promises from Elkansa. At his feet was a backpack, heavy with small equipment and dry food... everything practical and necessary, except for the freymane statuette, his gift from Edzie, which was wedged in between layers of underclothes. Upon his thigh he wore a katsun that had been donated by Mistra Eryn.
The Denorians gathered around him were a colorful motley bunch. Mistras Septa and Eryn stood together, and next to them, Elkansa stood a couple steps closer, wearing a sad smile. Ghada had made it out... his hands were still bound, but the majority of the pain had passed... with a stoic Bellaryn and an impassive Kosef, politely suppressing his shivering and impatience. On the right-hand side of the circle, Boyle and Varda had come with Mother Obrii, who kept a protective arm around her young daughter.
“Oy, have I not gotten enough presents already?” Stray was saying, his hands turned up in resignation.
“We only just finished it last night,” Boyle replied, handing Stray a very small object wrapped in a linen cloth. Stray unwrapped it and found a freshly-carved pinti, looking like it had been made from a sizeable huskin bone, with Boyle's distinctive swirls and warped animal figures carved all around the pipe barrel.
“Beautiful!” Stray said, an earnest wonder in his voice. “Next time I'm here, you can help me learn to play!”
“Maybe one of the monks knows,” Varda said. “Or, knowing you, you might just learn to play it by yourself, and you'll already be the best in the tribe when you get back.”
Elkansa looked over them skeptically. “Lovely work, but are you sure you can carry that, and your little bird statue? You don't want to get weighed down with... memorabilia.”
Instead of responding, Stray just laughed, tucked the pinti into his backpack, and wrapped his arms around both Boyle and Varda, kissing each of them on the cheek. He turned to Ghada next.
“Strength, love, honor, beautiful prince,” he said. “Dissadae keep you.”
Ghada was doing his best not to shed tears as he spoke. “Go make peace with the world, Stray. You'll be here in my good dreams, chasing away the bad ones.” They embraced, Ghada pressing his head to Stray's shoulder. Bellaryn reached out and gave Stray a squeeze, and then the embrace ended, and Stray turned, passing momentarily over Elkansa, to speak to the Mistras.
“I think I'm ready,” Stray said.
Mistra Septa hardly looked convinced. “Do you remember the word of sanction?”
“Iproma val trastis bronton dragnin avre dribidis ben ritasna (I am the words uttered by your voice in the world returning to you),” Stray recited, pronouncing the Old Concordage with inflection that evoked the deep histories of the Caesura sect.
“Very good,” Septa replied, refusing to betray any pride or approval in her tone. “Do you know the way?”
“Of course,” Stray said. “East along the road, past the Marker's Perch, the Drake River, and Chisel Finger Road, and then along the Andromous Front hewn along the river's north bank. In the roots of the mountain, I'll reach the ruins of Gryffe, and there will be a road cut into the stone that leads up the mountain to the temple. I go alone, I do not join any of the others who travel the same route, and I have to be at the front arch – Dissadae's Relief – at dawn, seven days hence.”
“Right,” Mistra Eryn said, “and take care of yourself on your travels. Use your rations sparingly. Hunt or gather food when you can. Remember the six ways of keeping warm without shelter. Be alert for hungry animals... grasscats, bristlebears, drolven, and anything that looks more than half your size... and be especially alert for fellow travelers who seem too friendly or desperate.”
“I will.” Stray grasped each of the Mistras' wrists in turn. “Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me, and choosing me for this honor. I won't disappoint you.”
Mistra Septa smiled beneath her brivsa. “No matter the outcome, Stray, we have no intention of being disappointed. We are just glad you're considering our Order as part of your future.”
At last Stray turned to Elkansa. He outmatched her in body weight, but he was still a few inches shorter than she, and he suspected he didn't have much more growing to do. As he looked up at her, he saw that her eyes were just slightly wet. He embraced her as he spoke.
“Elkansa, you've been the best mother I could have hoped for. To me, you are the tribe... the tribe that's accepted me, a hopeless outsider, and taught me what it means to be loving and generous and strong. I think, because of you, I'll be able to do this.”
Stray stepped out of the embrace, and Elkansa put her hands on his shoulders. “Stray, I think you know how much the tribe favors you... sometimes it doesn't deserve such a Denorian as yourself... but at any rate, I don't need to speak for the tribe. I can only speak for me and Edzie. We'll miss you hopelessly, Stray, whether you're gone for a mere season, or for the better part of a lifetime. Here in the settlement, or up there on the mountain, or somewhere else out in Pantempus... wherever your inclination takes you... you will always have us, your family, traveling with you, and you'll always be safe and warm in our dromo... your home. You have made all our lives more beautiful and more free.”
Stray and Elkansa embraced one more time, and then Stray picked up his backpack, waved, and started walking east. The gathered Denorians watched wordlessly, paying the tribute of their presence, until he was nearly out of sight. The Mistras left first, full of casual confidence in Stray's inevitable success in the Order. Most of the Denorians left a few minutes later: Elkansa and Mother Obrii, walking and chatting quietly, and behind them, Boyle, Varda, and Kosef. Ghada remained a few minutes longer, silent and inscrutable, until his sister finally took him by the arm and led him home.
“Mom?” Edzie stumbled from her bedroom into the gathering room, tunic hanging open, no brivsa to cover her head. She reached the basin in the corner and splashed a bit of its cold water on her face. “Is it still early? Why didn't you wake me up?”
Elkansa sat at the table, idly shredding getherroot and tapping one foot. “Of course it's not early, Edzie,” she said. “It's already afternoon. I thought I might give you a chance to sleep for once, since I don't even know when you get home from your late-night walks any more.”
“Well... thanks,” Edzie stammered, understandably suspicious. She sat down at the table across from her mother. “Do we have any fruit?”
“If you want to cut it,” Elkansa said, nodding toward a small basket of pastapples in the corner.
As Edzie approached the basket, she started noticing some extraneous details in her surroundings. Both of Stray's brivsas were missing from the space on the floor where they usually resided: his winter brivsa, and his formal indoor brivsa. All his foot-wraps and winter shoes were also missing. In fact, the area around the front entrance was noticeably bare.
“So, uhhhh...” Edzie said as she returned to the table with a pastapple, “where's Stray? Out with one of the Mistras?”
Elkansa looked up at Edzie with a piercing seriousness in her eyes. “Well, Edzie... I suppose we should discuss that. I guess you haven't looked in his room yet?”
Edzie just shook her head, one eyebrow raised.
“Stray is gone, Edzie. He left a bit after sun-up this morning, to undertake the Caesura Prospectus. He wanted me to say goodbye to you, once you awoke.”
Edzie twitched, drawing her head back. “He left? For the Envoclajiz? Wha... why? And why didn't he tell me?!?”
Elkansa considered, and then answered the second question, apparently ignoring the first. “Well, Stray didn't tell you because you are dealing with your own problems right now, hoping to redeem yourself before next autumn. And further, he didn't know how you'd react, and he considered the possibility... bizarre, I know... that you would actually find some way to stop him from going, either by persuasion, or by delaying him through some deception until it was too late.” She paused, letting that suggestion sit in the air for a moment. “Of course,” she finally continued, “Stray insisted on telling you, whatever the consequences. I'm the one who convinced him not to, for your sake and his.”
Edzie scowled at her mother. “Well, I wish he had found the nerve to tell me, instead of just being afraid of me. So why did he want to do it?”
Elkansa shrugged. “I'm not entirely sure. I think, because the Mistras have taken such a shining to him, they've convinced him he's got some special talent for their rituals. He probably feels like this is something he can excel at. That's a powerful draw for a boy like Stray.”
Edzie was quiet for a few minutes. Elkansa watched her closely, prepared for some kind of outrage or indignation or exaggerated offense, but Edzie was surprisingly sanguine about the news. “Maybe he's looking for something better than all us murts,” she said under her breath, and then, catching Elkansa's baleful gaze, she said, “Sorry. It's just a shock. I hope he finds whatever he's looking for, if he's gotta go leaving our dromo.”
Elkansa complimented Edzie on her maturity in the face of Stray's departure, and tried to offer her a bit of consolation, in the form of a speech about how she had been a wonderful sister. Edzie smiled and nodded, looking introspective, and eventually, both Edzie and her mother lapsed into silence. Edzie finished her pastapple, excused herself, and left for her next session with Mistra Septa.
The day was generally uneventful: Edzie helped Mistra Septa with two sessions, returned home to help Elkansa with dinner, practiced her forms for several hours, and left to take a walk, as had become her habit. It was mortally cold out, but Edzie had taken her warmest furs, so Elkansa wasn't worried about her. When Elkansa decided to turn in for the night, Edzie wasn't home yet – another common occurrence those days.
As Elkansa curled up on her wooden cot, she felt something unsettling in the air. The house was warm, as always, from the dying fire in the gathering room, and Elkansa's room was dimly lit by moonlight... nothing seemed noticeably out of the ordinary. Still, Elkansa remained awake for another hour, shaken by some deep-seated anxiety. It must be Stray's departure, she thought to herself... funny, I didn't even stay awake like this the night Tamlis left me.
Eventually, she heard Edzie return... a bit of shuffling and activity in the gathering room, her daughter's unmistakable footsteps, and a slight increase in the glow of the gathering room fire. Feeling inexplicably reassured, Elkansa closed her eyes, and finally dropped off to sleep.
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.
Stray woke first, dizzy with a vague memory of movement in the dark, and something cold caressing his legs. It took him a few seconds to identify the rock walls and the stack of debris protecting the entrance to the hermit's cave. The soft light of morning brought new clarity to the cave's hollow dimensions and jagged contours, trading its nocturnal drama for a crisp salience.
Stray roused Edzie, and they both dressed quickly and devoured some of Stray's rations. They scrawled their names on the cave wall, next to the melancholy skeleton, and then departed in haste, hoping to come near the ruins of Gryffe by that evening.
“I think there was a snake in there with us last night,” Stray said as they continued east. “I felt it slithering around my legs.” Edzie made a disapproving face, but kept her theatrics to a minimum.
The path along Assay's Cut was forgiving for the next hour or so, passing through spacious groves in something like a very small valley. Aside from a few small foraging creatures, called from hibernation by pangs of hunger or the cries of their young, there was very little wildlife, and the evergreen woods on either side seemed like a scenic gallery rendered entirely for Edzie and Stray's benefit. Eventually, the trees became sparse, and the rock faces on either side drew much closer together. Stray and Edzie found themselves scrambling over ridges and boulders that protruded into the path, and there were times when they feared they had lost it entirely, only to have it reappear as a furrow and a gap in the underbrush ahead.
Soon, the north wall, on their left, began to lower, and then it fell away below the level of the path, and Stray and Edzie were on something like a narrow, mossy ledge, clambering laterally along a steep slope, navigating between resipine and pitchfir trees that seemed to be clinging for dear life to the stone. It was only after two hundred meters of this desperate scraping along the cliff that Stray, leading Edzie by a few arm-spans, cried out in celebration. Far ahead, a few meters down, he could see a cleft in the rock where this rise met another, and through that cleft, he could see the level surface of the Cragstep Road. By the time they reached it, Edzie and Stray both wanted to collapse and expire with exhaustion.
For those first few minutes, Edzie and Stray felt withered and defeated. They huddled in the crevice alongside the road, the outlet where Assay's Cut deposited them, and finished a few scraps of Stray's rations. Finally, feeling barely rested, they stood and scanned the landscape around them. They were among the sharp spires at the eastern end of the Andromous Front, surrounded by bluffs and escarpments that looked like they had burst forth from some infection in Pantempus's craggy flesh. To the west, they could see the stretch of the Cragstep that ran parallel to Assay's Cut, a tangle of bumpy road twisting through rugged terrain, over two bridges (the Fraternear and Fraterfar) which they had entirely bypassed. They could see a small figure on the further bridge, barely a dust mote from this distance: another lonely Prospect climbing toward the temple, perhaps the same figure they had spotted on the road the previous day.
Turning the other way, they could see that the road traveled back into the ridges and bluffs that formed this part of the Crag Mountains' foothills. The mountainous pinnacle gave way to a valley of evergreens on the east side, and Stray and Edzie would be descending into its forested reaches, the last stage in the journey to Gryffepeak. The clear sky gave the sun a piercing command of the afternoon, and Stray and Edzie barely noticed the gray clouds casting a diffuse shadow a few leagues to the north. Their survey finished and their energy somewhat replenished, they started the walk through the cliffs, and within an hour's time, they were scrambling down needle-carpeted slopes, dizzy from the smell of resipine sap.
The sun was high overhead, just at the threshold of that gray cloud-front, when Edzie and Stray reached the bottom of the valley, thick with evergreen trees, following a road that was little more than a flattened footpath between boulders. Under a canopy of needles and cones, they reached a low wooden bridge over the Draught River, the narrow, swift stream that ran down from Gryffe and the surrounding ridges. Almost immediately after they had crossed the Draught, the road turned sharply left, following the stream north. The earth became soft and flat, and the road widened almost beyond recognition, as the foothills receded on either side. The valley gradually became a forested vale, bordered on the west side by the Draught River, with a gradual uphill slope as they drew nearer to the Crag Mountains proper.
Edzie and Stray walked steadily, satisfied at the progress on that long day. The dark cloud overhead loosed a smattering of flurries, and with the snowflakes drifting down between the evergreen trees, the woodland took on a furtive, fragile quality, a stillness that seemed to brush Edzie and Stray with its cold fingers as they walked. It was nearly evening, Stray observed... he had hoped they might reach the ruins of Gryffe before that day ended, but he was prepared to make camp regardless.
Stray's hopes turned out to be reasonable... as the shadows turned magenta and blue in the twilight, he and Edzie came upon a wide clearing in the trees, and on either side, they found rows of wooden markers placed by the pilgrims who had traveled this path. They were made from wooden boards, stakes, and whittled tree-limbs, and they generally consisted of a single vertical stake, one or two meters high, with an “X” near the top, made from two boards fastened together at the center. The figure was sometimes called the Standing Hex, and though the Caesurites themselves made no claim on it, it was commonly associated with their crucial role in the history of the Pastures, and was seen as a fitting tribute to the fallen city of Gryffe. Stray had heard about this grove from the Mistras, and he knew that the ruins themselves weren't much further along.
The light was almost gone, and Stray and Edzie were comfortably within their window... perhaps even a little ahead of schedule... so they left the path and found a crevice between two boulders. They created a makeshift torch, chased away a family of arborrats, and made camp in the stone shadows, building a small fire and hanging a fly tent from a drooping pitchfir branch. In the dead of night, when the cold became bitter, they used some of Edzie's twine to expand the fly-tent, and they created a second small campfire inside its confines. The arrangement wouldn't protect against aggressive bristlebears, but it kept the wind off, and as it grew warm in the firelight, it came to feel like a gathering room in a very small dromo.
Whose twine did Edzie have, Stray wondered? That was from Gransa, Edzie informed him, along with the two rolled blankets that she had used to expand the fly tent. What had she used to catch the shade hare, Stray asked? A deadfall trap she had dug with a small trowel on her last day in the settlement, Edzie answered: she didn't want to steal away with too much of Elkansa's winter provisions, so she had made an effort to secure her own.
Did she have anything else useful, Stray asked?
Some fishing gear from Eryff Afekt, Edzie answered, plus her own firestarter set, a map of the Cragstep Road leading into the mountains, a second, smaller map of the approach up Gryffepeak, a small guide to edible plants from Mistra Septa, and some small utensils to prepare them.
“So,” Stray finally ventured, after she had recited this list, “how long have you known I was leaving?”
Edzie shrugged. “Since I caught you and mom talking about it, that one night in the gathering room. You spent a lot of time talking to the Mistras, taking those walks to the bridge. It wasn't that hard.” She took a sip from her waterskin. “I think I did pretty well keeping my preparations secret... I think only Eryff figured out that I was planning to leave.”
Stray nodded, smiling at his own incompetence. Edzie always said he couldn't keep secrets. “Who's this Eryff Afekt?” he asked presently. “I don't think I've met him.”
“One of our transients. Been with us half a decade now, lives by the docks with a woman named Pithri. Quite the galeed.”
“Would I like him?”
“You'd have mixed feelings.”
Stray and Edzie continued in this vein for a bit longer, speaking quietly over scraps of Stray's rations and foraged root vegetables. They left the fire to burn as they felt their own wakefulness waning, and curled up on the ground, padding it with whatever soft thing they could find. Stray fell asleep almost immediately, his breathing suddenly audible and glacially rhythmic. Edzie, lying on the other side of the fire, kept watch over him for several more minutes, wondering if she could lie closer. She thought, for a brief moment, that the dying fire and the winter air might give her an excuse to curl up against Stray, her adopted brother and illicit companion. When she imagined his waking moments, with the confusion and strained words that would follow, she abandoned the thought and tried to make herself sleep.
At some point during the night, the temperature rose a few degrees, and the moisture in the air became a wet mist, freezing as it touched the needles of the evergreen trees. When Edzie and Stray awoke the next morning, their fly tent was damp and growing heavier, barely suspended over their exhausted fire. Striking camp was a disheartening experience, but they were prompt and dutiful about it, returning to the road with the onset of the gray morning.
As they reached the road, which was more of a wide, soft, murky footpath, they peered between the tree trunks to the north. Stray took Edzie by the arm, arresting her momentum, and pointed: there, some hundred meters ahead, they could see another figure, bound up in brown winter attire, trudging through the wet forest.
As they looked on, Stray seemed to twitch, distracted. He whispered, after a moment, “There's another one behind us, probably back at the Standing Hexes. Walking slowly. Shouldn't see us for another five or ten minutes.”
Edzie raised an eyebrow, not sure how to react to this news. “Other Prospects?”
Stray nodded. “It's time for you to head back, Edzie.” He spoke quietly, but insistently. “I was told to take this journey alone. It's part of the ritual. If they see us walking together, I don't know how it will be regarded.”
Edzie scoffed, trying to keep quiet, though with resounding contempt. “So they're not even allowed to see me?”
“I don't know,” Stray said, “but they're all walking alone. I think I need to take that cue.” He looked impatient. “Come on, Edzie, you knew we would have to part ways eventually. Step a bit off the road, we can say our farewells, and you can start back to the settlement before you're so weary you can hardly travel.”
“I'm not going back until I see the temple, or at least the road up the mountain.” She left no room for argument in this declaration. “Tell you what... you go ahead. I'll wait until you're almost out of sight, and then walk behind you, and nobody will know we're associated. They'll just think I'm another Prospect.”
“Until the foot of the mountain. Once we get there, I'll turn around.” She grasped Stray's hand. “Don't worry about looking back, until we get to Gryffepeak. I'll be a shadow in your wake. Go on ahead, and think about your initiation.”
Stray conceded to the arrangement, and the two of them resumed their walk. The vale opened up, and the two travelers... Stray walking ahead, his mind on his goal, and Edzie a few minutes later... arrived at the southern edge of the ruins of Gryffe, the town at the base of the mountain that had once been a supply hub for the Crag Mountains and the Envoclajiz Temple.
It had been almost two millennia since the Break War and the invasion that had destroyed Gryffe, so most of the ruins had vanished completely, reclaimed by the landscape. The most obvious sign of a former settlement was the empty, rocky field that interrupted the soft earth of the vale. Stray stepped carefully over stone fragments, mere corners and shards peeking out of the mud, and he tried to identify former structures across the landscape. Only a few outlines of old buildings were visible, rings of sunken stone and sudden deep depressions in the ground. These signs would seem to disappear entirely, and Stray would think he had passed through, when suddenly he would trip over another broken hearth, or see the obvious remnant of a side-street cut across the road in front of him.
There were only three structures left in town that were complete enough to deserve the name. Two were unrecognizable... probably large houses or places of worship... but the third looked like it had been a watchtower, stripped of all features, now the merest calcified framework tottering along a path leading alongside the Cragstep. Stray tested its integrity, and though some stones were loose, it had generally been reduced to its stablest substructure, so he felt safe in scrambling up its exterior wall. On the top, at a height of fifteen meters off the ground, he could see over the sparse woodland, into the mountain peaks that surrounded the ruins. There were vast, white-capped ridges wrapping all the way around the ruins, with only two breaks: a lower, more ragged gap to the southwest, where Edzie and Stray had crossed the foothills... and a visible fold in the mountains to the north, revealing a single, monstrous peak a couple of leagues ahead.
This was most certainly Gryffepeak, the sentinel mountain, and somewhere in its upper reaches, Stray would find the Envoclajiz, his destination.
The final stretch of open ground north of the ruins, soggy and gray in the wet midday air, proved to be the first test of Stray’s emotional stamina. After the evidence of habitation finally ceased, the slope of the valley floor turned gradually upward, and for several kilometers, the trees seemed larger, leaving darker pools of shadow over the Cragstep Road’s final stretch. The matted yellow grasses grew thin, and Stray could feel, from the shape and consistency of the earth, that the dirt was shallower in this part of the forest. He marched dutifully on, knowing Edzie was a few hundred paces behind.
Gryffepeak loomed closer with each passing hour, and by early afternoon, its sharp, jagged cliffs obscured Stray’s view. He could pick out a few features now… he couldn’t see the trail itself, but he could trace the thread of level ground that ascended the mountain, frequently disappearing behind some spur or irregularity, eventually vanishing into the higher reaches. At a few breathless moments, Stray looked up between the pitchfir needles and thought he could see the silhouette of the Envoclajiz itself, a geometrical blemish wedged into the mountainside, too small and hazy to discern any particular features.
Closer to the mountain, the trees became more sparse, suddenly having to compete with large rocky outcroppings and boulders split into fragments the size of whole dromos. The trail was no longer soft and earthy… it became a thin layer of mud caked over solid rock, still sloping upward, punishing the soles of Stray’s feet. He occasionally passed another Prospect, huddled up and resting by the side of the Cragstep, massaging her feet or digging through her supplies, and when he could see the road ahead, he always saw three or four others at regular intervals along it. Like Stray, they seemed to be timid and weary, keeping their distance from one another, enduring the climb alone.
Stray realized that he didn’t technically know what constituted the “foot of the mountain,” so he decided he would stop at the last bit of large-scale terrain, so that he and Edzie could confer in private before he started up the long, bare, brutally exposed final stretch of mountain road. In the meantime, he started to see the first signs of the Order’s presence… coming around a boulder, he found the path marked by a primitive sculpture of a human form, waist-high, polished perfectly smooth, with no features or detail. Its legs were joined into a single column, and its arms formed an unbroken circle raised above its head. The flatness of its chest suggested it was a male, but its groin was a triangle, vaguely yonic, leaving its intended gender to the viewer’s imagination.
Peering around a pile of geologic debris, Stray saw, beyond the slightest doubt, that it was time for Edzie to abandon her pursuit. From here, he could see directly up the side of the mountain, and aside from a couple conspicuous wooded depressions, there was no longer any crevice for refuge or commutation. From this point forward, Stray's solitude had to be genuine, or Edzie would certainly draw suspicion. The androgynous statue seemed to announce it: the partnership had to be severed.
Stray stopped and sat down on the nearest boulder, sorting through his belongings, trying to look inconspicuous. He stole a look back at Edzie... she had stopped, as well, and was stretching near the shadowy pool beneath the nearest tree-line. Both of them lingered there, a mere hundred meters apart, biding their time... four minutes later, another prospect passed them, and then another in their wake. Edzie glanced back, peering through the trees; when she saw that the road was empty behind, and that the most recent traveler was too far ahead to see them, she turned and hastened toward Stray, leading him into the shadows of the stone rubble beside the Cragstep.
Edzie knew why Stray had stopped. She smiled inanely, with all the humor of a wilted flower. “I guess it's time for me to go,” she said.
“Right,” Stray confirmed. “It's not much further, and it's really time I made this journey my own.” He paused a moment, and then offered a hand. “Thank you for all you've done for me, Edzie. You've been the...”
He hesitated, and Edzie filled in for him. “The worst teacher possible, I know. And the meanest big sister imaginable. It was the least I could do.”
Stray laughed with his eyes, and the warmth seeped out into his words. “Yes, Edzie, and also the best possible friend and mentor and guardian spirit. Too many things to count, really. Now go make a life for yourself, and once I'm settled, I'll come find you, and we'll be long-parted siblings, embracing and crying.”
“In the meantime, I forgive you,” Edzie declared, turning her tight smile to a wry smirk. “I forgive you for trying to leave me back there, with the Denorian boggs. My way was fastest. I'm happy.” She hesitated, and then said, “Go on. Vorlis Dissadae bestir roprista (Dissadae is tired of waiting).”
They shared a long embrace, and Stray transferred his remaining rations to Edzie's pack, trying not to think about her long, lonely walk back to the settlement. Finally, he left the shadow of the boulder and started up the rising slope. His pace slowed immensely, but still, it only took him a few minutes to pass entirely out of sight of the boulders and the statuette. He glanced back, just at that last moment, but Edzie was still out of sight... or she was already gone. He shook his head and forced himself to take his first step up Gryffepeak.