Every night as Diuntyne arrived, silver Diun breached the horizon like a titanic ship entering the open sea of dark sky. The stars smothered under the polished light of the moon’s swirling gas surface. It lost little of its mass as it arced above the land. To hold one’s fist up against it was to see it well around like liquid spilling over the brim.
In the jungle west of Nefazo, Diun seemed to illuminate Wraethe no matter what shadow she led the horses through. After their dinner and mid-night sleep the woman glowed even in the moon’s absence, when Diun dropped behind the horizon and Syan, the star-filled third, and last, cycle of the day was upon them. Boruin watched her skin dimly shimmer in this jungle darkness where the starlight refused to enter. It was almost as if she gathered the cool light of the moon about her as armor against the blackest night. Even her coal-black hair shone, dark blue flashes reflecting out of the loose coils.
Pile ambled before Boruin and Toaaho followed behind, but in the darkness he only made them out by the sound of their horse’s hooves on the trail. They all followed the woman, because at night her vision was as bright as her skin.
“It’s Diun, I’d wager,” Pile had once ventured. “She shares its eye as her own. If the great orb beholds it, I’d lay coin that it’s known to Wraethe. It’s unnatural,” Boruin did not dispute it. Her queer nocturnal senses had often kept their hands out of the irons and their feet off the branding plates. It wasn’t natural. The lij had spread wide across this massive continent and there were all sorts different from another, but Wraethe compared to none he’d met. The alternative–that she could be from the Dreaming Lands–was not something that he liked to think of. If she was Fae, then was he, too?
Boruin heard the boy sigh and felt him lean back against his chest. As mixed as his feelings were toward the boy, Boruin held him tighter. The kid slept, his hands wrapped in the mane of Boruin’s horse, his heels bouncing against Boruin’s thighs as they rode. They continued through the night, stopping only once as Pile dozed and slipped from his horse. He woke, cursing the fall, and climbed back into the saddle to sleep until dawn.
Wraethe stepped down from her horse at the first sign of light. A faint blue line, heavy like a welling tear, rose from the edge of the horizon. It would be another few hours before the sun would break that same edge, its light washing out to burn off the thick mists. Its bright wink would soon tease the great flowers, dangling as ornate tapestries from the tall trees, into opening again and paying homage to its brilliance.
Pile stretched, hands on his hips and leaning as far back as he could without tipping over. “Time for a rest?”
“Could use one, huh?” Boruin asked. “Snoring take a lot out of you?” he added. Pile raised his thumb and clucked side-mouth, in his sarcastic “you got it boss” fashion. Boruin let him be and stretched his own tired limbs.
Toaaho tethered their horses and set to breaking out his equipment. First he’d rub oil into his leather scabbards and harnesses, then he’d check his knives for rust and sharpen them. Black tiger stripes of whetstone grit stained his leather pants where he constantly wiped the blades clean. It was a morning duty that the Mana’Olai attended to better than a Yuinite priest to his prayers. He didn’t even budge as the boy, weaving half-asleep toward him, curled up behind him to share the heat of his broad back.
Pile had his own routine when they ended a ride. He’d check that damn red jacket for tears, pockets and all, and sew it back into shape. Only Yuin knew who he was trying to stay presentable for. All Boruin knew was that faded, blood red fabric wasn’t the best camouflage in the jungle. Just as routine as the sewing was Pile, before long, asleep between stitches with a shirt or his pants in hand. He’d finish that jacket first, though; he was enamored with the damn thing.
“We’ve made good time,” Boruin said as he felt Wraethe walk up behind him. She joined his position, peering back along their route. They had followed a ridgeline up to this small peak, perched like a watchtower over the next valley. There they would wait for dawn.
“The other guardians?” he asked.
She pulled her cloak around her shoulders as if she could already feel the touch of the sun. “I saw nothing of them, though a large cat tracked us for an hour.”
“That would have been nice to know,” Boruin responded.
“Toaaho handled it when it got too close,” Wraethe replied. Boruin grunted his acceptance. It didn’t surprise him that he had heard nothing.
The sky brightened, and the wind teased the fog pooled in the valley below. It swirled and rose as if the ridge were a sleeping giant, slowly pulling its white comforter over its shoulders.
A great tree in the center of their small hill had grown wide, its branches hanging over the crown like a wool cap stretched too big. Wraethe followed Boruin to its massive trunk, and they sat facing the brightening horizon. They discussed the coming day, where they were, and where to go. It was a morning ritual as much as the other’s.
The changing of the guard came at dawn as Wraethe retreated into sleep, her sharp senses blinded by the hot light. They watched in silence until the first edge of the sun broke over the jungle.
“Keep an eye on that boy, Boruin.”
“He’s different, and I like him,” she added, her voice lighter, sounding tired.
“I know you do. You’ve always had a soft spot for the odd ones,” Boruin replied, but Wraethe was already asleep. He watched as her hands pulled the black hood over her head. Her blue eyes receded into the darkness where they would gaze unseeing.
“HUMBRUEWUM,” a rumbling sound like grinding rock shook the hilltop. Boruin rolled out from under the tree, standing on guard and searching for the source of the sound. No other creature stood on the hill; Boruin and his companions were joined atop it only by the bright sun. He dashed around the other side of the tree as the sound rumbled out again into the morning air.
Pile circled the tree, peering down into the morning mists curled about the base of the hill. “Another guardian! Sounds bigger, too.” His axe swung back and forth beside him. It was a nervous twitch–the old man had seen it before. He wondered how long before Pile’s hand swung a little too close to his thigh and shaved off a strip of meat.
Toaaho gazed out from under the wide branches. The old oak had long lorded over the hilltop, smothering the rest of the undergrowth with shade and giving a far view on all sides. “No guardian. Nothing moving at all.”
“Maybe not a guardian, but moving or not, something is here,” Boruin replied. He turned back to the tree and ran his hand along its bark. The rumbling had quieted to a deep chanting. It moved in a strange melodic murmuring, reminding him of a contented house cat and its purring sigh. Boruin could just barely hear it, but the vibration tickled his fingertips through the bark.
“It’s below us,” he said, dropping to catch the feeling in the ground. The whole hill reverberated with the chanting. It rumbled through the rock and up into the leaves above. The hill began to heave; little tremors bounced them on their feet as if the ground was trying to break free. Boruin turned to see the boy standing on its tiptoes, his ear pressed against a knothole in the tree.
The child’s face was crunched up tight, his lips pursed as if deciding whether he liked a particular spiced meat or not. He decided he did not and stepped back with his arms crossed, his face a mix of contempt and impatience.
Like he’s the adult, and whatever this may be is being childish, Boruin thought.
Toaaho stepped up beside the child and placed his ear over the hole. He motioned to Boruin, but Pile rushed up to put his ear there first. Boruin pulled him back and listened.
From deep somewhere in the roots the voice rose as a mix of echoes bouncing around inside the hollow trunk. “Boombruem wholiday. Fineriy, fine certainly fair morning to hill.”
“Fae, if I’ve ever known ‘em,” Pile said.
“Oh, that’s your expert opinion?” Boruin replied. “Then it must be.”
“It is,” Toaaho added.
Boruin grabbed the boy up around the waist. “I know, damn it. Let’s get out of here.” They turned, but there was no leaving. Their horses were gone, their small campfire distant and the ridge slipping out from under them. Boruin’s head snapped around to find Wraethe, but she was still leaned up against the trunk, rolling lightly with the motion of the hill. The boy wriggled out of his grasp. Never good with ships, he sat quickly, cursing his wavering feet and his turning stomach. Though he knew this was no boat, his body had yet to agree.
“Yuin, hear my prayers,” Pile said, his hand tracing the god’s sigil in the air as his mother had taught him long ago. Toaaho moved back to the knothole, his ear listening while his eyes watched the moving landscape. Boruin just sat, nauseous, watching the land slide by as the hill moved off the ridge and into the valley. The boy had taken to the front of the tree to watch the jungle break before them.
Pile sat by the boy to watch and shouted back in amazement. “This is not normal, Boruin! Not normal at all!”
“Great Mother, damn the Fae,” Boruin whispered as the hill turned to ride up a shallow crest and roll down into a neighboring valley. He watched the dense jungle part before them. It slid around their hill and then came back together as smooth as if there had been no great mound of rock plowing through. The hill and the tree meandered about and then headed south, back over the ground they had spent all night covering. Boruin took a deep breath to calm his rolling stomach and climbed next to Toaaho.
“Listen,” the Mana’Olai said. Boruin pressed his ear next to the hole and heard the voice again. It thrummed and piped and hummed and gurgled, a mix of noises that betrayed only childish play.
“It’s definitely Fae. Doesn’t sound too civilized, and the wild ones are usually the most troublesome,” said Boruin. “Any ideas?”
Toaaho just shook his head. Wraethe was still leaning against the tree trunk, though now on the opposite side of the sun. She would be no help.
Well, when in doubt for the right idea, try what’s probably wrong, Boruin thought to himself. He placed his mouth over the knothole and hollered as loud as he could.
“BY THE MOTHER, HILLS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO MOVE!”
“No?” bubbled up the answer through ground. “I’m moving quite nicely.”
Boruin grabbed tight to the knothole as the hill rolled down a steep trench and back up the other side. “You’re not a hill, though.”
The burbling echoes bounced up from the deep roots. “I look like a hill.”
“And I look like a lij,” Boruin retorted.
“You’re not a lij?” the voice asked. “You look like a lij.”
Boruin’s chest rose as he summoned as much commanding impatience as he could. “I’m not a lij! I’m your uncle, and I demand to know what you are doing out here milling about with this hill!”
“Do Fae have uncles?” Pile whispered.
“Careful,” Toaaho cautioned.
The hill ground to a halt in the middle of a wide stream. Fish flopped downriver as the water began to back up on the other side of the mound. The boy pointed upward, and they all turned to stare as the branches above wove into a new shape. It took a moment to see, but a face began to appear out of the layers of leaves and limbs above. Boruin leaned to one side, and the face disappeared; he stood straight again, and the face reappeared. It was like teasing your eye into seeing shapes in the clouds, except this shape moved as the voice boiled up through the ground around them.
“Which uncle are you: of the dew or the mid-month morning mist? For no uncle of mine ever dressed so lij-like,” the voice said, now deep, stern, and doubtful.
“Of the tides of Diun’s dawn, and I have my reasons for being shaped as such. It is not for you to question,” Boruin answered, trying to stare down the illusion of a face above him.
The eyes, blue from the sky behind them, squinted back in consideration. “Curiosity is our vice of choice,” the hill said.
“And its consequences our bane,” Boruin responded in turn, the words snapping into place. The phrase was new to his lips, and Boruin could not remember where it came from. It rose from that place still lost in his mind, but he pushed wondering away for after this bluff.
“Humbreuwum…fine, Uncle Lij, what do you wish of me on my day of play?”
“Just to give you a gift, that is all. You have caused all this…bruhuumbrum for nothing,” Boruin chided.
Pile leaned close and whispered to Toaaho. “What is he talking about?” The Mana’Olai shrugged. The tree began to shiver in anticipation, the leaves flipping about as if a storm gust had blown down upon them. Burbling rumbles shook the ground around their feet, and Boruin grabbed Pile’s hand. He slipped the silver charm off his arm before Pile could even look down to see it disappearing.
Boruin broke off one of the silver discs, caught a sunbeam on its polished surface, and let the light flash up toward the make-shift face. The leaves forming the lips pulled back in an eager grin as the reflection danced about.
“Oh, ew, ew, a present not past, but all not part,” the hill said childishly. Boruin agreed and slipped both the disc and the rest of the bracelet down into the knothole.
Pile jumped to the trunk, his arm down the hole to the shoulder. “Those are my charms!”
“Snap it shut,” Boruin ordered.
“But I’ve been collecting them for years!” he replied, turning to Toaaho. There was no sympathetic face behind the mask of tattoos.
“You find the gift to your liking?” Boruin asked the Fae in the hill.
“Flitty pretty little meetel metal,” the voice burbled. “I do, I do. For two or three I’ll beg and plea,” the hill answered.
“A gift’s a gift and a favor owed is a favor owed,” Boruin said.
“Aye, and a trick is a trick,” the hill said. Boruin crossed his arms and sucked up his chest as if to holler. “But the rights have been met, and I’ve accepted your bauble and grant your favor,” it continued.
“It’s not so bad,” Boruin said. “Continue your day of play, but let us ride along. I hear there is great hilling to be done in the northwestern jungles. If you know the Mountain of Three Hands, take us there,” he ordered.
The hill roared in laughter as if it had gotten the best of its uncle. “I do and will, and yes, it’s no great favor you’ve asked.” The branches rustled and the face disappeared as the hill turned back north. The river rushed back into its stream, covering the flapping fish none too late. The hill moved up a steep ridgeline, and Boruin’s stomach lurched again.
“How did you know it would buy into all that nonsense?” Pile asked softly.
Boruin sat and tucked his legs under an exposed root as the hill tipped down the other side of the small mountain. “You know a little about the Aiemer, and I know a little about the Fae. Now tie me down.”
“You owe me for my charms,” Pile said.
“You cheated a half-drunk whore out of those at Tragle’s Tavern. I watched it happen,” Boruin said, and Pile cursed under his breath.
As the hill pushed up steeper hills, Toaaho lashed down Wraethe as well. “Do you think it will really take us into Nefazo?” Toaaho asked.
“That’ll be a relief. I forgot how much I hate this jungle,” Pile said.
Boruin spat and held his stomach. “Be happy while you’re here. We’ve got some answers to beat out of Belok, and that, my friends, will take a con from Apros L’eure himself.”
“Or just Wraethe’s god awful stare,” said Pile.
End chapter 02 part 02.