Boruin spent their afternoon rest spinning the line of runes across his torso. They moved like a snake around his chest, over his shoulder, and down his left arm in one long loop. He watched for the one the boy had chosen to open the pathway. A rough, winding symbol, like a whirlpool, caught his eye as it slid around his bicep and back down his forearm. He pulled the ribbon of sigils further down where the whirlpool crossed his wrist. There he slipped it from the line and into his palm. Some small magic was there, but it too felt wrong. He released it and spun the line again, letting the runes run in circles before his eyes.
“Which one, for Yuin’s sake?” Boruin muttered. “Damn boy.”
Toaaho broke from his meditation and crossed the path to deliver Boruin’s forgotten lunch.
“He used your runes?”
“Yeah, chose and cast one from my hand. Tell me how he did that,” Boruin replied.
“Curious,” Toaaho said. Whether to contemplate the problem or contemplate nothing, he went back to his meditation without another word.
The two sat as the others rested around them on the strange path. The boy picked rocks from the road and tossed them at Pile as the short man napped with his arm over his eyes. Wraethe was further down the path where a sunbeam had won its fight through the thick jungle canopy. She stood in the small ray of sun and rubbed her skin, feeling the warm touch as if it were a lost lover’s. The woman stared upward at the shades and glimmers the light cast through the leaves, her face a richer, fuller beauty now than under the paler glow of Diun. They rested and did not worry, satisfied that the trail would move them quickly away from Belok and into Easlinder, however impossible that seemed.
Boruin crossed his arms behind him so he couldn’t see his runes. They were only making him angry now. Any instinct of which rune had opened the shimmering curtain had faded to guesswork. He lay back on the edge of the dirt path, and his mind turned to the fish he’d seen not long ago. It ate a Fae. What kind of a fish eats a Fae? What kind of Fae gets eaten by a fish? he wondered.
“What time would you say it is?” he asked Toaaho.
Toaaho opened one eye and glanced at his shadow across the ground. “Midmorning, no later than three hours past sun break.”
“How far would you guess we’ve come?”
“Two hundred leagues, at least,” Toaaho answered again, his voice calm despite this impossibility. The path was taking them to Easlinder almost faster than the sun could cross the sky.
Boruin called them all to mount up, tired of his mind turning circles. The break had not been restful for him. He took the lead, as watching Wraethe turn her face up into each sunbeam just brought on more questions.
This path bothered him greatly. The jungle was not without its own magic; he had spent enough time here to know that. Pile told stories that most would find impossible, yet Boruin knew the man’s lies from his stretched truths. The treasure hunter had seen some strange things in the old ruins scattered about the land, but there was no magic he’d witnessed that explained this trail.
To their the left, the trade highway continued to follow. It ran alongside, peeling away and leaving them alone, then returning to break though the dense brush. But after the fish and the fairy, Boruin had begun sneaking looks to the right. When the jungle opened there, it wasn’t just giant trees and songbirds that appeared. In small windows, where the jungle had allowed a far view of the distance, the landscape seemed skewed. Water was ungrounded to the earth, and rivers ran in any direction they chose. The sky seemed to tease the horizon and twist against its constraints. Boruin glimpsed mountains built of fire and lightning and wind stripping trees bare only to replace their leaves with the next gust. It was all too odd to believe, especially glimpsed between trees in the brief moments that passed with each step of his horse.
In other places, the jungle opened to shallow glades and hollows that seemed right until one stared a little closer.
“That sure has weathered strangely,” Pile said as the jungle opened on their right. The path took a wide circle around the west face of a natural stone tower.
Wraethe took her eyes down from the sun to look. “Almost like it has been grown rather than weathered,” Wraethe added. It unsettled Boruin that she was obviously right.
The rock was darkest at its root, a great hard stump from which the stone had grown in layers. Each rising segment grew thinner until the top, with its wide edges, sagged under the weight of the rock. Cracks appeared along the bowed crown and the boulders at its base suggested that cycles of collapse and renewed growth were not uncommon.
“It’s an umbrella to shield those mushrooms,” Toaaho ventured. Boruin had missed them before; the browns and black fungi were almost invisible in the folds of rock and deeper crevasses. They had almost passed it and were entering the jungle again when the boy added his opinion.
The shrill whistle startled Boruin. It took him a second of looking around to realize the noise issued from the small boy, his fingers jammed between his teeth. Responding to his high-pitched call, the mushrooms on the rock face closest to them exploded into action. Spores jettisoned from behind as the round heads burst into the air. The event spread quickly through the small colony as if the whistle were fire set to their tails. The mushroom caps shot through the air, some firing straight into the forest, some looping around in tight circles. The child laughed so hard that Boruin tightened his grip around the boy’s waist for fear he would fall from the horse.
The mushrooms raced about the rock, spores falling like sparkling snow behind. Boruin spurred the group on when he saw the herders. They were like hedgehogs or some similar small, short-furred beast. They flapped off the top of the rock, diving down on stubby wings. Their round nets cast out across the mushrooms and dragged them back into the shade of the outcropping. One flew in close beside them, chasing after a lively cap, and shook his fist as he passed. Boruin’s crew had caught the small boy’s laughter, and they roared as they left the small creatures to their flock and disappeared into the jungle.
Their laughter cut short as they found an impossibly tall man turning his steed across the path to bar their passing. “You find tormenting the Feirnann humorous?” he asked. By Yuin, he’s glorious, Boruin thought despite himself.
The sun set the rider’s face in a flawless glow as if it shined only to worship his glory. A pure smile curled at the corner of his lips so perfectly that each of the travelers returned the expression without realizing it. The tall man’s horse too was of fine blood, but it still probably cost less than the man’s attire. As a cloud passed above, the sun still managed to sparkle in the white sapphires that were scattered across his loose shirt like stars. When the light returned in full, it was like flame rising to frame a god.
Somewhere under the swell of sudden affection for this man, Boruin noticed his high forehead. He pulled his head down, forcing his chin lower until finally his eyes broke from the rider’s face. Then he looked for the man’s fingers and found them too long for a lij. This was a Fae, and not a simple one.
Boruin tried to speak, coughed to clear his throat, and continued. “We did not mean to bother them.”
“You will not speak to me, lij!” The word almost spat off his lips as if the use of it brought him a foul taste. The Fae did not look toward Boruin. Even his horse seemed to be purposely looking elsewhere. Instead he peered across the group and singled out Wraethe. “You, though, I would hear speak, for I imagine your voice would be as pleasant as the breeze across the Gathered Sea above my home.”
Wraethe rode forward almost as if the man’s bright lavender eyes drew her to him. “We meant no harm to the land shepherds. We will apologize to them if you wish,” she said.
The man laughed, swinging his head back so his white hair flowed in waves down his back. Boruin rolled his eyes, and he heard Pile gagging behind him. The Fae’s flip from sweet to sour seemed to have broken his effect on the crew; now they, the men at least, felt only a little sick at the sight of him.
“One does not apologize to the Feirnann. They are the lowest of us Fae, merely clever pets,” he said once his light cackling finally ceased. “Do you know who I am?”
“You are a Monarhig, my lord. A prince of the Dreaming Lands,” Wraethe answered.
“The Prince of Winds, to be precise, but what are you? Curious, as you are not Moir. Though if I saw you in a dream I might well swear on my grandfathers’ stone beds that you were a sister of mine.”
“That is kind of you, my lord, as I know your sisters are of remarkable beauty.”
“Now I know you are not Moir, for no Bragheayn queen would regard any more beautiful than she. But you are not Duine, though I smell their world on you. It is not a spice that suits you. Should I ask you to a bath, would you agree? There is one not much further along my path. It is not as fine as the springs in my manor, but I’m afraid you would not pass the gate into my world.” The Fae prince set his charger to walk, taking Wraethe’s reins to guide her beside him. Boruin felt the heat rise to his face, but he made no other sign of his growing dislike for the Monahrig as he and the others followed behind.
“Your world? I had thought we were there already.”
“No, my lovely, this path is constructed in your world. It rubs against mine, but you are still far from entering the lands of the Fae.”
“And yet you, my lord, travel here lightly.”
“I hand the trophies of my visit over to a certain Riddari for his study. Of course I can’t name names, you understand, but he is a keeper of no small secrets,” the Monarhig said, tugging at his fine lace cuffs.
“What trophies are these, worthy of your attention?” Wraethe asked, her coquettish smile a small upturning at the corners of her mouth.
“Here, let me show you a few. I think you will find them to your liking,” he said, slapping Wraethe’s horse to send her up the trail before him.
“Fae–damned…Fae,” Pile muttered, his eyes on the prince and his voice low so as not to catch his attention, not that the Monarhig had once turned his eye toward them. Boruin agreed but did not answer. His mind was turning over what the man had said. The trail was next to the world of the Fae. That explained the strange landscapes he’d seen, but was that why Wraethe was still awake in the daylight? If so, it made no greater sense to him. If anything, it added another layer to the old questions of his life that he couldn’t answer. There were scant clues in the world about Wraethe and him, about where they had come from, about what she was. He had ideas, though, and he liked where they pointed today even less than usual.
End of chapter 05 part 01.