“Churly! Where are you wasting my time?” the Monarhig yelled as they climbed towards the top of a high crest. The Nefazo highway again appeared on their left, but on their right the land dropped off a sheer cliff. Boruin never expected to see what was below them. He heard even Toaaho gasp at the sight of the eight crudely cut wedges of strange land over which the sun and all Baeg Tobar’s moons, at once and always, spun tightly. The spheres, never leaving the sky, seemed to have come to an agreement. In even parts, the land was split into the dark night of Syan, cool Diuntyne, and hot day. There was no dawn or dusk to be seen. The divisions turned about the dark hub in the center as if the land were the face of a clock and the heavenly bodies its guiding hands.
“Yuin’s teats, we must be miles up! I can’t see the bottom.” Pile crept forward slowly to spit over the edge and watch it drop out of sight. He looked up and wiped the saliva off his lip. “What the hell is that? Easlinder?” he asked.
“Easlinder?” Boruin asked. “Seriously? Pile, for a man so stoked in tales, secrets, and myths of the Fae, how is it you can’t tell the Dreaming Lands when they’re laid out like a map in front of you?”
Pile scoffed. “You know the tricks of Fith’s whorehouse in Ouilainne, but I doubt you know all the ladies’ birth names, now do you?” He took a second look at the legendary realm. “Why does it look like a pie?”
Boruin glanced at the Monarhig. It might be unwise to pay too much attention to what they were seeing. The Fae prince was still enthralled with Wraethe, though, and was leading her about his camp, presumably in search of the creature called Churly. They were laughing as they turned over chests, opened wide the silk tents, and looked under plush couches. It was ridiculous.
“They were divided long ago by the Iraemun, gods and grandfathers of the Fae. Each Iraemun’s sphere of influence reigns inside their talamhs: Action and Consequence, Creation and Craft, Magic and Fire, Time, Vision, Water, Death, and Air.”
Pile pointed north, to the border between the mist-darkened talamh of Magic and the great ocean of Water. “And they war against each other?” Pile asked. Water was driving into the mists, pushing the fog back like one great army routing another.
“Look,” Toaaho replied, “it is a dance of balance.” Farther along their borders, almost out of sight, the dark mists became the invader. The talamh of Water shrunk under the Magic’s attack, and the shifting borders stilled. A moment later the sound of the great battle of waters and mists rose on the wind as a whisper of distant surf. There were no straight borders between the talamhs; each looked to have been pulled and pushed. Its neighbors pinched the talamh of Death so it looked like a great hourglass.
“Their lands war, it seems, but the Iraemun sleep,” Boruin said, answering Pile. “Their children begged the Great Mother to bring them slumber. She bound them in sleep, but I think they murdered one, too.”
“Why was that?” asked Pile.
“Polorun was the Iraemun of Vision, master of dreams and nightmares. I would guess trapping his siblings in a realm under his control turned out to be a poor idea.”
“No, why were they put to sleep?” Pile corrected.
“The Iraemun’s arguments built and broke Baeg Tobar more times you’ll breathe in your lifetime. Their first children, the Nai’Oigher, now rule their realms. ‘Sixteen twins, and a tower for each,’ I think it is said. That could be false, though. I see only one tower in each talamh.”
Boruin’s eye drifted about and caught at the center, where all the talamhs tapered together into a single point. A shadow sat where they met, like a sooty smudge on a windowpane. He followed a road leading away from the center and realized that a city had appeared in the corner of his eye. It was like spotting some dim star; it hid from the sunburned center of his sight, but it crept in around the edge of his vision when he glanced just beside it. Eight high palaces, near twins to their rural cousins, rose where the points of the Talamhs met. Boruin strained to look closer, to see more, but doing so brought the center of his eye to bear, and the city blurred over. The city did not wish to be seen so casually, but that mattered not. Boruin knew it. Though he couldn’t remember having heard it before, the name rose right to his tongue.
“Maeda Criacao,” he whispered to the wind. The Monarhig turned suddenly from Wraethe. His eyes narrowed and swept up and down Boruin for the first time. The prince started to step forward, but Churly suddenly burst onto the hilltop, carrying the head of a huge snake on his shoulder and.dragging its half-cleaned body being behind him.
The servant’s long, Fae fingers had managed to wipe the gore of the snake across most of his white tunic. There were even streaks of red where he’d slapped at the sweat on his elongated forehead. His eyes were large like walnuts under wire-thin eyebrows. His pants were a mess of mud, as if he’d had to wrestle the dead snake through a swamp before cleaning it. He did not convey the glorious image of a Fae quite like his master.
Churly’s shoulders hunched as he spoke, as if he were used to taking a blow regardless of the worth of his words. “Sorry sire! Sorry! I was by the stream, cleaning this most magnificent catch. It is truly stupendous, and the way you dispatched of—”
“I know how great it is, Churly. I slew it myself. Quit your babbling and bring us some wine,” the Monarhig commanded. The servant dropped the snake and headed behind a tree, skidded to a stop to return and keep the snake from rolling down the steep hill, then dashed back behind the tree again. He reappeared moments later with a jug of chilled white wine.
“Could be a hell of a swamp runner-dodger, if you could stand to ride the fat man,” the Monarhig said, again tossing back his head to laugh. Wraethe joined in the laughter. Pile moaned, and Boruin and Toaaho traded a look of confusion at her gaiety. The boy cackled lightly in a near perfect imitation of the Monarhig. The prince took notice of none of it.
“We might as well not even be here,” Boruin said.
“Look,” Toaaho said. Boruin followed his gaze upward. He almost rolled defensively to the side at he sight of the thul bear dangling from the tree above them. If still alive, the bear would have already leapt, crushing them both under its 300 pound mass. A second one, even larger than the first, hung on the next branch. Hundreds of animals were roped into the tall tree above them, some harmless, but most Boruin recognized as very, very dangerous.
The Monarhig and Wraethe stood under another tree full of the prince’s trophies. They drank their wine as he continued to praise himself and she continued to twirl her hair and smile.
“These two were bound together after the rutting season. It seemed silly not to put them out of their misery,” he explained. The two black deer hung with their immense antlers crossed and tangled in their fight over some mate now lost to the both of them. “Now, about that bath,” he said, his smile flashing and beautiful.
“I really couldn’t. We are needed in Easlinder, and I couldn’t ask my companions to wait.”
“Yes, about that,” the Monarhig began. “I really can’t have these creatures wandering on these trails. I am To’Sidhe’Lien, and our half of the Courts of Twilight supports strict isolationism when it comes to the mortal races. Really, how would it look if I let them continue?”
“Surely there is some compromise we could come to? Behave!” she said as the Fae’s lip curled up to forecast a lewd suggestion.
“Humm,” he said, tapping his finger to his lips and walking around Wraethe. His eyes never left her body, and Boruin’s never left the killing spot on the back of his neck. “I did happen to see your bow. It is not a bad weapon, certainly not the quality of mine, but fair,” he said. Churly had foreseen his master’s command and was there with his case. The Monarhig drew out his ivory hunting bow and turned it about in his hands. “How is this? You shoot for your passage, should you win. I shoot for a bath if I win.” Wraethe stared long at the man, and Boruin eagerly waited the tongue lashing he knew she was about to deliver.
“Passage and the bow,” she countered. The Monarhig smiled his approval. Boruin spat in the dirt.
They lined up along the cliff to watch the prince. The high-born Fae drew a cloud from his pocket, something no one understood, but something they all accepted as the oddest part of a strange afternoon. He folded it in his hands, and then out it sprang in the shape of a fish. The fish swam over the cliff and out into the sky. When he shot, his eye and hand were fantastic, the arrow arriving to burst the cloud in a puff of glittering scales.
Wraethe held her bow in position. She raised it before her and inhaled slowly as she drew. The cloud, this one shaped as a star, was now far over the edge and beginning to dance in the winds that rolled up the face of the cliff. Wraethe’s pale arms glowed in the noon sun, and Boruin heard her gently exhale. He knew she was then ready to fire. A second later her arrow arced up and out. It spun as it flew, the feathers twirling in a black blur. It began to fall, starting that long downward plunge toward the distant ground. It sliced through the small pocket-cloud on its way, perfectly splitting the target as it turned its iron head lower and dropped.
“Well done,” the prince said with a clap of his hands, his white shooting gloves softening the applause. Wraethe curtsied deeply. The prince took his bow from his servant and pulled another cloud from his pocket. It sailed out on his breath. The prince took aim, and then lowered the bow as if something important had just caught his attention.
“Do you prefer soap or sand? I have the finest bathing sands. They were given to me by Lady Freinlass of the Stropping Ferns. She has the smoothest skin, you know,” he said as he returned the bow to a full draw. The arrow was unleashed almost before he had finished speaking. It rocketed out into the air, carving an almost flat plane on its way to the target. The cloud burst into tatters as the wooden shaft split it and continued on out of sight.
Boruin took a step back and massaged his shoulder. A muscle had started jumping, and he rubbed the spasm to get it to stop.
Wraethe exhaled slowly and was near the end of her breath before she released. The arrow slung out fast, quivering as if eager to make its mark. It reached its apex and arced down, losing strength but passing through the cloud at the last moment. Boruin knew that was the last one. Wraethe would never admit to it–she was better than any he had seen with a bow–but she could shoot no farther. Stupid girl. Challenging a Fae, and so near his realm.
The Monarhig set a small cloud in his palm and blew it out into the void. He turned to take a glass of wine from his servant and continued to gab about perfumed oils and intoxicating candles. The others watched as the cloud drifted farther and farther, now knocked about by the distant winds. The prince took his bow and almost without looking let the arrow fly. It shot out, seeming to follow the cloud like a falcon after some fat pigeon. When it pierced the cloud Pile sighed and walked to his horse. Toaaho watched without emotion, and the boy continued picking flowers in the grass and chasing the odd bug under the horse’s hooves. Boruin barely noticed.
That spasm had turned into a fierce itching. Again he rubbed at the spot. This time his runes rolled over his shoulder with the motion. The uncomfortable sensation shifted. Boruin dragged it down his arm, and suddenly there was a rune he recognized. Shem’broun, he thought, confused as to how he knew its name. As Wraethe drew her bow, he pulled the rune onto his wrist and traced the design with his finger. As fast as sure, as quick as true. The traits sprang into his mind from somewhere lost, but he knew how to use the rune and what it did. He could not believe it.
Wraethe’s arrow tumbled down to earth. They watched it go, falling short of its target as the winds continued to pull the little cloud out into the distance.
“Well done all the same. Truly a good show, truly. But I must say you do have fierce competition. I am regarded as the top…,” the Fae bragged on, but Boruin was not listening. He pulled the rune down into his palm and lifted the prince’s bow from the hands of the dumb-founded servant. The cloud was now almost beyond sight. It danced in the distant winds, whipping around like a child spinning in the arms of a playful father.
The fat man stumbled back wide-eyed and sputtering as Boruin drew his master’s bow and the rune exploded into use. The prince’s words fell silent from his mouth as the bowstring hummed with its release. Boruin felt the hot release of the spell in his hand, saw the blue burning flame licking out between his closed fingers, but did not regard them as the arrow screamed through the air. He watched it shoot true, unaffected by the gusting wind. It traveled out into the deep blue sky, a straight unwavering line. The cloud danced until the arrow caught it, exploding in bright purple flame.
Stunned silence reigned on the hilltop for a moment until Boruin heard the soft applause. The boy danced about in a small circle, doing a funny little jig while clapping and grinning huge at him. He almost smiled back, but the fuming Monarhig wrenched the bow from his hands. Boruin stepped away and wondered if he hadn’t made a mistake.
“LIJ!! YOU PUTRID SACK OF DYING MEAT!!!” he screamed with a voice louder than possible for his thin frame. “That you would presume to come close to me! That you would presume to even touch my servant, let alone my own bow! It is tainted by your stink!” He broke the ivory shaft in two and cast it over the cliff. “I will flay your skin from your bones and leave them to bake in the Sunken Desert! Your cries I will bottle so your agony will ever amuse me! Your head will be preserved in your ass so you will ever feast on your own foulness!”
Boruin suddenly realized that the spell he’d just used was not the only one he knew. Two more runes sat on his shoulder, and he knew the third was somewhere across his back. He spun the line and stacked the runes into his palm as they passed. His hand burned with power. The knowledge that he’d formed it right sent an unexpected rush through his body. Brun’gordhiem could stop a tidal wave; it could halt the rush of a mudslide; it would sheer a hard granite peak from its mountain, and it would certainly kill a lij. A Monarhig prince would only find himself knocked off the edge of the cliff and fending for himself in open air. Probably, Boruin thought.
The spell blossomed in his hand, the prince’s eyes opened wide at the raw magic streaming from the old man. He had misjudged the travelers, and the woman was not the only mystery in their band.
The spell slammed against the Monarhig like an iron hammer swung by a god. The Fae tumbled back, but to Boruin’s despair the prince lowered his shoulder and dug in his toes. He slowed to a stop just before the edge of the cliff. A moment of assessment passed between them, and then the Monarhig inhaled.
Afterwards, Boruin wasn’t sure if the wind came from the prince’s mouth or from over the cliff, but the gale roared across them all and they were blown back down the hillside. Jungle flashed by as they were whipped by swirling leaves and loose brush. Boruin felt himself sliding to a halt and tasted dirt.
“Nice move, boss,” Pile said as he untangled himself from the branches of a small tree across the Nefazo highway. Boruin rolled over and squinted at the bright sun in his eyes.
“Son of a whore,” he muttered as he pulled himself to his feet. Toaaho rode down two of the horses as Boruin fetched the boy, sitting pretty as if they had still been on their leisurely ride, off the third.
“How did you fair so well?” he asked. The boy was still smiling, and Boruin noticed he too had dust in his teeth. The boy’s small hands pulled the runes down his arm, faster and faster. “Not a toy, son. Not a toy.”
Boruin knew Wraethe would repeat the same to him come nightfall. She would wait until then, though. The strange trail was gone, and Wraethe was at the road’s edge, tucked under the dark shade of an encroaching rock. Her cowl was low over her face, and there was only darkness beneath it.
End of chapter 05 part 02.