The enormous silver moon lit the highway, and the jungle glowed beside them. Bluestar ivy winked from its perch high in the trees, its phosphorescent flowers fluttering in the breeze. Diuntyne cooled the hot jungle, and they rode on at their leisure. When Wraethe woke, she’d noticed immediately that a week had passed them by on that strange trail. The Monarhig had done more than banish them from his path; they had fallen back on the highway with days passed. It was as if they had stuck to the trade route to Easlinder and only dreamt the rest. Hoof marks of tired horses told that Belok had rushed past them in his haste, so it was a boon in a way. With luck, he’d gallop all the way to Priyati.
“Since when do you curtsey?” asked Boruin as they continued north up the trade highway.
“Since when are you jealous?” Wraethe shot back. Her voice was teasing, an edge of pleasure in the retort. Boruin had expected her usual berating when Diun rose and the sun had finally fallen. Instead he had to bring up the encounter with the Monarhig while she rode on, staring up at the sky.
Boruin waved off the possibility. “I’m not jealous. I’m merely saying that I wouldn’t have had to try the runes if you hadn’t been so–”
“So girlish,” Boruin said.
Wraethe snorted. “I did exactly what you would have, had it been a Moir.”
“I don’t curtsey. I don’t prance, giggle, twirl my hair, or flutter my eyelashes,” Boruin said.
“I didn’t giggle,” Wraethe said sharply, turning her face down from the moon.
“You did so,” Pile retorted. “Giggled, pranced, twirled–and you couldn’t keep your hands off him.”
“You too, Pile? How about you, Toaaho? Are all of you adopting Lakshi’s green face?”
“Horseshit! I’m not envious, not of that flouncing court nancy,” Pile said before Toaaho had time to answer.
Wraethe pulled her horse close to Pile’s. “Come Pile, tell me the truth. You’re a little jealous. No more than Boruin, certainly,” she said. Her voice was smooth like the pale moon’s glow gone liquid. She reached out, and her fingers brushed across Pile’s neck and under his chin. The man’s jaw bounced, his tongue only stuttered, but his feet worked and he kicked his horse ahead. Wraethe laughed, and Boruin favored her with a hard stare.
“What is going on with you?” he said.
“It’s a nice night, that is all,” she said, turning her head again to the blue-black sky. “The day was pleasant for a while, but you know the night is my favorite.”
“It might have been pleasant, but it had an odd effect on you,” he said. Wraethe smiled impishly, and it caught him in the gut like it always did in the rare times she got this way. He put the feeling aside before it could stir more trouble and broke from her eyes.
Diun was now high above them. Boruin wondered how long it would be before the Trickster would appear beside it, how long then before Nurom Misuer would also follow. How much worse would she get before the three moons ended their strange dance?
Boruin knew the answer to all three questions, but managed to put them out of his head until they reached the foothills of the Monahdraichean Mountains.
A cat’s scream echoed off the ridges above the camp, alerting Boruin that someone had made another kill.
“Wraethe or Toaaho?” Pile asked.
“Wraethe. Toaaho knows better than to mess with anything that bites back, if he can avoid it,” Boruin answered. He slid forward to join the boy by the fire. The flame warmed his fingers as he flicked gristle and fat into the coals, cleaning his hands after finishing another skin. The boy poked at the red embers with a long stick, laughing at the ones that popped and shot sparks up to dance briefly with the swirling snow.
The air had gone cold quickly as they climbed from the jungle and into the mountains below Po’o’La’aei Pass. It was hard to imagine winter while among the hot swamps of Nefazo, and Boruin remembered why he preferred the milder climes. His hands stiffened as he scraped the skins their two hunters had already dragged out of the forest. It was messy work, but the furs would be welcome as they trudged through the snow-filled peaks in the high winds. Pile was ahead, his hides clean and the man already cutting the leather into cloaks and leggings.
“Do you think Belok made it over?” Pile asked.
“Could be. It’s early in the season. Depends on how much snow has filled the fields above and how loud his riders are,” Boruin said. He threaded a thick needle and started stitching through the soft leather while the boy squatted to study his work like a tiny apprentice. “If he did make it and can’t find us in town, he’ll try to catch us between the pass and Priyati.” The boy nodded his head in agreement before jumping up to chase a pair of large moths fluttering on the night breeze.
Boruin was not worried about that, yet. It did no good to think of Belok until they too had crossed the snowfields. If they could manage that, then he’d consider Belok a problem again.
Po’o’La’aei was known for its vile winter temperament, the name a regular curse word among the Nefazo merchants. The pass narrowed as it snaked between three peaks, just wide enough to move two wagons abreast. The slopes above held their snow, but only baring any whisper. More than a few eager traders had died in avalanches while trying to move their great wagons, full of wares, between markets in the off season. Boruin and his crew would have to leave the horses, but there were a few higher trails that would take them above the great snowfields. It was a harder climb, but better then dying under a smothering blanket of snow.
“That should finish my coat,” Wraethe said as she slung the heavy cat into the middle of the camp. Pile rolled back with his knife poised as the dead beast sailed out of the shadows beyond the firelight. “That going to protect you from this feline?” Wraethe asked as he moved back to his hide. Boruin wondered if she meant the cat or herself.
Wraethe sat by the fire, her eyes glowing bright from her hunt. She refused the boy’s offer of a rag, enjoying the smell and the slick feel of the blood still wet on her hands. Here was a true predator, more so than the beast she had stalked. Boruin watched her closely, measuring her smile and the fierce glint in her eye. She was near euphoric as the heat from the hunt bled out into the cold air. She tore into the cat, stripping the skin and cutting free what meat they would use before the long climb into the mountains. The steaks would be welcome, a better fare than the oily flesh of the thul bears she had brought in the night before.
The Monarhig’s prizes had stirred the huntress in Wraethe. Boruin hoped that these animal kills would slake her need for bloodshed as Nurom Misuer continued to grow larger in the sky. Boruin watched her quickly debone the cat, her movements as fast and graceful as the feline’s would have been. He looked up at Takata Shin and wondered if it would be enough. No. Not enough by far, he thought.
Takata Shin, the Trickster, was edging out from behind Diun, a bright earring now hanging beside its large companion. The small moon would peek out farther before the weight of Nurom Misuer’s passing pulled it back again behind Diun. It was a rare dance, the three moons together, and a hated one for Boruin.
Nurom Misuer, the Envious, spent most of the year slung out into the black night, a distant red star at the far arc of its orbit. But twice a year it returned to fill Baeg Tobar’s skies, coloring Wraethe’s moods black and furious red. The random appearance of the Trickster made it worse, an aphrodisiac to the woman so affected by the night skies. It filled her with flirts and sly smiles. Gay and girlish was not in the normal range of Wraethe’s emotions, but this little jewel of a moon brought it out like a ball gown thrown on a farmer’s daughter. When Takata Shin disappeared she would plummet, the easy humor and flirtatious nature gone. Wraethe would sink low and in the bottom of that well would be Nurom Misuer’s mad whisperings of rage and blood.
Above the treeline, the mountainside was bitter cold after dark. Diun hung heavy in the sky and lit the snow fields like day. At this height the flood of light from the massive moon seemed an added weight pressing on their backs. The winds licked about their bodies, trying to find a seam in the heavy furs that protected them. Wraethe forged ahead with her jungle cat coat white against the white beyond. Only the black collar, added from a small and unfortunate sable, was visible during the thicker gusts of driven snow. Somewhere farther on Toaaho scouted their trail.
It was Pile’s turn to pull the boy’s sled behind him, and again he cursed at the small weight as his feet sunk deep in the drifts. The boy did not seem to notice, sitting quietly and looking up at the jagged black stone rising out of the field above them.
They avoided Po’o’La’aei and Boruin was glad. Perched high above it, he could see that the pass was a dead man’s choice. The snowfields at either edge were like an ocean’s wave frozen just before breaking. They hung fat over the pass, ready for the slightest cry to wake the crashing wave of snow.
Diun was far from setting when Toaaho appeared like a ghost out of the swirling curtains of snow. Ice clung to the fur wrapping his face, his moist breath freezing almost before it escaped his mouth. He leaned into Wraethe, and she nodded, then he walked back through her broken trail to Boruin.
He leaned in close and still had to holler over the wind. “Another cleft for shelter.”
“It’s early,” Boruin shouted.
“Hard ground ahead,” he replied before turning back up the mountain. Boruin staggered through the drifts and wondered what ground could be harder than this.
The Mana’Olai took Boruin forward to the end of the snowfield, and for a moment he saw nothing at all. The wind changed direction, pulling the falling snow with it and then the ground appeared, thousands of feet below his boots. Where their path ran, a great sheet of snow had been blown like mud against the mountain; caked to the stone, it closed their trail. Toaaho examined it a moment more before sliding into a great crack running up the mountain.
The split in the rock broke the wind, but snow continued to sprinkle down from above as they huddled in the smallest joint.
“Can we climb higher?” Pile asked.
Toaaho rubbed his hands to work the cold out of his fingers. “No easier. Cliffs above, cliffs below,” he answered.
“Yuin’s bastard daughters…we’ll have to go back,” Boruin decided.
Pile fought to turn around and face Boruin. “Back? Back where? We can’t climb down half the places we climbed up.”
“What would you have us do?” Wraethe asked.
“Use some of that damn secret magic you’ve got hidden in that arm of yours, Boruin. Burn a hole through the snow or something,” he answered.
“Burn a hole? Why don’t I just bring the Fae-damned moon out of the sky to cart us over the pass? Might as well level off the mountain tops, tip them in the valley and you could walk straight across into Easlinder, for Yuin’s sake!” Boruin yelled over the screaming wind.
“Great! Get your hand off your shriveled tom and go to it!” Pile yelled back. Pain in the ass that he was, Boruin knew Pile was right.
“You don’t have to,” Wraethe whispered into his ear. “They’ll take you apart, flesh from bone, if you’re not careful.”
Boruin pushed past her with a laugh, “Yuin’s sake, woman! They frighten me enough without your encouragement.” His smile dropped as he stepped into the wind, but not because of the cold. She’d berated him plenty for casting his spells blindly; this pleading in her voice, though, terrified him. It scared him because she was right. He had been using them more since they found the boy. It was only a matter of time before that burning power would rush inward instead of out.
The old man walked wearily back out into the snow. He pulled his cloak tight about him and surveyed the impasse. The snowfield tapered down to a thin line that ran through a stagger in the cliff face. The stone broke back to leave a ledge separating two towering walls–one above and the other below. The snow had filled that crack, wind packing it in to smooth the broken stone.
He drew his arm out of his cloak, his skin aching with the cold. The runes ran down his forearm as he looked and felt for some sign that one was right. The spells against the Monarhig had come to him from somewhere deep inside, but now there was no sense of recognition, no instinct that called out to him. This would be a blind cast, and the fear of it writhed in his stomach like a worm.
End chapter 06 part 01.