She wrapped the sprig in a scrap of linen and stored it between the pages of her healer's book. Then she pushed the book to the very bottom of her satchel, wrapped in her old skirt and covered with the rest of her meager belongings. She took to carrying the satchel around with her wherever she went instead of leaving it in her room, out of fear that someone would come across the sprig of herb. If anyone found out about it, she had no doubt that she would be, at the very least, chased out of the caves with torches and flaming arrows. More likely, they'd just kill her.
The day after her encounter in the shrine, she entered Aylmer's room and found him awake. She bowed to him and, taking care to keep her voice low, said: "Good to see you awake, Prince Aylmer."
She put special inflection on the word "prince".
He winced and looked slightly embarrassed. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. In my defense, I was so far into the fever, I could hardly remember I was a prince."
She laughed. "I can't blame you for keeping that secret from a complete stranger."
"Thank you. And –forgive me, what was your name again?"
"I'm Meto," she paused. "I saved you—well, sort of. I found you on the battlefield and did as much as I could until we…er, ran in to these people."
He smiled. "That much, I sort of remember." Then he shuddered. "That battle…I don't remember much after it, but I remember the battle itself." His voice dropped to a whisper. "It was horrible. I've been in many battles, but this was the worst I've ever seen. So much death. So much killing. But the end of it, everyone was just striking at anything that moved, not knowing if it was friend or foe, just trying to keep another's sword from killing them first. Of course, I didn't end up having much success with that…"
"You were luckier than most."
"True. What's really lucky is that Epona found you. If she hadn't, I would have rotted away in that corner of the battlefield till I turned to dirt."
"Yes," she replied. "She seems to be a good horse. Very impressive. And rare. I mean, isn't it pretty rare to ride a mare into battle?"
"I suppose it is. But Epona's different from most. From the moment I saw her, I knew—she would be my war horse."
Mira nodded, but midway through this gesture a thought struck her so quickly and forcefully that she nearly fell over. She staggered over to the side of the bed and stared at Aylmer.
"What did you say her name was? The horse's?"
He looked at her oddly, but replied, "Epona. It's the name of a very ancient horse goddess, in the legends from long before the Great Wars. So old that, even before the wars, she was considered ancient."
Mira dropped down into a chair next to the bed. "It is odd…because that's what I started to call her, a few days after I found you. She reminded me of some great horse goddess, strong and powerful."
"Well," said Aylmer, sounding impressed. "Great minds think alike, I suppose."
"Yes," she answered. "I suppose they do." She felt as though she was chasing something, the silhouette of which could be seen, but that always stayed a little too far ahead of her for her to catch and actually look at. Alymer, and everything else. The way they had been thrown together in this mad adventure of sorts. The odd coincidences. The goddesses…the goddesses who she had seen and talked who, who had given her gifts and curses. She didn't understand, and she wanted to so badly. But she remembered Riacchana's words, "Don't be consumed with needing to understand…have trust that understanding will come to you. Don't be so preoccupied searching for it." She willed herself to be patient. Understanding will come.
Changing the subject, she turned back to Aylmer. "I assume you're travelling to Icill…"
"Yes. I want to make it to the capital, Prospi. But I think I'll have to be careful, because I've heard that the southern part of my country is overrun with soldiers of The City."
"Well," she said. "I also hope to make it to the coast. Perhaps we could continue travelling together. It would provide more security if we did."
" I was hoping you'd broach the subject. I think that would be a very good strategy. Epona can carry both of us easily, as you probably saw…and we're already used to saving each other's lives."
"Good," said Mira. "I've been talking to people here, and they said that, if we want to get out of these mountains before winter comes and traps us here, than we should leave soon."
"So as soon as I feel well enough to ride on a horse?"
"Well…yes. I mean, I don't want to push you if you're not well enough…"
"…but we also don't want to be stuck here all winter."
"I'm sure I'll be well enough within the week."
"Right! Well, I'll talk to them…they said they'd send us with a guide to get us over the pass, because it already has snow covering the trails." She paused. "Um…just out of curiosity, do you remember…saving me? Coming in on Epona and getting me out of the, er, mess with those City soldiers?"
He grimaced. "Only vaguely. I remember waking up tied to Epona's back and wondering where I was. She had only gone a little ways away, and I could see you and those men, but I couldn't really hear what was happening. I just thought, 'I think that's the person who got me off the battlefield', and then I went in. And then I don't remember anything after that till I woke up here last night. Why?"
She breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, no reason. Just…some people here wanted to know what you might have seen of the City men, because I couldn't get a good look at them."
"I couldn't see them very well…and I honestly don't remember."
"That's fine. Thanks again, though, for saving me. You did a much better job with me than I did with you."
She got up, and said she'd come back later. Then she wandered down the hallways, not really knowing where she was going, just walking.
She was relieved that he didn't remember when he saved her. If he had, her story would have been completely revealed. The number of times they had said "she" when they referred to her, the open statement that she had been disguised as a boy…it would have been a disaster if he had heard.
Of course, he could just be lying about it. But he had been so far into a fever at that point; how could he remember what had happened? It was a miracle that he had had the mind the ride back in and help her.
Truthfully, she didn't know why she was trying so hard to guard her gender from him. It wasn't as if she really thought that he would refuse to travel with her if he knew she was a girl. It might, in fact, be even better for their safety if he did know, in case City people were still chasing them, looking for a small girl dressed as a boy, travelling with the prince of Icill. But, for some reason, she was unwilling to let him know her true gender. Why? Everything is so muddled, so muddled…
She clutched her head and leaned against the wall of the cave. Across from her, a natural mirror was inserted into the cave wall, shiny stone that popped up in places all over the caves and made the reflections of the mountain people dance around as though they were everywhere at once. She stared at her reflection. They'd given her new clothes to replace the grimy and tattered gifts of the Healer, a loose tunic and trousers rather than leggings. With her cloak and still ragged hair, she looked as much a boy as any that she had seen in The City. And she looked young, too, much younger than her seventeen years. She raised a hand and waved at the reflection. The reflection waved back.
"I still can't tell if we're the same person," she murmured to herself.
"Mira!" called a voice down the hall. She turned to see Airmed running up to her. "There you are! How did you end up at this end of the caves?"
"I was just…wandering. Sorry."
"No, no, it's alright. I was just looking for you because Brindia went in and spoke with Aylmer. He said you two plan to still travel together, and that you want to leave as soon as possible?"
"Yes," she replied. "He said he thought he'd feel well enough to leave within the week."
"Yes. Brindia wants to speak with you about what route to take, and your guide. Will you come?"
Mira followed Airmed. She had no idea how she had come to this end of the caves, and she was grateful that she had someone to lead her out. Had she tried to find her own way back, she would have been hopelessly lost.
Airmed led Mira to a room that she hadn't been in yet. As they walked in, a dozen people, including Brindia and her two priests, looked up.
"Ah, Mira," said Brindia. "We just need to introduce you to your guide." She pointed to a massive man with blond hair gathered into a ponytail. "This is Ander. He knows the mountains, and he'll be able to guide you through the Pass of the Grey Ones and into the Crea valley within two days."
Mira nodded hello.
"Actually," said one of the priests. "We need her here for more than that."
"No, Nash, we don't." said Brindia.
"Yes, we do. We have to make sure she isn't a threat to the prince, Brindia!"
"I can vouch for her, Nash. And besides, it isn't our place to be judging her, or to be worrying about the affairs of the warring countries. We're neutral, remember?"
"Yes, but if Icill looses another prince…"
"Icill will not loose another prince, and if it does, it will certainly not be at the hands of Mira. Calm down, please, Nash, you're making me old before my time. Now, Mira." She paused. "Our healers say that Aylmer will be ready to travel within the next few days. Do you feel as though you will be ready to go by then, too?"
"Yes," said Mira. "The sooner the better. Not that it hasn't been good here; you've all been very kind. But I need to keep moving. I feel unsettled staying still for so long."
This restlessness was a new feeling for Mira. Before the fire, she had never left The City, indeed, had rarely left even its southern sector. But now that she had, instead of feeling completely overwhelmed and scared as she thought she would, she only felt an itching, a longing to move, to see more of this world that was so large outside of The City.
"A true wanderer," said Brindia, nodding approvingly. "When you're ready, we will be ready."
"Thank you. I really am grateful. You've helped us so much, given us so much, and been so kind. I never expected to be treated this well."
"We help those who need it," said Brindia softly. "It is the goddess's word."
Mira thanked her once more, then withdrew with Airmed.
"Airmed…I was wondering, do you know where they keep the horses here?"
"You want to see the one you came with?"
"Yes, very much."
"I can take you to her. The stables are outdoors. Follow me."
Airmed led Mira through a warren of passageways until they came to a small tunnel. They had to crouch to make their way through, and the tight walls clung to Mira's sides and snagged at her cloak and hair. Eventually, they came into cold, sparkling sunlight, and Mira heaved a sigh of relief. Looking up at the sky, she breathed in the first fresh air she'd felt in days. The world was sparkling, white and crystalline with a new layer of snow.
"What month is it?" she asked.
"The month of Teas Gheim"
"But…it's so snowy! It's just early fall…"
"Snow stays late and comes early here. Some years, it stays at this level all year round. When it doesn't, we have a very short growing season, only about two months."
"But…how do you live? What do you eat? You don't have enough time to cultivate anything, do you?"
"We hunt and gather, mainly. We grow some high mountain grains farther down on the slopes. It's not a varied diet, really, but we survive." She beckoned to Mira. "Come on, the stables are this way."
Mira couldn't contain her happiness when she saw Epona again. It seemed hard to believe that she could have grown to love the horse this much in the short amount of time they'd spent together, but she did. Mira didn't hesitate to throw her arms around the horse's neck, and Epona seemed happy to see her as well. She whickered and dribbled a bit down Mira's neck before pulling away and rooting around Mira's front.
"What are you doing? I suppose you know I'm a girl already, but you look like you're checking to make sure…"
The horse unearthed Rowan's necklace and began to chew on the pendent contentedly, as though it were a carrot or some other tasty delicacy. Mira tried to pull away, but the horse was firm, holding on to the necklace with her teeth as though she would stop at nothing to retain it. Eventually, Mira gave up trying to pull away, worried that she would break the chain. Laughing, she rubbed the horse's ears.
"Your master's going to be fine, too, if you were worried. He'll come see you soon. Soon, we'll be out of here. And I'll be with you, so you still have to put up with me and my stupidity." She leaned close, standing on tiptoe and speaking into the horse's velvety ear. "He doesn't know I'm a girl. So don't let that secret go."
The horse snorted and let go of the necklace. It drew back and started nuzzling her hand like it was looking for a treat.
"You know, you don't seem like a war horse. You're pretty gentle."
Epona gave her a look that so obviously expressed disdain, Mira had to laugh. "Sorry! You're very war-like. You know, we called you the same thing. Epona. The horse goddess. Strongest, most powerful. You really are beautiful, and fitting of the name. It's funny that we called you the same thing. But no wonder you answered to me so quickly." She noticed a withered apple lying on the ground and picked it up, holding it out to Epona. She nuzzled it, then sneezed, and gave Mira another look.
"I suppose you're used to the finest oats, aren't you? Sorry, I don't have any. Maybe when we get down to the valley."
Airmed came back, bearing a handful of oats. Epona's attention immediately shifted from Mira, and she began nuzzling Airmed instead. "Traitor horse," Mira muttered. Airmed overheard, and laughed. "It's whoever's got the treats. If you've got nice oats, than you have a whole army of horses behind you. If you have an old apple," she looked pointedly at Mira's hand, "then you've just got some angry ones."
Mira laughed too, and lobbed the apple into the straw.
"Are you ready to go back?" asked Airmed.
"Not quite yet…I've missed the feeling of air on my face. Will you show me more, Airmed?"
She nodded, and smiled. "I'll show you where we have our gardens in summer. We had a short summer this year, so there isn't really anything to show, but it is still a place blessed by the goddess. I think you'll enjoy it."
As they walked, Airmed told her about the mountains and how the people had come to them. The first stragglers came while the Great Wars were still raging, to escape the fighting. They lived in the open, before the caves were discovered, and many of them died from the harsh conditions. But soon, Riacchana took pity on them and guided them to her sacred caves under the mountains, and gave them permission to make their home there. That was also the time when she gave her famous "first words" to the people, the words that had been written and preserved forever in the stone of the cave walls. "We have scholars working on deciphering the language every day," said Airmed, sounding sad. "But it is useless. The language and writing is long dead, it died soon after the Wars were over. The only reason we know the few lines is because they were passed down orally. But her entire speech…the scholars estimate that it would fill an entire book. And what a beautiful thing that would be to read! The goddess's words…can you imagine, Mira?"
"It would be beautiful," she said, marveling at the love Airmed held for her goddess, so unlike the fearful worship that the people of The City displayed for Cumhacht.
"Airmed," she asked. "Do you ever feel…pressured into worshipping your goddess? You show such deep love for her, it seems hard to believe, but…do you?"
"Feel pressured? Of course not! It is a pleasure to follow and serve my goddess. She is great, and very good. If a person is pressured into worshipping their deity, then there is no true relationship between the deity and the worshipper, and thus the faith is meaningless."
"Some of the greatest bonds are formed by fear."
"Some of the worst bonds are formed by fear, true. These are the bonds that can bring ruin and pain. And they're meaningless, in the end. Because they don't have any love or respect, just fear."
"It's strange," mused Mira, "how well that system of fear works in some places…"
Airmed shrugged. "I suppose it just depends on the people. Some people are more gullible than others. Some people can get scared more easily than others. It all depends. Look, these are the gardens."
They were fantastic, even when covered with snow, full of tall pines and…
"Are those sculptures?"
"Yes! We have many master stonemasons. This is one of our goddess, and here are some animals…a founder, one of the original mountain people, is back here somewhere…"
Mira was awed. She had never heard of sculpture being used to depict anything but goddesses before, but here there were whimsical statues of woodland animals, and, even more shocking, statues of men, common mortals. "Wow," she muttered, touching the tail of a squirrel. "They're beautiful."
"Yes," said Airmed. "I like to come here to look at them, especially in the summer when all these overhead trees are leafing. These," she pointed to small, contorted looking trees, "bloom when the snow starts to melt, and the petals are a light pink. They litter the ground, and it's almost like the snow has come again, but it is pink and soft. It's beautiful."
As they walked back toward the stables and the caves, Mira took Airmed's hand and pulled her to a stop. "Airmed…you've been so kind to me while I've been here. I have never experienced such kindness from strangers. I have nothing to give in return for these favors and little goodnesses you have done for me, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I think I can safely say that you are one of the kindest women I have ever met."
Airmed smiled. "I can say the same for you, Mira. You are different, that is obvious. And there are secrets that you haven't yet told, that you may never tell. But I sense that the goddess looks kindly on you, so I do the same. It was an honor to meet you, and I will remember you for the remainder of my life."
Mira bowed her head. It seemed impossible that these sorts of people, people like Airmed and Brindia and Aylmer, even the Elder from the forest tribe, could exist out in the world and be so genuinely kind. It was so different from The City, where everyone was brusque and cruel, looking only at what they could gain from a situation rather than wondering what they could do to help with something….
It gave Mira a fleeting sense of hope, an idea that perhaps the world wasn't as empty and cruel as she thought it to be. She was lost, but she wasn't alone. At least she had that much to assure her.
A/N: No reviews? Son, I am dissapoint. (Toasty, you better review and tell me how I can make this bloody thing better).