This is the first chapter of my novel – I have a lot more written and will upload more regularly.
The journey south through Ettine was a long one, although not a particularly far distance. The small party left the capital at Rihne early in the morning and followed the great road south. Behind them the domes and spires of the city glittered in the pink light that filtered through the clouds along the horizon. Arelia turned back to look at them, fixing the turquoise and gold of the palace and the warm grey stone of the city walls in her mind, as though it would be the last time she would see them. As they paused, the giant drum over the palace gates sounded, seven times for the number of hours since the day began. Arelia felt a wave of homesickness rise up in her.
Treas and Barin, her two companions, waited silently until she turned away to continue onward, mouth set in a thin line.
"You'll be back before you know it," Treas said, sympathy in his voice. Arelia looked over at him. Treas was a tall young man, with untidy blonde curls and an easy smile.
Barin, who changed homes with as little care as he changed clothes, shook his head at them.
"We're going someplace new," he said. "Who cares when we come back?"
Arelia and Treas exchanged a look of mutual understanding.
They continued south along the Morrow River where it flowed out of the Thindlespread Mountains that rose on their left. The river was angry this time of year, overflowing its banks and swollen with rage as the winter snows melted and it was finally able to slake its thirst. The sun rose higher in the sky, a faint smudge of clouds still on the horizon as the mountains rose around them as they left the foothills that surrounded the capital. Fields rose on either side, terraced rice fields with new green shoots. Some fields were still being planted, workers visible with their pants rolled up.
They left the city behind quickly, passing through several villages on the outskirts. They wouldn't reach the next large city until the following morning, so they stopped for lunch in the village of Korra, early in the afternoon. They had provisions in their saddlebags but the chance for a hot meal was one they were unwilling to pass up.
They found a street vendor near the village market selling fish and rice, then seats on a low stone wall that lined the fish pond in the village center.
The trio was an unlikely one, all three of them travelling to Pinar, the country on the southern tip of the continent, and all for different reasons. Treas, swordsman of the Ambassador's Guard from Pinar, was returning home for the first time in over a year. Arelia was leaving her home country of Ettine for another, going as ambassador to Pinar. Barin, a wizard of Caize heritage was going to take advantage of the truce and study magic.
Things between Pinar and Ettine were still unsettled. Until a scant two months past, Pinar and Ettine had been separate entities – openly hostile until the past few years, and still with skirmishes along the border. Now they were uneasy allies bound by a treaty with ink still wet on the page and a marriage as tentative as the truce.
After eating they continued on, splitting from the river as it turned west to tumble down and shatter the flatlands. Instead they followed the great road further south yet, and up farther into the mountains. In Ettine spring was well under way, the trees blossoming and crops sprouting in the fields. As they went further south, they seemed to be moving back through time. The trees sported new buds and leaves newly burst from their chrysalis, the fields on the terraced mountainside still bare black earth. The air grew cooler and each breath felt refreshing.
The trip was a full three days even with the horses they rode, which were faster than the ponies and llamas that were more common in the highlands. The great road had been built close to a thousand years ago, when both Pinar and Ettine were under the banner of the Cardon Empire. These days parts of it were still maintained, but the road between Pinar and Ettine had fallen somewhat into disrepair. There had been talk among the merchants of Ettine that the new treaty might lead to some repairs being made, but that hope was quelled by the fact that few thought the treaty would outlast the summer.
They camped off the road, a few marks before dark in order to build a fire for their supper.
"It's going to rain tonight," Barin said, looking up at the sky where it was visible beyond the peaks. Arelia had known him for several years – they had spent two years studying with the Wanderer's from the highlands, and had since spent time together in Rihne, although his had been more devoted to study.
"Are you sure?" Treas asked, but all three pitched their tents. Barin had an intuition of weather that Arelia had learned to trust, and Treas was both wary and respectful of magic in any form.
They collected dry firewood from the surrounding brush, and once they had a fire going set about preparing a soup of dried vegetables and meat. By the time it was ready, darkness had come. Clouds poured in from the western coast, heavy and thick, cloaking the peaks.
"You were right," Treas said, looking up at the clouds. "Uncanny."
Barin grinned, his teeth white against his dark skin.
"I'm always right my friend."
He stood and moved about the campsite, a long wooden staff in his hand. He was tall and clad in travelling gear like the others, his cloak of fine grey wool trimmed in purple. He had dark skin, a gift from his Caize mother, and he wore his black hair shorn close to the skull. The staff was made of twisted rosewood, with a raw ruby that had been partially exposed set in the top. During their time in the highlands he had taken to carrying a staff as many of the Wanderer's did. When his father had asked about it, he had claimed it was useful, since it functioned both as a focus and a walking stick.
His father, First Wizard of Ettine, had muttered something about sacrilege at the time.
"Is that really necessary?" Treas asked as Barin laid wards around the edge of the light from the fire. "There's a truce now, and no one will be out in the rain."
Arelia answered for him.
"I don't suppose you like opossums to snuggle in with you at night?" she asked, wiping the last of the soup from the bowl with a piece of bread.
"I hadn't thought of animals," Treas admitted, stretching out on his bedroll, folding his arms beneath his head. He had loose blonde curls that had grown a bit long and a few days beard. His blue eyes glittered in the firelight,
Arelia laughed. "You won't forget them after the first time you wake up to one of them chewing your hair."
It rained all through the night. The next morning, they woke stiff and cold with everything coated in water.
"Makes me wish we'd kept on to Okaya," Treas grumbled.
"I did warn you it was going to rain," Barin said as they packed up their things, shaking water off the oiled canvas tents. They ate a cold breakfast, wet firewood making a fire difficult. Overhead the sky was still heavy and grey, more rain to come.
The rain held off for the entire morning, and it was several hours from their camp to Okaya, the last city before they reached the border.
Okaya, nestled between the twin peaks of Gahor and Cador was a sprawling mass, slums along the edges pinned precariously to the mountainside, the precious flatland along the valley floor claimed by the wealthy merchants and lesser nobility. The great road ran straight through the center of it, the manor at the head of the valley.
As they passed through, many of the buildings seemed temporary. Only a few miles from the border, Okaya had been a target of raiding parties from Pinar for years. Even now, with the truce only a few months old buildings still bore scars, and the guards at the southern gate bore scars as well.
It was shortly after they left Okaya that the rain resumed. By midafternoon they had reached the southern edge of Ettine and the mountains rose steeply on either side of them.
They passed many people on the road headed in both directions, an influx of traders and merchants eager to take advantage of the spring weather and the truce. Everyone that passed was mud splattered and wet, as the rain continued intermittently throughout the afternoon and into the evening.
At the border stood a large stone tower and keep, built into the side of the mountain. Cairn Keep was ancient, ugly and squatting, built after the fall of the Cardon Empire when the world descended into darkness. A rock wall had been constructed across the mouth of the pass, and a portcullis in the center allowed for passage from one country to another.
The portcullis was raised and several guards stood at the entrance, checking those who passed through. They wore the red and silver colors of Pinar, and each had a sword sheathed at his waist. A line extended some ways down the road, and the three travelers took their place at the end of it. Since the truce trade had increased dramatically, and the guards at the border had not yet managed to find a system that worked for allowing people to pass through.
Arelia forced herself not to turn and look back the way they had come for fear she would lose her resolve. Treas glanced over at her as they drew nearer. He pulled his horse up alongside hers.
"You don't have to do this," he said. "You can turn back now."
She continued to stare straight ahead, sitting stiffly in the saddle, jaw set.
"I've made my decision," she said.
They left the border and continued south, and camped that night several hours past Cairn Keep when it was too dark to travel any further. They lit a fire in the darkness with Barin there to coax the flame from the damp wood, and pitched their tents by the flickering light. There was soup for supper yet again, and they were glad to have a hot meal as the cold ground leached the heat from their bones.
The sun rose on a grey world, everything shrouded in mist as the temperature rose. It made for slower going, taking the roads at a walk so as to avoid any mishaps. The mist was almost as bad as the rain and they were all glad they had ridden late the night before as the pace they set today would cost them time.
Around noon the road began to narrow and a stone wall, covered with moss, rose up on the right, blocking the edge. The walls had been built along with the roads by the Cardon Empire, and in places whole chunks were missing. Close to an hour later they reached a bridge that crossed the Laona River, invisible in the fog, several hundred feet below. Past the bridge, the path had been carved into the mountain and carvings lined the rock face to the left, green with lichen and worn down by wind and rain. The carvings depicted men and women, larger than life, clad in garments that draped around their bodies and flowed from one figure to the next. Men and women alike were depicted with short hair in spirals around their heads.
"How old do you think these are?" Arelia asked, looking up as they rode past.
"I don't know," he said, "but they make me nervous, every time I pass them."
Barin, in the front, turned.
"They're older than even the Cardon Empire, before they came through and built the road."
Barin loosed his staff from where it was bound to his saddle and held it up to examine the carvings, concentrating light in the ruby at the tip. The light cast the edges into sharp relief and the faces seemed to glare down accusingly at them. The fog seemed to close in around them.
"Put your light out," Arelia said. "If you want to study them, come back another time."
"There are ghosts here that shouldn't be disturbed," he said, his voice deep, and the mist seemed to absorb the sound. He lowered his staff and the light went out.
As the morning merged into the afternoon the fog began to dissipate, and they found themselves shedding their cloaks in favor of the warm sun on their skin. In the sunlight the mountains were breathtaking, vast slopes of green capped by snow.
Arelia felt herself relaxing as they traveled and she talked more freely. Even though she dreaded the destination, the mountains felt familiar to her and she had spent too long in the city, away from the earth. Like Barin, she had spent several years in the mountains and the years since then had been trapped inside the Rihne. She had forgotten what it felt like to feel the wind on her face and the slow movement of life within the mountains. Most people thought of them as lifeless mounds of rock, but after two years with the Wanderer's she had learned to feel the life within them.
"These mountains were made of dragon bones," the shaman had said when she had asked where the life came from. It was as indirect an answer as any her teacher had given, but since then she had felt the fire that rested in the belly of Mount Oona, and she wondered if the tales of dragons didn't have some truth to them after all.
When the road widened again they stopped for lunch of dried meat and cheese. The Laona River crossed beneath the road nearby, so they filled their canteens, glad to have fresh water once more. The three stretched out on the new grass, using their cloaks to keep out the wet grass.
"We should reach Lonid before nightfall," Treas said, looking up at the sky. "So long as this good weather holds, at least."
"Looks like it will," Barin said.
"Good, I could use a chance to dry out." He rolled over onto his stomach and gazed at Arelia where she lay with her eyes closed, soaking up the sunlight. She was tall and slender, well-muscled from a combination of hard work and weapons training. She wore her dark curls long and braided, and her skin was dark from days spent travelling. She was dressed practically, in breeches and a woolen shirt, though he knew she carried gowns in her saddlebags.
He had known her for the past year, when he had been sent to Ettine to join the Ambassador's guard as a replacement. They'd worked together for several months when winter rains had flooded some of the low lying areas along the western border to build dikes and clear debris. It was where he had met Barin as well, drying the water from houses that had been submerged and raising the riverbank.
"Come on," she said at last, rising to her feet. "There's no sense in putting off the inevitable."