Chronicles of Ennea: Book 5
Landing on the deserted south coast of Tieben and been accomplished with relative ease. They planned to travel with a light load with two crewmembers, Jak and Dal, from the Ellendor who carried extras supplies to see them more quickly to the point where the River Lorne emerged from Snowy Pass. Aside from their weapons and camping gear, Rissa, Turlo, and Rat carried a fair amount of gold and the secret map that Hauk had given them during their visit at the Black Isle.
It had been a long voyage, all the way from the southern tip of the continent, and First Spring was far advanced. She figured that Claire and Pem would be well on their way around their Grand Tour of Lunaria. Pem would seek to charm the Lords of Lunaria who would be returning home for planting season. Claire—Rissa grinned at the thought—would be her charming and dangerous self that would keep the Lords and Ladies off balance. She had little doubt that the Royal Couple would return to Lumminea with many good stories to tell.
They waved their goodbyes to Mara’s ship and turned inland. Weeks of travel lay before them. The Ellendor would return in two months to pick up Jak and Dal who planned to turn around when they got near the entrance to the lower pass.
The gentle climb up the long valley had been punctuated by warm showers and rendered magical by lush fields of wild flowers blooming in a profusion of colors and scents.
Rissa, Turlo, Rat, and two crewmen approached the last mountain meadow. At the far edge of the field, winding through aromatic blossoms of red canthus, their path disappeared into a thick tangle of evergreen forest that climbed a steep, rocky slope to a barren ridge running parallel to the spine of the Lower Faultline range.
Turlo Murten, Prince of Tieben, had led their little party during the morning. His lean, muscular body moved in long, easy strides that matched the needs of his companions. He appeared to hardly notice the heavy pack on his back. Turlo was a ruggedly handsome man, though some might have described his features as too severe. His bright green eyes were often filled with mischief, but many, to their undoing, had mistaken his good humor for a weakness to act. His hair, which he wore short underneath a hardened leather cap, was a ruddy clay color that was neither red nor brown. He wore his sword slung to his right side and a long dagger stuck through his belt on the left, indicating that he was experienced in using a blade in each hand when fighting.
The figure that trudge along behind Turlo may have seemed to some as hardly more than a boy, but N’rat, affectionately called Rat by his close friends, had known many hardships in his few short years.
Gone was the boy with the tangled mop of hair and ragged clothing. In their place appeared a well groomed midshipman with short brown hair under a hardened leather cap similar to the one worn by Turlo. His thick woolen jacket was gathered under a leather belt from which hung the same short sword that Claire had given him when he helped her in rescuing Tess and Turlo from Dread’s prison in Traders Haven. He was now an experienced sailor and adventurer and deep into the trust of the highest of the great Trader families. Anyone would notice that he carried himself proudly and confidently.
Rissa Ellendor, daughter to Mara Ellendor and the heir to the greatest of the Trader families of Boggrash, came last. Her eyes scanned the forest ahead for any signs of danger. Her shoulder-length golden hair was wound and pinned at the nape of her neck and held in place by a hood of soft leather under which a liner of Everweave fabric formed a nearly impenetrable layer of armor. This hood that she pushed back to cool her brow would have fetched a king’s ransom at any market.
The sun was warm on their backs, but Rissa felt a hint of the bitter cold air that spilled from the heights above them. Thick, wooly clouds boiled along the top of the steep climb, and a rumble of thunder announced the approach of a summer storm. Rissa shaded her eyes and caught the faint slash of gray where their path crossed the last bit of treeless slope above the timberline and disappeared over the top.
Snow could fall in the higher passes at any time of year, even in summer, but Rissa wasn’t worried. At this time of year, the ice would melt almost as fast as it fell. In the more violent storms, stinging ice crystals could be uncomfortable, and, if the weather were truly severe, large hail could be dangerous to travelers. She had heard of ice balls the size of her palm that fell and crushed unsheltered climbers. At the moment she was only concerned with the likelihood of lightening threatening them at the top of the ridge.
She conferred with Turlo and they called a halt so that they might break out the heavier clothing before continuing to higher altitudes. Rat removed his pack and took the opportunity to flop down on the soft grass and remove his boots.
“I should have broken these boots in,” he said ruefully as he rubbed some ointment into two small blisters.
While Rat took care of his feet, Rissa and Turlo distributed between them the extra supplies that the crewman had been carrying. Dal and Jak would return to the coast with a bare minimum of food. With the extra supplies they should be able to manage the passage through the mountains with less need to forage, though fresh meat and edible wild plants would always be welcome, if not difficult to find as they moved to higher altitudes.
“You have been good and true companions,” Rissa told the two crewmen from the Ellendor as they finished sorting and packing and Rat had laced his boots. “Now it is time for you to return to your duties. By the time you make your way to the lagoon, a full month of tendays will have passed and the Ellendor should be waiting to pick you up.”
Turlo added, “We have enjoyed your tall tales and lively music.” He referred to Jak’s story telling and Dal’s harmonica playing that accompanied the popular ballads the two men sang around the campfire in the evening. Rat had surprised them by joining in, his voice deeper than Rissa remembered from their last voyage together.
Jak and Dal were embarrassed by the Prince’s words and turned red as they bowed. “We are reluctant to leave you,” Jak returned. “More men to accompany you would make your travel safer.”
Rissa smiled. “A whole army would not be enough if we cannot slip unnoticed into Tieben. Thank you for your concern, but I think we will be safe enough,” she assured the two men.
“We will take your words to your mother,” Dal said.
“And this message,” Rissa said, handing a sealed scroll no larger than a finger’s length to the man. “Take care that only my mother should see this.”
The sun was high in the south as the two men set forth back along the way they had come. Rissa shielded her eyes as she watched them winding their way downwards. At the very limits to her vision, she imagined she could see the shadow that would be the edge of the sea.
Turlo and Rat waited for her, packs shouldered and secured. Rissa shrugged into her harness and let the weight settle against her back. The added weight was not a problem—not after more than two tendays of walking and the last six days of climbing. Ahead lay the first of the steep slopes, after which Hauk’s map showed them a trail that twisted its way around the bases of the higher peaks before confronting the final climb which would bring them parallel to Snowy Pass. If they were lucky, another tenday would see them to the approach at the secret tunnel under the divide.
“Are you sorry that you came with us,” Rissa teased Rat.
As they passed into the forest, silence descended upon them, broken only by the whisper of the wind in the tops of the evergreens high over their heads. The occasional croak of a black bird reached the ground, and Rissa thought she heard the grunting of a wild pig nosing for grubs among the exposed roots on the ground under the trees.
Once away from the light at the forest’s edge, the undergrowth thinned out and there was little to impede their progress as they wound their way among the bare tree trunks. The ground was soft and springy, covered with a deep layer of needles and rotting branches. Their voices sounded so muffled that they ceased talking with one another as they moved deeper into the shadows.
The trail was little used. If it hadn’t been for Turlo’s sharp eyes and the slight depression left by the passage of many feet, Rissa admitted to herself that she might have become lost.
Gradually the trail steepened, switching back on itself as they moved higher. Large boulders began to appear, along with crushed trunks and fallen limbs. They were entering the area where snow and rock falls from above happened more frequently during the winter. They crossed small flows of water dashing merrily downhill from pool to pool. There were a few openings in the forest where the sun’s rays penetrated to the floor. They stopped to marvel at a dancing cloud of colorful butterflies and a swirling mote of gnats. Rat spotted the footprints of several kinds of small animals by a spring surrounded by ferns and moss. Rissa breathed easier when he didn’t find the spoor of the poisonous cave cats that sometimes lived in these mountains.
They had called a halt at a level clearing where an outcropping of rock combined with a fallen tree and a pool of spring water formed a park-like dell. Rat stripped off his pack and sat on the trunk, smooth on top as if it had been used by many weary travelers before them. He was unlacing his right boot to tend to his blister.
Turlo was staring up at the tops of the trees, trying to estimate the angle of the sun in order to determine how far they had traveled since leaving the meadow. Rissa was taking a swallow of water from her bottle and staring back down the trail, thinking it would be best to refill their water bottles from these springs before they moved out on the barren slope. She hoped to cross the ridge and find shelter on the other side before pitching camp.
Suddenly Rissa became aware of a silence surrounding them. Before she could say anything, a man holding a bow with an arrow fitted to the string stepped from behind a large tree trunk in front of her. Startled, Rissa’s hand automatically went to the hilt of her sword but stopped herself when the man shook his head and moved the tip of the arrow in her direction. The move wasn’t entirely threatening, but it was suggestive of his intent. She remained very still.
The man was dressed in soft leathers dyed with patches of browns and greens to blend with the background of forest and stone. His skin was the color of the night sky; his hair a wiry gray that was caught up in a knot at the back of his hard leather cap. As Rissa watched, three more men armed with bows appeared. They were surrounded!
“Don’t make any sudden moves. We have visitors,” Rissa said quietly. She spared a glance at her companions. Rat had looked up, shocked; Turlo turned slowly. His hands did not reach for his weapons, but Rissa could see him tense. Rat remained wide-eyed.
Turlo spoke slowly in the common tongue, “Greetings strangers. What do you find so interesting in three simple travelers?” He deliberately ignored the threat of four bows.
The man in front of Rissa continued to look them over. Finally he nodded, as if to himself, and signaled by raising a hand. A much older man, without weapons and with a mane of white hair and deeply wrinkled features that spoke of greater age, stepped forward and stopped at the edge of the clearing, careful to keep out of the line of fire. He spoke the common tongue with a strong accent that was vaguely familiar to Rissa.
“We keep watch on all strangers who enter our domain, especially if they are heavily armed such as you,” he said. “We will welcome you once we determine that your purpose is peaceful.”
“Our purpose is both peaceful and honorable, Elder,” Turlo addressed the man who was obviously a leader with respect. “We travel from the coast, headed towards Snowy Pass and Norcross in Tieben.”
“That is a very long way for casual travel,” the man returned. “Most travelers would take the easier route through Timbermill and across Leopard Pass.”
“Let us say that we are unsure of our welcome and prefer to arrive in a less public fashion,” Turlo said carefully.
“It is my job to be suspicious,” the leader said raising an eyebrow at Turlo’s words. “We cannot have strangers wandering through our lands who may do one of us harm. If you are not so sure of a welcome in Tieben, then why are you expecting one from us?”
Rissa interrupted. “You are of those peoples who use to live in the rich valleys on the northern slopes of the mountains, are you not?”
“What of it,” the leader said with an edge to his voice.
“I am Trader Rissa Ellendor,” Rissa returned. “My mother spoke of a time when there was much trade in rare gemstones and precious metals between the people of the mountains and the Traders in Boggrash.”
The Elder thought a moment. “My name is Goldfind of the mountain people, once widely known as the Manjaros who lived along the northern slopes of the Faultline Range. We were named for an ancient mountain home whose existence survives only in myth and legend. Our lands are now much reduced. They stretched from Leopard Pass in the west to the Snowy Pass in the East and across the plateau on the south side of the high divide. Long ago our families mined the rich veins of ores and smelted bars of gold and silver. The trade stopped between our peoples many turns ago. You have the look of those who live at the eastern edge of the White Desert, but these two men—he indicated Turlo and Rat—are from Tieben and are not X’tlan Traders. Do they accompany you as guides, or are they your men-at-arms? If they pose as guides, they play you false for I am certain that they have not been this way before.”
Turlo, who had been listening impatiently, broke in. “I am from Tieben, as is this young man. We are Jak and Dal. We travel with this lady as her protectors,” he said, borrowing the names of the crewmen from the Ellendor and indicating the boy with a nod in his directions. “Our land is no secret. I have seen your deserted valleys and ruined cities. Your people were rumored to have perished. I know that you are hounded by those who gather around the new king, Veral Hushara. I know that the old king, Cornal Hushara was a friend.”
“That may be so,” Goldfind answered, “but we will not talk of this now. You must come with us and answer to our leaders. If they are satisfied with your words, you may be allowed to travel freely in our land.”
“And if we do not wish to go?” Turlo replied.
“Then I’m afraid that we will have to insist,” Goldfind said.
“We will go with you peacefully, Goldfind,” Rissa interjected. “Our purpose may coincide with yours. In any case, we will not shed blood here.”
“That is good,” Goldfind said as six more men, all armed, stepped into view. “If you will be so good as to follow our companion?” he indicated a young black man clad in a thick leather jacket over a woolen shirt and heavy leather pants. He carried a sword slung over his shoulder rather than a bow.
“I am Redvale,” he said, smiling warmly at Rissa. “I will be glad to lead you and your comrades if you will give me your parole. You must give up your swords, but we will take good care of them for you.”
Rissa saw that Turlo was about to argue. I trust this man’s smile, she thought. “I think young Redvale may be trusted,” she spoke to Turlo. I’m less sure about what Goldfind’s leaders will do, she thought privately. “In any case, we seem to have few options,” she said.
“As you wish,” Turlo shrugged, clearly not happy with the circumstances. “We can only trust that you are honorable people,” he added to Goldfind.
“Of that we can assure you,” Goldfind returned gravely. “You will find us more careful of your person than your fellow countrymen have been of ours.”
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