Thorn's Chronicle continues....
“I can not repay you for this gift,” I told the eldest of the elves.
He tugged at a buckle, then trimmed the strap's excess leather.
“There is no expectation of return on this gift, forest-brother,” he said. “It is we who are still indebted to you.” His gray eyes settled on the scars at my throat.
I shifted my shoulders. The elven leathers were much lighter than those crafted by my fellow druids. Still, I’d been out of armor for so long that it would take some getting used to. I wondered how Varis and Gilliam could do it, with the added weight of the steel.
“Another gift,” the second eldest of the elves said, and held out to me a long straight staff of gray wood. It was heavier than it looked, but worn smooth, and comfortable in my hands. I stepped back and gave the staff a turn, finding it to be wondrously balanced.
“Ironwood,” the elf said. “May it serve you well in your journeys, both in support and defense.”
“There is something more to this,” I said. Despite the chill of the season, the wood held a subtle warmth.
The elf smiled. “You will know its secrets in time.”
The last gift from the elves was a cloak identical to those given to Varis and Gilliam. A fine, sturdy weave, treated with several different types of tree saps. Not only did they serve as dyes, but they also made the cloaks resistant to water and weather.
I stepped from the small clearing back to the trail just moments before Aurora emerged from the trees on the far side of the group.
Like Ana, she was clad in a flowing tabard and cloak of grayish-white cloth that seemed to trade shades of moonlight as it stirred with her motion. She wore a plain white gown beneath, with no sign of any armor, save the golden vambraces peeking from the wide bottoms of the sleeves. The ceremonial knife rode low on her right hip, hanging from the braided leather belt in a slightly too-large scabbard.
“Such visions,” Shandor breathed. He scooted towards the center of the driver’s bench. “Come, come, you will share this perch with me.”
The two girls glanced at each other, and then at the padded bench.
“I would not want to take the seat of your trailguide,” Ana said, taking a step backwards and setting a hand on my shoulder.
“Nonsense,” the Darine sniffed. “There is the road, I am pointed the direction I wish to travel, what is there to guide? He will ride within, with his friends.”
Gilliam turned to the Hierarch. “We would make better time on those elven steeds,” he said. “Two horses, and I could—“
“The forest has provided,” the Hierarch said. He glanced up through the trees. “If it grows much later, you will lose too much light.”
“Surely, this is some sort of illusion,” Gilliam said. He poked his head out the top half of the vardo’s rear door, glancing to his left and right. Around him, we saw the Hierarch, dwindling as the road trundled away behind us, lift a hand in farewell.
I’d expected to be pinched and folded to get into the back of the Darine’s traveling hovel, and was surprised to find the interior only slightly cramped by the three of us. There was enough room for even Varis to stand, and between the bunk towards the rear and a long bench along one side, there was room for all of us to find seats.
Still, there were boxes, several small chests, and bales and bundles tucked into every available nook and crevice. Shelves ran at eye level, just above the top trim of the stained glass windows, packed with stacks of leather folios, several books, and roll upon roll of parchment. I kept expecting it to shift and tumble down upon us, but rather than a rattling jumpy ride, the vardo seemed to simply sway and bob, more like a riverboat than a wagon.
We did not speak much, each sitting, huddled with our own thoughts. I found the vardo’s motion relaxing, and caught myself dozing more than once.
A hard jangling of the wind chimes and creak of the door’s hinges snapped me from one such doze, and I found myself blinking at the stark gray light spilling through the doorway.
“Come, come my friends! It is time for a meal. Come and share the fire and the bread.”
I was not the only one to stretch and stifle a yawn.
“Do we really have time for a cook fire and….” Varis’ musings died as he stepped down the short folding ladder. Gilliam and I both nearly sent him tumbling as we piled into each other’s backs.
The tall warrior stepped aside, glancing around, a bewildered expression on his face. Gilliam was turning a circle as well, looking up and down the roadway.
It was the Grand Duke’s road, certainly. Evenly paved, wide enough for three vardos. Two long ruts through a small snow drift and a clotting of the snow between them indicated where Shandor had turned the wagon from the roadway.
The trees of Radlebb were barely visible past the gentle curve of the road.
I glanced up the road. Smoke, several plumes, drifted from an irregular rise along the horizon. “Those are…” I began.
“Cook fires,” said Shandor, clapping us on the shoulders. “We shall reach the camps with the sundown. Plenty of time to enjoy the festivities.”
“You were sitting next to him, surely you saw how it was accomplished,” Gilliam said. At least, that is what I thought he said, around a mouthful of still-warm, thick-crusted bread.
Ana shook her head. “I must have drifted off for a moment or two.” To Shandor, she said “I apologize. I missed the end of that wonderful tale.”
The dusky wanderer shrugged. “There are plenty more tales to be told. The ending, it is not so important. Come back over here, little kristanthe, and take of my repast, or you will wither away before Shandor can present you to the rest of his cousins and brothers.”
Aurora stood atop one of the large stone pylons erected along the banks of the Volaga, peering south. She held her arms outstretched, fingers and thumbs touching to form a little window. Gold shone bright from the depths of the clear stones over her wrists.
“It does not look so very different from their memories of it,” she said to me as I approached.
I squinted. At best, the rise upon which the ruins of Krakatos huddled was a lump along the horizon.
Aurora crouched, and held her little window of fingers out for me to look through. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, nearly dropping the bread Shandor insisted she eat.
The air shimmered, like it did when she moved within one of her Veilings, but only in the space bordered by her fingers and thumbs. It was as though she had cut a window in the air, and I was peering at the ruins from a much closer vantage. I glanced around her hands, and saw the fuzzy blur leap back into place to each side of her slender fingers.
“With the tents and banners, it almost looks as it did on market days,” she said. She sighed, and lowered her hands. There was a brief glimmer within the red dragonstones as her small hands clenched into fists. The cords in her neck stood out as she swallowed several times. It was several deep breaths before the tension eased from her shoulders and she reopened her golden eyes. She folded her legs beneath her, still sitting atop the stone mile marker with room to spare, and finally took the bread from me.
“My sister is to die, and they make a festival of it.”
She tore at the bread, her brow furrowed more with anger than worry. After several bites, she turned to me.
“Thorn, do you still have those strange knotted lines which tell the druidess’ tale?”
I fished about in my belt pouch, and produced the skeins.
“Read it to me again, please.”
I began to run the knots through my fingers, reciting the account they recorded. Aurora closed her eyes, listening.
We returned to the fireside to find Varis and Gilliam arguing over a diagram of the ruined citadel scratched in a spot of snow-cleared ground.
“The Manticore gate is the way to go,” Gilliam said. “Straight shot, in and then out.”
“With all those merchant’s stalls along that walk, we’ll have to carve our way through the crowds,” Varis said. “The guardsmen—“
“The guardsmen will have to fight their way through the crowds as well,” Gilliam said, stabbing a long twig at the open space near one of the lines representing a wall. “We just—“
“You will do nothing,” Aurora said.
The warriors looked up.
“You will do nothing,” the girl repeated.
“But we want to help—“ Varis started.
“I will not allow it.”
“She is our friend, too,” Gilliam said. “Let us at least—“
“I will not allow it!” Aurora brought her foot down on the map of the citadel at Krakatos. “I will not have you throw away everything you did in the colony to become enemies of this land that you just saved.”