The sun was just beginning its ascent when Agon crested the hill. He had been walking since he had woken up that morning, and he stopped to rest and breathe in the cool morning air. As he quenched his thirst with water from one of the skins he wore around his neck, he felt a gentle breeze fanning his cheeks. In the emergent light, he reflected on his journey, his latest escape across empty lands. This was not the first time he had heeded his mother’s advice to flee an estate where they had labored.
He looked back into the diminishing darkness where he could make out her form. Struggling up the hill, her body shrouded in the cloak that had, the previous night – and many before it – served as her bedclothes, his mother appeared as a silhouette. She had not yet progressed far enough to allow the dawn to color her features. Her steps were slow, but she did not falter, as she moved steadily forward, ever closer to her son.
Comforted by his mother’s advance, the gray-eyed young man turned back to the morning light. As he surveyed the narrow valley ahead of him, he drew in a deep breath, and briefly wondered if this would be his last such journey. Even as he understood that this one was different, he sensed he had many roads left to travel. Indeed, he felt he had been running his entire life. Unlike the other workers at the various estates where they had lived, he and his mother did not linger long in one place. Many times, she had woken him in the middle of the night, telling him that it was time to leave. They would quickly pack their things and depart, knowing they would be punished if their then-lord learned of their escape—and killed if the Guard found them traveling on the road without a Permission. And this day they were on the road. And neither had a Permission.
Whenever he asked his mother why they moved so frequently and so secretly, she replied simply that she feared others would judge him for his overlong youth. Agon aged more slowly than did his peers. When other boys his age felt their bodies and voices begin to change, he, while exceeding them in strength, retained the softer features of a much younger boy and the high-pitched voice of a girl. He had seen eighteen winters before the first hairs appeared on his body and his voice deepened. At Bearna, the last estate where they had worked, as at Teoru, their previous home, most who met him thought he could not have lived much longer than twenty summers. Only last spring had he begun to grow a beard, thirteen years after his voice had gained the rich tones of a confident man.
He had hoped that since he was now a fully grown adult, he and his mother could settle into a normal life. Yet, somehow he knew that that was not to be. Indeed, when, just two weeks previously, she had told him that they would need to leave their then-home, he did not question her decision. He never did. He packed his things and prepared to depart, dashing out to the well to draw water. No sooner had he returned with the replenished skins than they had set off, crossing into the wooded lands behind their hut. The moment they departed, he was certain he had caught a glimpse of a heavyset man disappearing into the trees just ahead of them.
Aware that her son had observed the fleeing figure, his mother had told him not to worry, that the man was a friend.
“Is he the same man who told us we had to leave Teoru?” Agon asked.
“He is,” she acknowledged.
“Why does he not reveal himself?”
“Because,” she began, pausing after speaking the word. “Because,” she continued, walking more quickly, “he does this for your protection.” She shook her head, and then added slowly, “He will reveal himself in time.”
Agon nodded his head, and understood that his mother did not want to talk about this protector. The young man had asked about him before, once speculating that the mysterious stranger was his father. His mother’s steely, monosyllabic denial convinced Agon that the man played a different role in his life. He could sense that the very suggestion itself opened an old wound. When he tried to look in his mother’s eyes that day, she fixed her face in a mask-like pose, no feature moving, and turned away. Knowing how much she had suffered on his behalf, he chose not to press the point, not wanting to cause his mother any further discomfort.
As they retreated from Bearna into the forest, he had wondered if they had to depart so suddenly because he had recently found–and possibly saved the life of—a capricious young lord. The day before their departure, Tem-Medar had not shown up for breakfast; nor could the household servants find him in any of the rooms in the large manor house. The servants searched the outbuildings, but found no lost nobles. He was not with any of the young women whose company he often enjoyed. But, when Agon looked across a large field recently planted, he saw his young tormentor passed out in the distance.
No one else could see as far as he could. As long as he could remember, he had had better eyesight than his peers—better sight indeed than anyone he had met, even the lords and their families. On the day he had discovered the young tem-lord, without even thinking, he had run toward that prostrate man, even though he had often endured his excesses and suffered his slights. (Tem-Medar did not hesitate to use a whip on his underlings.) And Agon had long wanted to answer the young lord’s insults with his fists, but his mother had warned him about the danger of a man “in his station” attacking a “superior.”
Agon might have relished the opportunity to hurt Medar, but his sense of duty was stronger than his longing for revenge. Helping the naked and hung-over man to his feet, he covered his young master with his own shirt. And when the tem-lord found it too difficult to walk, the laborer carried him back to the manor. Although Lady Mersca was grateful for the return of her golden boy, her consort, Lord Medwerig, had simply stared silently at the shirtless laborer who had returned their son to them. Shaking his head and pulling on his goatee, the old lord finally did open his mouth, but only to express astonishment that Agon could see so far and carry such a burden.
He never thanked the young laborer for bringing his son back to him. Nor did his son show any appreciation. He never did.
Grateful to be rid of that mean-spirited young master, Agon did not find this journey entirely unwelcome. He might even have enjoyed it had it not been so difficult for his mother. And waiting for her as he watched the small rounded sliver of the sun peeking out across different fields from the ones he had helped plant in Bearna, the young man wondered that she never complained. She always expressed her gratitude for the slightest assistance her son offered, thanking him for what he believed to be his filial responsibilities. No thanks were needed, he thought, for these duties performed out of love. Still, she appreciated every gift he had ever offered.
With her generosity on his mind and the light increasing around him, Agon looked toward the sun. He could feel his heart beating as he watched its rise, and could almost believe that that human rhythm helped release the golden orb from the dark shadows of the night.
Agon breathed in deeply as the sun gradually filled the space between two seemingly identical hills. The black shadows became gray, the grayish sky increasingly purple; the darkness disappeared into the world behind him. He turned back and his mother smiled up at him. He was grateful they had returned to the road. For the first ten days of their journey, they had traveled across unmarked terrain, setting their course by sun and stars. But, that journey had taken its toll on the older woman. She could not walk as well as he. He often had to help her up hills or carry her across streams. The more ground they covered, the older she looked. She did not hide her age as he did. A traveler who spotted them might have suspected that she was not his mother, but his grandmother.
There was, however, no one to spot them. Since they had left Bearna, they had seen no other travelers—nor had he talked to anyone else. Two days previously, he did see a man dart away from the tree where his mother rested while he hunted for game. He assumed this was the man whom he had seen in the forest. Save for that one individual, they had encountered few signs of other humans – or domesticated beasts. The only mark of the world of men had been broken walls and abandoned cottages – and the road on which they traveled. And only the previous evening had they arrived at the thoroughfare, Agon insisting—despite his mother’s fears—that they follow it. He had wanted to make the journey easier for her.
Looking ahead, he saw the first shoots of barley peeping out from the ground and seeking the sun. The small green buds, a softer shade than that of the wheat they had watched grow last spring, were bending toward the east, toward the sun, urging him onward. His mother joined him now. He reached out a hand to offer her his support; she leaned her frail frame against his sturdy form. He placed his arm on her shoulder and drew her close.
“My son,” she said.
“Mother,” he replied, smiling. “It is a beautiful morning.”
“Yes, it is,” she replied, her eyes opening up to explore the valley before them. He looked down at her, but did not see the old woman who stood next to him. He saw instead the mother who had raised him. The gray hair became the auburn of her youth, the wrinkles disappeared from her skin, the sallow cheeks glowed red again. He did not, however, need to alter her eyes with his imagination. They sparkled as they always had and always would.
He would always remember her not as the old woman who stood beside him on that hill, but as the young woman, who, when he was much smaller, had helped him take his first steps, washed his face, cooked his meals, made his clothes, and taught him to temper his emotions. For long after she died, she would so live in his memory, her image a constant reminder of the enduring affection he had enjoyed in a childhood marked by difficulty and disappointment. Only later would he learn of the dangers to his survival – and the full extent of the efforts she had taken to keep him alive and raise him well.
“We should get moving again, Son,” she said, turning to look back at the ground they had covered.
“But you need rest, Mother,” he replied, feeling how dependent her body was becoming on his strength. He secured his grip on her shoulder and pulled her body closer to his.
“We are being pursued, Son.”
“Why would Lord Medwerig send someone after us?”
She drew in a breath, and pulled herself away from her son.
“When you saved his son,” she replied, looking out at the hills, “you reminded him of your father.”
“He knew my father?”
“I believe he saw him die,” she began, seeming to lose her breath.
Agon pulled her closer to him, securing her with his right arm and reaching his left hand around to her right elbow.
“We hadn’t,” she added in a far-off voice, “realized until two weeks ago that he was at Clúann.”
“Where my father died, trying to save a woman trapped in a burning barn?”
“Did he order my father to try to save the woman?”
“No,” she replied slowly. “Your father ran in of his own accord.”
“He was a good man, my father,” Agon offered.
“He was,” his mother agreed, squeezing her eyes shut.
“He had the same sight that I have?”
“He did,” she replied, opening her eyes.
“The lords do not like men who can see better than they can.”
“Our Great Lord and Guide,” she snapped in a derisive tone, “does not like them either. His Guard travel the road. And we don’t have a Permission.” Pulling away from her son’s arms, she started to walk down the hill into the valley.
“Wait, mother,” he called out. “Drink some water first.”
His mother stopped and took the water skin he offered. She slowly lifted it to her lips and wetted them, handling the skin as if it were a sacred object. She sipped the water slowly, almost reverentially, wiping her lips when she had quenched her thirst. Once she returned the skin to her son, they both began their descent, he struggling to keep a slower pace. He could not easily hold himself back, and soon found himself walking with his normal gait. When he reached the valley floor, she was barely halfway down the hill.
As the young man waited for his mother to join him, he did not turn toward the road ahead, but instead to a farmhouse across the fields to the left and north of him. In the distance, he could see men feeding the livestock. He counted three women tossing out grain to a vast flock of chickens–maybe three hundred birds. Seven others were milking cows. None had turned their faces toward the road. He knew they would not be able to see him if they had.
As his mother reached the valley floor, he began to ask about their destination, but she did not act as he had expected. As if anticipating a question she was reluctant to answer, she pressed on at a faster pace than before, with a determination that he had not seen in many days. She was now walking as if she were half her age. The shuffle of the morning was gone, the full light of the sun apparently having strengthened her resolve. They walked in silence, his long strides still carrying him forward at a much more rapid pace than hers as she still held steady, not far behind him. Oftentimes, when he thought the distance was too great between them, he stopped and waited. Sometimes, he stood and looked ahead—at others, he sat on a stone by the side of the road and watched his mother’s progress.
She, however, did not stop. Whenever she reached him, she just breezed past, once smiling at him like she used to when he was a child, the light in her eyes sparkling as it had the day she told him not to fear goblins. She had assured her son that the half-human beasts were afraid of running water. Should he see a goblin, she advised him to protect himself by crossing a stream. The following morning, she had found him stirring the water in the horse trough near their hut. He claimed that he had heard a goblin during the night and wanted to protect her. She had smiled at his boyish response. Twenty-five years later, when he looked up at her from his resting place on the side of the road, she returned the same expression she had offered when she did in the threshold of their then-home, a girlish kind of mischief in her eyes.
He rose and joined her. She reached out and took his hand as she often had when he was a boy, and they walked together for a spell. The hills to their east now loomed directly ahead of them. He could clearly see a dimple on one, where the land seemed to fold in upon itself. On the other, he counted the trees as he walked—the evergreen white pine and red cedar crowding together with the barren maple and oak trees on the steep slopes. When he looked again, he saw that the maple and oak were not as barren as they had first appeared, their brown branches having a slight, barely perceptible green glaze.
From the trees, he looked down to the road ahead. For his mother’s sake, he was grateful it passed between the hills. He did not think she could manage another ascent. And although the road provided surer footing, he wished he could leave it and climb the hills, finding a different path between the trees.
Just before noon, they passed beneath the shadow of the hills. It was a bit cooler even though the sun had momentarily settled in the center of the sky directly above them. They stopped in the shade of a lone oak tree that grew out from a pile of jumbled stones, its visible roots gripping tightly to a long, smooth gray rock that lay on its side. Another rock seemingly identical to the one the tree held captive served as their bench. Agon guessed that these stones had once been the legs supporting a large statue, similar to the images of the Great Lord he had seen long ago in Pengwir.
“We have made good progress,” his mother said, removing her pack and taking from it the remnants of the previous night’s meal, pieces of the wild turkey her son had caught and she had cooked.
“How much further, Mother?” he asked.
She closed her eyes, drew in a breath.
“We still have many days travel,” she replied, opening her eyes, “if we stick to the road. If we have to hide, perhaps two weeks, perhaps the full journey of the moon.” Looking up at him, she continued, “We’ll have to get around Nah-nathas, but we may have help.”
“From the man I saw in the forest?”
She nodded and took a small bite from the meat. Then, turning back toward the valley they had just crossed, she pointed to the hill they had descended when the sun was rising.
“Do you see anyone on that hill, my son?”
He stood up, put his hand to his forehead to block the sun and focused on the road. “I see a man, somewhat heavy-set, looks to be a laborer, riding a horse that seems too small for him.” He smiled. The man was having trouble controlling his mount. “He has a reddish beard; there is some gray in his hair but not much.”
“You can see that much,” she observed, a barely perceptible smile dancing on her lips.
“Will I finally meet this man?” he asked, gesturing with the bone in his hand.
“Yes,” she answered in a tired voice, pausing to wipe her forehead with her free hand. “Perhaps I was wrong,” she mused, “to delay this meeting, given all that he has done.” Her shoulders suddenly sloped forward, as if someone had dropped a huge weight on her back. Looking at the tree roots encircling the stone leg, she added, “He knows who you are, Son. He knows who your father was.” With an effort, she pushed her elbows back, tilting her head up to look at her son. “I would that you had a different father, but I did love him,” she sighed, her voice softening. She shook her head, resting a cheek on her palm. “I cannot change who he was. I cannot change who you are.”
Agon looked down at his mother. When their eyes met, he realized that this was the first time she had mentioned his father without him first asking. The young man breathed in deeply, and considered his reply.
“Mother,” he asked in a gentle tone, “you said this man knew my father?”
“Yes, he knew your father. And his father knew your father as well,” she said, looking down. “He met him when Cel . . .” she bit her lip, and then continued, “when your father was about the same age you are now.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “He helped me,” she paused drew in a breath, and then added hastily, “before you were born.”
“Who was my father?”
“A good man,” she began. “And a bold one,” she added with confidence, her voice resonating. “And his father,” she continued pointing toward the figure that only her son could see, “that man’s father was sworn to protect yours.”
“Is he also sworn to . . .”
“Yes, as are, I think, his kin,” she interjected. “But I know so little. He’ll have to tell you.” She paused, and then looked down again. Her lips curled up into an almost imperceptible smile. He thought of little girls suppressing a giggle when they saw a man kiss a woman. “Would I have married your father if I had known more about him when we met?” she mused, almost to herself.
Not sure what to say, he turned away, then looked back at the man whose father was sworn to protect his.
“He’s leaving the road, I think,” he muttered as if to himself, “but I can’t be sure.”
“We should get going. We’ve wasted too much time already. We are being followed.” She stood up on her own, but weariness seemed to have come over her. She slumped forward as she rose, and her son wrapped his arm around her waist, preventing her from falling.
“Are you all right, Mother?” he asked.
“The walk will do me good.”
They continued through the pass between the hills. Soon, they saw before them what first appeared to be a great plain, the road rising gradually to a point far in the distance. But as he focused on that horizon, he could make out a line of hills. This was not a plain, he realized, but another valley—only flatter and broader than the one they had just crossed. He doubted they could reach its distant border by nightfall. He scanned the landscape ahead of them; he could only see a few isolated trees scattered across the wide valley with what appeared to be a farmhouse in the distance. No longer did he see the crops seeded by men and planted by women, but only a sea of grass, green fronds waving in the wind as if welcoming the two travelers into their hidden kingdom. It would be difficult to hide here.
In the afternoon, they pressed on with a silent rhythm similar to their morning progress. He walked at his own pace, frequently stopping and waiting for his mother to catch up. She never rested, never paused, but always kept moving—even as her breathing became more labored and her shoulders more slumped. He had lost count of the number of times he had had to stop and wait. The first few times he looked back, he saw little more than her lone form on the road. Sometime in the early afternoon, the bearded man appeared to cross into this valley, riding in great haste. He was also looking back behind him as if he too were being pursued.
The third time Agon turned back after discovering that the mounted man had joined them on the plain, he could not find him on the road, but did see what appeared to be a cloud of dust passing through the cleft between those hills.
He leaned forward, placing his hand on his forehead; the shapes in the dust materialized as he stared into the distance behind him. He counted fifteen horses, but only twelve riders. He opened his eyes ever wider. Soon he could distinguish their raiment. All were clad in the black and green uniform of the Great Lord’s Guard.
“There is no woman among them,” he observed.
“What?” his mother asked, approaching him.
“The heavyset man has left the road. There is a company of Guard just passing through the hills. They don’t, they don’t have any women with them, and three of their horses lack riders. Don’t the Guard always travel with women?”
“Yes,” she replied, reaching up a hand to push back her hair. “How long until they reach us?”
“Well before sundown,” he responded. “We’re going to have to leave the road.” Still looking over the ground they had covered, he walked slowly backwards, trying to gauge how much time they had before the Guard could see them. He knew he had better sight than they did; he would be able to see them long before they could see him.
“They will kill us, Mother,” he warned, turning to face the road ahead of them.
“No, not us,” she replied. “You, at least, they will spare. “ He opened his mouth and narrowed his eyes. But before he could speak, she continued, “They do not want you dead, but if you put up a fight, they may not be able to control what happens.”
“Then, we don’t fight; we hide. But, why would they want to spare me?”
“They know even less than you do.” She was walking much faster than she ever had, and breathing a little more rapidly as she increased her pace. “They mean to take you to our Great Lord and Guide.” She spat out those last five words, as if the title alone had injured her tongue.
“We will stick to the road,” she announced. “Until the men are close. Or until that man you saw . . . He should reach us before they do. He’s good at that sort of thing. He will know what to do.” She breathed heavily, stooping as she spoke, but still moving forward.
“Are you sure,” she panted, “that three of the horses were without riders?”
“Yes, Mother,” he replied, offering her his hand.
“And no women?”
“He is working with her.” She sounded hopeful.
“Her, Mother?” Agon asked.
“Neti. They say she is a powerful sorceress, but loses her power . . . when . . . women are near,” she offered, picking up her pace and beginning to breathe more heavily, the words coming less easily. Sweat began to bead up on her forehead and drip down tear-like onto her face.
“One thing . . . my son, remember. He . . . will tell you this . . . when he meets us. If we meet the Guard, tell them I am your . . . grandmother . . . tell them your parents were killed. . . . I am taking you to live with my sister . . . in Fritha.”
“A town east of Nah-nathas. Where. . . I . . . was born.” She had never mentioned her family before.
As she began to walk more swiftly, she let go of his hand. He almost found it a challenge to keep up with her. When he stopped to look back behind them, to see whether the riders were close enough to see him, she kept moving. He now had to run to catch up with her.
“Soon, Mother,” he said. “Soon they will be able to see us.” She was walking even faster now. “Mother, we should get off the road, now.”
“That tree.” She pointed at a lone tree whose barren branches tilted ever so slightly to the east, “Let’s make for that tree.”
He saw the tree—and just behind it—some cultivated land. They were close to an estate. So focused had he been on the road ahead and the riders behind that he had not looked to the side of the road.
“There is a farm, Mother. We will say we work there. The grass is not as high here as it was. If we reach the tree, we can hide.”
“Yes,” she said, now beginning to pick up the pace, running a bit and breathing heavily. “If they find us, remember,” she said, “I am your grandmother. We are headed to . . . Fritha . . .”
“And our Permissions, Mother?” he asked, “We don’t have Permissions. How do we explain why we are on the road? “
“You will think of something, my son, I know you will,” she replied, smiling. She turned back. “Can you see them?”
He looked back. “We must get off the road now.”
She turned quickly and started running in a diagonal toward the lone tree, which served as a kind of a boundary between the rough, uneven grass—and the scraggly bushes around it—and the cultivated fields beyond. Perhaps, he thought, it had been planted to give shade to the workers at harvest time. Or perhaps, a traveler had dropped an acorn into the soft earth when no animals were around.
His mother was trying to walk as quickly as she had on the road, but the field did not offer as smooth a footing. The young man followed her off the road, proceeding at about the same pace, but more carefully than she. When she was nearly halfway to the tree, she, still moving forward, looked back yet again. “I can see the dust,” she said, but she did not see the ground. She tripped and fell.
“Mother, get up,” he said.
“My knee, my knee,” she exclaimed, grabbing it with her hand and grimacing in pain. He hurried toward her, bending down to help her; he could already see the wet spot on her skirts.
“You go. Hide, my son . . . we . . . don’t have time.”
“Mother, let me carry you.”
“Go, Son. Let them take me. Run, hide, go.”
“No, Mother, “ he declared, as he lifted her off the ground. He did not look back; he ran forward as fast as he could, confident he would reach the tree before the riders could see him, believing that it would hide them both – and hoping, at least, that the riders would not look in his direction.
Carrying his mother and with a pack on his back, he moved forward much less quickly than he had when he had walked alone. Still, he did not falter; he continued his forward progress. He was now within fifty paces of the tree. He saw that it stood on a small hillock, which descended gradually behind it. They could hide there.
As he ran up the slope, he could hear his own labored breathing. He was no longer thinking of the riders, no longer wondering if they could see him. He saw only the tree and thought only about reaching it and setting his mother down on the other side. He moved increasingly rapidly, barely aware of the burden in his arms. He imagined himself arriving at his destination, setting her down and resting—hidden from the road.
So great was his focus that he froze at the unexpected words:
“Halt! Where are you going? And what are you carrying?”
Even after hearing the words, even after having stopped, he still took a few steps forward, unwilling at first to let go of his goal, which just moments previously had seemed within his reach. The word, “halt,” finally sank in; he realized that he could no longer achieve the desired end. He drew in a breath and looked down at his mother, who mouthed two words, “Grandmother . . . Fritha.” He turned, certain he would face the riders.
But he did not see a crowd of riders. Only one of the Guard had followed them off the road. On the road, the remainder of the company, having reined in their horses, waited. Agon looked up and saw a man barely out of his teens, too young to be a captain. “My grandmother and I, Sir,” he said, hanging his head, “are returning to her sister’s people in Fritha. She fell. I was hoping someone at that estate over there,” he arched his neck, tilting his head toward the cultivated land, “could help her. But, perhaps, Sir, you and your men might be able to help. And we could be on our way.”
For a moment, there was silence. He looked up again at the young man who remained passive on his horse.
“Can you help us, Sir?” Agon asked, looking the young man in the eye.
“I, um, I . . . ”
The young man turned and called to his companions. “Drefan,” he shouted. “Drefan, can we help this man? He says his grandmother is hurt. They are traveling to Fritha.”
“Fritha?” cried a loud voice. “That is my home.” Agon looked up; two men were riding toward them.
“Are you Drefan?” Agon asked the one in front.
“No, I am Céogan,” said the young man. He was not much older than the first who had greeted them. “I come from Fritha. We’re pretty new to the Guar. ..
“I am Drefan,” said the other cutting off his companion. “I am the eldest here; I am Captain now, since this morning.”
“Since this morning?” asked Agon.
“Yes, this morning,” replied Céogan. “Our women disappeared. We found their bodies by the stream. Our captains, Fifa and Hithlic, lay beside them. Their eyes were open . . .”
“Their eye sockets were open,” corrected the first man.
“Wacian is right,” Drefan said slowly. “Their eyes sockets were open, but they were empty.”
“Empty?” Agon asked.
“Their eyeballs were missing, gone,” Céogan replied. “And their mouths were wide open, their tongues severed. But, there was no blood. And their boots were missing.”
“And no mark on their bodies,” Drefan added, rubbing his fingertips on his temples. “Um, uh, they don’t need to know this, Céogan.”
“Neti,” the young man’s mother whispered, as if to herself. Looking up, she added in a louder voice, “tt was Neti. Someone killed your women so Neti could kill your captains.” Given the gruesome nature of the story, his mother’s matter-of-fact tone struck Agon as odd.
“Neti, Neti?” asked Drefan, “Who is Neti?”
When the woman did not reply, Céogan began, “They say she’s a sorceress, the daughter to our . . .”
“Children’s tales,” Drefan interrupted. “You know we are forbidden to tell such tales. If Hithlic were here, he might have killed you for that.”
“Hithlic is dead,” Céogan responded, blushing. His bright red cheeks made a stark contrast to his straw-colored hair.
“My comrade should not have, um, spoken,” said Drefan haltingly. “Our business is none of your concern, but your travels are ours. You are not at an estate, not on a farm; you say you are traveling to Fritha. We, uh, need to see your Permissions. We have heard rumors that allies of the Dark Sorcerer travel these lands, looking to kill our Lord, Guide and Benefactor.”
“He is far away,” the gray-eyed young man observed.
“And you are here, not on an estate, and not working,” countered the Guardsman.
“My grandmother is hurt. Please . . .”
“We need to see your Permissions,” Drefan insisted, somewhat awkwardly, in a tone, Agon observed, much less forceful than that he had heard used by Guard captains at the estates where he had worked.
With the weight of his mother and his pack putting a strain on his muscles, Agon felt his strength ebbing. He had to make an effort to maintain his balance and to contain his emotions. He could not slug this young man as he would have liked—this acting captain who showed more concern for the rules of the Guard than for the welfare of a suffering woman. The gray-eyed man had seen his like before and had long struggled with the urge to fight them. But, aware of his station, he knew there would be consequences if he attacked or even spoke up against his supposed superior.
He could not then easily perform the “ritual” his mother had first taught him when, just before his seventh birthday, he had punched a young tem-lord who had taunted him for not having a father. After the young lord’s father had whipped him, his mother had instructed him to clench his fists and draw in deep breaths to hold in the rage, should a capricious lord or visiting Guardsman ever upbraid him or otherwise treat him unfairly. Holding her in his arms, he made the fists as best he could and breathed as she had taught him, reminding himself of the perils of speaking out.
He looked down at his mother; she noticed the rise and fall of his eyebrows as he breathed in and out, in and out—drawing the rage in, letting the air out. She smiled at him, pleased that her son had learned to control his emotions.
“Grandson,” she said, “I can stand if I lean against you.”
Setting his mother down, Agon said softly, “I am afraid, sir, that we lost our Permissions.”
“Lost your Permissions?” Céogan replied, astounded. “How does one lose those Permissions? It is death to travel without them.”
“We should kill you here,” Drefan replied, though not with the force those words should have suggested.
“There is no need to kill them,” a man’s deep voice boomed in the distance, “I have his Permission. I have my Permission as well.”
To conceal his surprise at hearing a voice he could not at first place, Agon turned quickly. Just a few paces behind him, he discovered a relatively rotund man with an auburn beard flecked with gray. He was walking forward as if emerging from behind the tree. He recognized the man from the woods outside Bearna. Now that Agon could see the man’s face, he was certain he had seen him when he himself was very young.
The heavyset man walked with an awkward gait, shambling from side to side. Away in the distance, Agon thought he could see a horse running free.
“Who are you?” snapped Drefan.
“I am Beorgan,” the man replied. “Ofershag, my brother, overseer at Dranda,” he said emphasizing the name and looking at Agon, “asked me to accompany these two to Fritha. Aræfnis here was his cook for many years; she makes a very good lamb stew, let me tell you.” He patted his belly.
“Aræfnis?” Céogan asked, looking up. “Did you say her name is . . .“
“I have no interest in lamb stew,” snapped Drefan, interrupting his comrade and turning to Beorgan. “If this overseer sent you to accompany them, why were you not with them?”
“She was having trouble walking,” he said, pointing to Aræfnis. “I went ahead to this farm here,” he continued, gesturing at the tilled land in the distance, “to see if they might be able to help. And when I told them about her lamb stew—well, Sir, they promised to help, promised, that is, if she would make some for them just as soon as she . . .”
“Let me see those Permissions,” interrupted Drefan.
The man who called himself Beorgan reached into his cloak and fumbled around a bit.
“The Permissions, please . . . “
Beorgan began to feel around in his pockets, reaching first here, then there. “They are, they, right here,” he said, only to pull string and stones out of pocket, but no paper. “Oh, here, here they are,” he announced, dipping his hand in under the neckline of his shirt and pulling out two pieces of paper; he showed them to Drefan.
“Bring them to me,” the Guardsman said. Slowly, Beorgan walked toward the horsed man, quickly turning to Agon and winking. In that brief instant when their eyes met, Agon remembered where he had first seen him. More than twenty years previously, on the steep banks of a swiftly flowing river near Pengwir, the man had emerged from the shadows (just as he had that day), right after Agon had picked up a sword. He had found it, half buried in the dirt, the skeletal remains of a hand still clinging to the hilt. When he had cried out that he saw a blade and pointed to it, his playmates thought he was just imagining things. Only after he had held it up did they believe that he had found something.
“I’ll take that, Son,” this Beorgan had insisted. “If the lords catch you with it,” he had whispered, “they might kill you. I will give it back to you, when you’re ready. I promise.”
That man had looked into his eyes. Agon had believed him and handed over the sword.
When, twenty years later, Beorgan passed Agon with the “Permissions” in hand, the gray-eyed fugitive’s eyes were drawn to something glinting just above the back hem of the heavyset man’s cloak—and below the lower limit of his unkempt hair. Agon stared at the half-hidden pommel of the sword, and bit his lip to prevent any sound of astonishment from coming forth. He had often dreamed of that blade.
Beorgan handed up the papers. Drefan perused them.
“These do not look official. Shouldn’t there, uh, shouldn’t there be a wax seal?”
“They are official, Sir,” said Beorgan. “They are official. Here, let me show you. May I?” he asked reaching for the documents. Drefan leaned down as Beorgan pointed. “Here, it says that Agon, having served his lord well at Dranda,” he said, emphasizing the last word and shifting his eyes toward Agon, “shall be permitted to travel to Fritha.”
“Oh, yes, I see that now.”
Agon tried to conceal his smile; he watched Drefan’s eyes following Beorgan’s gestures; the young “Captain” would apparently not otherwise have known where to look.
“You only have two Permissions. And there are three of you.”
“Oh, but you see, the overseer there at the farm,” Beorgan replied quickly, “he asked to keep hers.” He tilted his head toward Aræfnis.
“I see, of course, yes.” Drefan handed the “Permissions” back to Beorgan.
“Thank you,” Beorgan said, stepping back. “May I take this woman and her grandson to the farm? They will gladly help her there. We could use one of your horses; and maybe even tonight, we could be eating . . .”
“The Permissions are for you to go to Fritha. You must go to Fritha.”
“Perhaps, we could take one of your horses . . . for the old lady? You could write us a Horse Permission; we could return it to the Guard at Nah-nathas.”
“We do not do that; we cannot write Permissions.”
At that very moment, Agon felt his mother’s body go slack. He tried to support her, but she soon slipped and slid to the ground.
“She, she cannot travel, Sir,” he said, quickly squatting down to help her. Careful to keep his back to the tree, Beorgan joined him, whispering as he turned his face away from the riders, “Offer to go on with them as far as Nah-nathas—it’s on the road to Fritha.”
“But . . . “
“I will meet you in Nah-nathas. I will keep the Permissions. If he asks me to give you—“
“I should lose it. He’s already seen—“ Agon interjected, gently splashing water on his mother’s face.
“Yes,” Beorgan interrupted as the woman began to stir.
“Moth . . . “, he began, continuing in a much louder voice, “Grandmother, are you all right?”
“My child . . . I . . . need rest.”
“Sir,” Agon said, rising and approaching Drefan. “My, my grandmother is not well. She is not fit to travel. Let Beorgan here take her to this farm. The Permission is for me to travel to Fritha. Can I ride with you as far as Nah-nathas? There, I can get a Horse Permission, so I can return . . .”
“She has no Permission to stay here.”
“On a journey, sir, an old woman must rest. Would you ask your aged grandmother to travel in such a state?”
“If only Fifa or Hithlic were here . . . “
“They are not,” replied Céogan. “When we make the Inn at Brenfréa tonight, we could ask the Guard Captain there how to proceed.”
“Yes, Nithlaf should know,” Drefan replied quickly. Turning to Agon, he asked, “Can you ride?”
“I have seen it done. I can try.”
“Céogan,” the acting captain commanded, “get this man a horse and help him up.”
Beorgan and Agon helped the woman to stand. This time, when she rose, she leaned not against her son, but against the heavy-set man, her frail form all but dwarfed by his mass.
Céogan returned, leading a horse. He dismounted. Agon turned back to his mother who, with her one free hand, drew his face close to hers, “Your real name, son, is Céldochan, your father, Celothan. Falspóg, uh, this Beorgan will tell you of his lineage.” She held her son tightly for what seemed like an age. “Tell no one,” she added. As he pulled back, he saw that her eyes were filled with tears.
He lingered, looking at her. She reached her hand up and touched his cheek. “My son,” she smiled.
“Come,” said Céogan to Agon. “I think we are cousins. Beorgan said your grandmother’s name was Aræfnis?”
“My mother,” the blond Guardsman continued, “had a sister of the name.”
“Is your mother Téandis?” Aræfnis asked.
“Yes, yes,” Céogan nodded.
“You have her hair,” the woman said somewhat wistfully, “at least the hair she had when last I saw her.”
“My father says that,” he smiled.
“I have not seen her since. . . “
“She speaks often of you,” Céogan replied, turning to face his aunt.
With her last strength, Aræfnis pulled away from Beorgan and limped toward her nephew, placing her hand on his cheek. “You have your mother’s eyes,” she observed, “I’m glad to know my sister has such a handsome son, so glad.” Céogan colored. Turning from her nephew to her son, she said, “Go, so . . . go, my grandson. Go with my nephew, your cousin.” She drew in a long breath, and then added, “your parents, grandson, would want you to go.”
“Yes,” he replied slowly, turning away. “Yes, Grandmother.”
He followed Céogan, who led him to a horse. “Shall I show you how to mount?”
“I have seen it done before.”
“Your Permission, don’t forget your Permission,” the blond-haired Guardsman reminded his cousin.
Agon turned back and found that Beorgan had already extended the paper now neatly rolled up toward him. As he took it, the heavy-set man winked. Agon smiled.
After showing the paper to Céogan, Agon slid it into an outer pocket in his cloak. He was careful not to push it down very far. When Céogan saw that his cousin had secured the paper, he turned to his own horse. Agon watched the fair-haired youth mount. He imitated those steps with almost perfect precision. Once up, he rubbed the animal between its ears. It whinnied back, then nodded its head as if to welcome the new rider.
“Hurry,” said Drefan, “hurry, we must make haste if we are to make Brenfréa by nightfall. The road is rougher near the hills.”
Soon they were galloping, with Agon riding close to Céogan, watching his cousin to see how he guided the horse and following his every move. He soon found that he could balance with only one hand on the reins. He reached his hand into his pocket and pushed upward on the Permission.
Agon remembered little else about that ride save that he enjoyed it. He kept his hands on the reins and his eyes on the road, looking always ahead of him, rarely to his side. He had cleaned and saddled horses before, fed them, mucked out their stalls—but he had never previously ridden one. The feeling of riding was sheer joy to the young man; with the motion of the horse underneath him and the rush of wind on his cheeks, he felt that he was no longer looking out onto the world, but entering into it. He became one with his steed, with his companions, with the fields around him, with the sky above him and with the sun illuminating his way.
At times, it seemed he was passing through a dream. The clop of the horses’ hooves on the road seemed to jumble, then blend into memories of his childhood. He had longed to ride since the first time he had seen the son of a lord gallop across the fields where he was working. But because of his station, he had never been allowed to ride, though he had led many a plough horse at the estates where he had labored. And maybe, he had once wondered, if he and his mother had just stayed at one of those estates, he might have found a way to ride.
That didn’t matter now. He was riding. He could feel the wind on his facial stubble, creating a not unpleasant burning sensation. He could feel the sun on his back, and see the shadows of the troop moving just ahead of them. They had not been traveling long when he first saw the hills in the distance, much bigger than those through which they had passed that morning, and all wooded. He thought he could discern the crumbling remains of stone towers on the summits of two hills standing adjacent to one another.
The road itself became more rolling, rising for a spell before descending at a slightly less steep grade than it had risen. He never talked with his fellows, save to pass an occasional word with Céogan, who expressed admiration at how easily his cousin took to horse.
As the shadows lengthened and the hills grew larger in front of them, he recalled Wacian riding just behind him, complaining about a large insect that had fluttered in front of his face and grazed his cheek. Agon tapped his pocket, finding that it was empty.
The hills in front of him loomed ever larger; he could soon distinguish their contours, each rising steeply toward its summit, all covered with a great variety of trees, many just beginning to bud, giving the brown hills a light green sheen at their base. Unlike the hills he had seen earlier in the day, these seemed to lack any break. He could find no pass; it was as if they formed a wall that closed off this part of the world. To be sure, he would see the ridge of one gradually bending downwards, but that downward descent was arrested by the upward ascent of its neighbor. Behind him, as they galloped onward, he could feel the sun moving down his spine, seeming steady and constant in its descent.
Soon, he could feel the sun’s heat moving from the center to the left of his back. The road had bent gradually to the north. As the rays hit his side, he could see clearly that the slope of the hill directly in front of them did indeed come down to the valley floor, with a rocky outcropping half-way up the hill jutting out toward them.
He looked up at the outcropping and made out a rough set of stone steps above it, leading into the forest beyond. He drew in a breath. It seemed familiar; he felt he had been there before. When the road turned even more to the north, the sun’s rays now hit him fully on his side. He looked up one last time at the outcropping; for a moment, it sparkled like sunshine on water.
Not long after the road had turned north, it bent again, this time heading south. He saw a passage between the two largest hills. The one to the north descended in a diagonal, pointing more east than it did south, the one with the outcropping bent more to the west, creating a gap that faced northwest. On the far side of the outcropping, he discerned a long stone building, much of its face covered in moss, sheltered in a grove of pine trees at the base of the hill. A few small cottages were scattered on both sides of the road, crumbling walls marking where other dwellings had once stood.
“Brenfréa,” said Céogan, turning to Agon. “Here, we will stay the night. The captain of the company here will write you a Horse Permission; then, you can go back, and fetch your grandmother, my aunt, and take her to Fritha.” The blond-haired Guardsman smiled.
“And I can tell your mother that I met her son.”
“Your great-aunt,” Céogan smiled.
They slowed their horses and dismounted. Drefan ordered the men to take the animals to the stables, instructing Agon, Wacian, and another man to remove the saddles and find stalls for the animals. The others would join him at the inn where he would consult with Nithlaf, the captain of the Guard stationed there.
The stables, however, were entirely empty. There was not one single horse in the entire building until the three men entered with their fifteen animals. The three men quickly removed and hung the saddles. After a few minutes, the two others drifted away, leaving Agon to rub down the horses in the stalls. Each animal seemed to thrill at his touch, whinnying gently. As Agon was brushing the last horse, the very animal he had ridden, Drefan entered.
“You will have to come with us to Nah-nathas.”
“But, my,” he drew in a breath. “But, my grandmother.”
“There are no Captains here. There are no Guard here. There used to be a small garrison . . .”
“What happened to it?”
“It’s not here,” Drefan replied quickly.
The young Guardsman shook his head, and then added uncertainly, “Since your Permission says Fritha, we must take you in that direction.”
“I understand.” Agon nodded.
“Maybe Bolsas can sort this out in Nah-nathas.”
“He is Guard Captain for the City; he’ll know the procedure.”
Without a word, Drefan turned away, leaving Agon alone with his horse. The animal twisted its head and studied him, as if to say he should go on. Even as he was aware of the risk of riding a horse without a Permission, he briefly considered stealing two horses and riding back to his mother. But the horse’s eyes seemed to echo the words Beorgan had spoken, “I will meet you in Nah-nathas.”
He stood alone with the horses, and watched them eat oats from the bins in front of them. Their coats now slick, some shone in the torch light. Others were mere shadows in the distance. He felt calm. This place had a certain warmth; he had always enjoyed working with animals.
A light drew him toward the door at the back of the stables. As he followed it out, he stood alone facing the hill whose rocky outcropping had seemed to beckon him earlier in the day. The slowly rising moon now shared the sky with the rapidly declining sun. The smaller orb illuminated a pathway toward the rocky base of the hill, which stood behind the inn. It beckoned him yet again. He walked toward the hill and followed a path that led to a crumbling stone staircase. He climbed, gliding up and over the broken stairs.
When the path leveled off, he found himself looking eastward across the long valley he had crossed that afternoon. The orange sun, adorned with a circle of dark clouds, was sinking beneath the line of the horizon, the colors of the sky and landscape forever changing. What once seemed purple was now becoming gray. What once had been gray was becoming black.
Drinking in the beauty of this world, he delighted in the landscape around him. He recalled the hills he had climbed in his youth, ever eager to face the challenge of a steep slope, the chance to discover whatever lay beyond its ridge. And on those days, he had kept climbing until he could see a larger world.
He looked up at the stairs, which rose ever higher. He hoped this company of Guard might stay another day here, so he might reach the summit when the sun was shining. Just after he had turned back to the valley, he heard a feminine voice behind him.
“They used to call this The King’s Staircase.”
“Pardon,” he replied, finding a woman beside him. She might once have been beautiful; her brown hair, streaked with gray, was tied in a bun, and her angular face, darkened by the sun, was carved with many lines.
“You’re with the Guard?” she asked.
“Traveling with them . . .”
“You do not look like a Guardsman,” she offered, studying his face, “nor does half of this troop.” In the awkward silence, she added, “I am Hæsla, the innkeeper’s wife.”
“I am Agon,” he replied, using the name his mother had always called him.
As he spoke, she looked into his eyes, repeating the place’s name, “and this is The King’s Staircase.”
“What is a king?” he asked, turning again to watch the last sliver of the sun sink beneath the horizon.