He would not leave his mother behind.
As he reached the crest of the hill and turned away from the first streaks of gray on the eastern horizon, Agon could barely make out her form in the diminishing darkness behind him. Struggling up the slope, her body shrouded in the cloak that had the previous night—and many before it—served as her bedclothes, she 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. She moved steadily forward, ever closer to her son.
This vision of his mother made him glad he had remained at the summit and not continued forward at a pace that was more natural to him. The dark-haired young man turned his gray eyes back to the east and resolved to wait until she reached him. Light then seemed to emerge from the very earth itself. The tiny curve of the sun suddenly appeared between the two hills defining the valley’s eastern limits, and he wondered if this would be the last time he and his mother fled one place to find work in another.
Unlike the other workers at the various estates where they had lived, he and his mother did not linger long in any one place. Many times, she had woken him in the middle of the night, telling him 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 on the road without a Permission. And this day they were on the road. And neither had a Permission.
This time, however, she had not told him they had to leave. He had made the decision and announced it to her. The very moment he returned Tem-Medar to his father Lord Medwerig, Agon knew that he could not stay at Bearna.
Agon had seen the young lord, who had been missing for two full days, lying prostrate in a distant corner of a broad, newly planted field. Without thinking, Agon ran toward the man, even though he had often suffered his slights and endured his excesses. (Tem-Medar did not hesitate to use a whip on his underlings.) Agon might have relished the opportunity to leave Medar lying there, 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. As the tem-lord couldn’t then stand on his own, the laborer carried him back to the manor. Though Lady Mersca thanked the young man for returning her golden boy, her husband merely wondered how Agon could see so far and carry such a burden.
The old lord never thanked Agon for bringing his son back to him. Nor did his son show any appreciation. He never did.
Returning to his hut, Agon sensed the lord would not soon forget what he had learned about his eyesight. He could see further than any of his peers—further indeed than anyone he had met, even the lords and their families.
This sight was only part of the difference, which prevented him from staying in one place very long. Whenever he had asked his mother why they moved so frequently and so secretly, she said she feared others would judge him for his overlong youth. Agon aged more slowly than did his peers. He had seen eighteen winters before the first hairs appeared on his body and his voice began to deepen. 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, nearly thirteen full 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 was not to be. She did not object when he announced they were leaving. Indeed, it seemed she was already preparing to go. When they crossed into the woods that night, he saw a mysterious, yet familiar figure, a man who always appeared whenever they moved from one place to another.
He had learned not to ask his mother about this heavyset man. When he had first asked, she told him this stranger was protecting them—and would reveal himself in time. Agon had once speculated that this mysterious protector was his father. His mother’s terse and steely denial convinced Agon that the man was anything but a father. He could tell from her face that the very question pained her. Knowing how much his mother had suffered, he chose not to press the point, not wanting to cause her any further anguish.
Waiting for her as he watched the small rounded sliver of the sun peeking out across fields different from those he had helped plant in Bearna, Agon could feel his heart beating as he watched its rise. It seemed that the human rhythm helped release the golden orb from the dark shadows of the night. 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. 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 the sun and stars. But, that path had taken its toll on her. 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 appeared. She did not hide her age as did he. A traveler who spotted them would assume 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 glimpse the familiar stranger dart away from the tree where his mother rested while he hunted for game. 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 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 were bending toward the east, toward the sun, urging him onward. His mother now stood beside him. He reached out a hand to offer her his support. She leaned her frail frame against his sturdy form. He secured his arm around her waist and drew her close.
“My son,” she said.
“Mother,” he replied, smiling. “It is a beautiful morning.”
“Yes, it is,” she replied, her eyes exploring 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 younger days, the wrinkles disappeared, the sallow cheeks glowed pink. He did not, however, need to alter her eyes with his imagination. They sparkled as they always hand—and always would.
“We should get moving again, son,” she said, turning to look back at the ground they had covered.
“You need rest, mother,” he replied, feeling how dependent her body was becoming on his strength. He secured his grip on her shoulder, pulling her closer.
“We are being followed, son.”
“Why would Lord Medwerig send someone after us?”
She hesitated, drew in a breath, and then spoke. “You reminded him of your father.”
“He knew my father?” He turned to his mother. She never spoke of his father without him first asking.
“I believe he saw him die,” she replied in a soft voice.
Agon pulled her even closer, holding her in place with his right arm and comforting her with his left.
“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 save the woman?”
She shook her head and spoke slowly. “Your father ran in of his own accord.”
“He was a good man, my father,” Agon offered.
For a moment, she was silent. When she did speak, it was in a tone just above a whisper. “He was.”
“He had the same sight I have?”
“The lords do not like men who can see better than they.”
“Our Great Lord and Guide,” she snapped, “does not like anyone who threatens him. 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 and into the valley.
“Wait, mother,” he called out, holding out a water skin. “Drink some water.”
She stopped and took the skin, lifted it to her lips, and wet them. She sipped the water slowly, almost reverentially, wiping her mouth once she had quenched her thirst. After she returned the skin to her son, they began their descent together. He struggled to keep a slower pace, but could not easily hold himself back, and soon found himself walking with his normal gait. Halfway down the hill, he stopped, turned around, looked up, and returned toward her.
She smiled when he reached her, touched his hand, and continued with a determination he had not seen in many days. She began to move as if she were half her age. The shuffle of the morning was gone; the sun had given her new legs. They walked in silence, his long strides still carrying him more quickly forward. But she held steady, not far behind him. Some times, he stopped, turned around, and walked back toward her. Other times, he stood, waited, and looked ahead. Once, he sat on a stone by the side of the road and watched his mother’s progress.
She, however, never stopped. When she reached him at that rock, she just breezed past, smiling and winking at him, the light in her eyes sparkling as it had the day she told him not to fear goblins. She had assured him that the half-human beasts were afraid of running water. Should he see a goblin, he could protect himself by crossing a stream. The following morning, she found him stirring the water in a horse trough. He had heard a goblin during the night and needed to protect her.
He rose from the rock and joined her. She reached out and took his hand as she often had when he was a boy. They walked together again. The sun rose ever higher. The hills in front of them loomed ever larger. He could see a dimple on one, a little dell where the land seemed to fold in upon itself. On the other, he counted the trees—the evergreen white pine and red cedar crowding together on the steep slope with the leafless maple and oak. When he looked again, he saw that those trees were not as they first appeared; their brown branches had 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 feared she could not manage another ascent. And although the road provided surer footing, he wished he could leave it and climb the hills, finding his own path between the trees.
Just before noon, they passed between the two hills where it was slightly cooler even as the sun had momentarily settled in the center of the sky. They stopped in the shade of a lone oak 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.
“We have made good progress,” the mother said, removing the remnants of the previous night’s meal from her son’s pack, pieces of the wild turkey he had caught and she had cooked.
“How much further, mother?” he asked.
She drew in a breath. “We still have many days travel,” she replied, “longer if we have to hide form the Guard.”
“You are certain they are pursuing us?”
“That’s what,” she paused, her mouth hanging open, and then quickly continued in a faint voice, “he said.”
“The man I saw in the forest.”
She nodded and took a small bite from the meat. 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 him, my son?”
Agon stood up, put his hand to his forehead and focused on the road. “I see him. He is riding a horse that is too small for him.” He smiled. The man was having trouble controlling his mount. He turned to his mother. “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, “not to introduce him.” She sighed and shook her head before adding, “given all that he has done.” Her shoulders suddenly sloped forward, as if someone had dropped a huge weight on her back. Studying the tree roots encircling the stone pillar, she added, “He knows who you are, son. He knows who your father was.” With an effort, she pushed her elbows back and tilted her head up to look at him. “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. For the second time that day, she had brought up 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. His father knew him too,” 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, and then added hastily, “before you were born.” Her eyes popped open. “His father, their family was sworn to protect him.”
“To protect my father?” the young man asked, arching his eyebrows.
“Who was my father?”
She bit her lip, and then began in airy tone. “He was handsome.” She paused. “And bold, daring,” she added with confidence, her voice resonating. She looked down, her lips curling up into a mischievous grin. “Would I have married your father if I had known more about him when we met?” she mused, almost to herself.
He studied his mother for a moment, turned silently away, and 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 a 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. He saw isolated trees scattered across the land and what appeared to be a farmhouse in the distance. Just beyond that, he could make out a line of hills—or maybe it was a bank of clouds. The land here was not cultivated, just 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.
In the afternoon, they pressed on with a silent rhythm similar to their morning progress. He often shortened his strides to keep pace with her. And when he found his legs getting the better of him, he turned back and joined her, mother and son then walking hand in hand. Slow though she was, she never rested, never paused, always kept moving—even as her breathing became more labored and her shoulders more slumped.
He looked back often, watched for signs of pursuit. In the early afternoon, the bearded man crossed between the hills, riding in great haste. He was also looking back behind him as if he too were being pursued. But, then one time when he turned, expecting to be able to make out his protector’s features, he did 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 are no women among them,” he observed.
His mother looked up, her eyes brightening.
“Our friend has left the road,” he continued. “There is a company of Guard just passing through the hills. 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,” replied. “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.
“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.” He paused and turned to his mother. “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. “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 will know what to do. He’s good at that sort of thing.” 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 how much distance their pursuers had covered, 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 bent toward 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, increasing her 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. Save for a few scraggly bushes around it, it stood isolated, almost as if it marked the boundary between the rough, uneven grass and the cultivated fields beyond. His mother was trying to walk as quickly as she had on the road, but the field did not offer as sure a footing. The young man followed her off the road, proceeding at about the same pace, but more carefully than she. Nearly halfway to the tree, she, still moving forward, looked back yet one last time. “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 dark 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,” she implored.
“No,” he declared, picking her up and lifting 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 it would hide them both—and hoping, at least, that the riders would not look in their direction.
Carrying his mother and with a pack on his back, he moved much less quickly than he had when he walked alone. Still, he did not falter, and continued his forward progress. He was within fifty paces of the tree. He saw that it stood on a small hillock, which descended gradually behind it. They could easily 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 far side. He moved ever more rapidly, barely aware of the burden in his arms. He was certain he would reach his destination. He envisioned himself setting his mother down and resting—hidden from the road.
So great was his focus that was surprised by the unexpected words:
“Halt! Where are you going? And what are you carrying?”
Even after the words began to register, even after he started to slacken his pace, he found it hard to let go of his goal, which just moments previously had seemed easily within his reach. But, the word, “halt,” finally sank in. He realized he could no longer achieve the desired end. He drew in a breath and looked down at his mother. She mouthed two words, “Grandmother… Fritha.” He turned, certain he would be facing the riders.
But he did not see a crowd of riders in front of him. Only one of the Guard had followed the travelers into the grass. The remainder of the company, having reined in their horses, waited on the road. 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, a blond youth with a cheerful face and pale cheeks flushed red.
“No, I am Céogan,” he replied. 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,” interjected the other cutting off his companion. “I am the eldest here. I am Captain now.” He paused, and added defensively, “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.” He paused, then added, “their boots were missing.”
“But 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, “it was Neti. Someone killed your women so Neti could kill your captains.” She spoke without emotion as if reporting a fact that had just been confirmed to her.
“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 stood in 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, we, need to see your Permissions. We have heard rumors that allies of the Dark Sorcerer travel these lands….”
“My grandmother is hurt. Please…”
“We need to see your Permissions,” Drefan insisted.
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 wanted to punch this man and be done with it. But he knew that if he did, there would be consequences. Just before his seventh birthday, he had had slugged a tem-lord who had taunted him for not having a father. After the young lord’s father whipped him, his mother instructed him that should a cruel lord or visiting Guardsman treat him unfairly or unkindly to clench his fists and draw in deep breaths to hold in the rage. If he didn’t control his temper, she warned, he would get himself killed. Standing before Drefan and holding her in his arms, he breathed in—and then out—as she had taught him, reminding himself of the perils of speaking his mind and expressing his rage.
He looked down at his mother. She smiled at him, as if to reassure him he was acting appropriately.
“Grandson,” she said, “I believe 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 implied.
“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 the mysterious stranger and saw him clearly for the first time. A big man, his reddish beard and unkempt brown hair flecked with gray, he strode forward as if emerging from the tree. Studying the man’s face, Agon realized he had first seen him when he was very young.
The heavyset man walked with a slightly awkward gait, shambling a bit from side to side. In the distance, Agon was certain he saw 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, his eyes rounded, his jaw agape. “Did you say her name…“
“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 one 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 suddenly remembered the first time he had seen this protector. 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. It had been lying 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, his playmates thought he was just imagining things. Only after he had held it up did they believe his words.
“I’ll take that, son,” this Beorgan had insisted. “If the lords catch you with it,” he whispered, “they might kill you. I will give it back to you when you’re ready. I promise.” The man then looked into his eyes. Agon 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, 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 and turning them around. 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 lady? You could write us a Horse Permission. We could return it to the Guard at Nah-nathas.”
“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 facing the tree, Beorgan knelt down beside the young man, 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.”
“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.”
“I will take care of her,” Beorgan said, his eyes fixed on Agon’s. The younger man studied the older man, recalling what he had seen as a boy and what his mother had said about this mysterious protector. “I will take care of your mother,” the large man repeated. “I promise.” His companion shifted his posture; sunlight glinted off the pommel of the long-unseen sword and refracted onto his own face. For the second time in his life, Agon believed this familiar stranger.
He nodded. Beorgan smiled tightly. They rose together, each helping the older woman up.
“Sir,” Agon said, as his mother slumped into the bigger man, her frail form all but dwarfed by his mass. He strode toward 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? I can get a Horse Permission there 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…”
“But, they are not,” Céogan reminded his colleague. “When we reach Brenfréa tonight, we could ask the 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.”
“Céogan,” the acting captain commanded, “get this man a horse and help him up.”
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.” She sighed and briefly closed her eyes. “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,” Céogan beckoned to Agon. “I think we are cousins. Beorgan said your grandmother’s name is Aræfnis?”
“My mother,” the blond Guardsman continued, “had a sister of the name.”
“Is your mother Téandis?” Aræfnis asked.
“Yes,” Céogan nodded, turning toward his aunt. “Yes,” he repeated, taking a step toward the old woman.
“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.
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 hair, you have your mother’s eyes,” she sighed. “My sister has such a handsome son.” Céogan colored. “She must have married well,” she added wistfully.
“My father manages Lord Lyswen’s estates.”
“And your mother the household?”
“As my grandmother did.”
Aræfnis smiled tightly. “You have brothers and sisters?”
“One brother, three sisters.” He smiled, and then added, “they know about you.”
Tears suffused the mother’s eyes, but she clenched her jaw to prevent them from sliding out and onto her face. “My sister wanted a big family. Five children. Such a handsome son.” She smiled, and looking at her nephew one last time, released her hand.
Turning from Céogan to her own son, she said, “Go, go… 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 rolled paper toward him. As he took it, the heavy-set man winked. Agon smiled, and quickly 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 Permission, 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 a hand 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. And riding was sheer joy to the young man. 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 for as long as he could remember. But because of his station, he had never been allowed to, though he had led many a plough horse at the estates where he had labored. And maybe, he had often wondered, if he and his mother had just stayed at one of those estates, he might have found a way onto a horse.
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 less even, 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 riders’ shadows lengthened in front of them and the hills took up more of the sky, he recalled Wacian riding just behind him, complaining about a large insect that had fluttered alongside his face and grazed his cheek. Agon tapped his pocket, finding that it was empty.
He could soon distinguish the contours of the hills, making out rocky outcroppings and tall trees, many just beginning to bud, adding a green sheen along the lower slopes. 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, disappearing into the forest beyond. He drew in a breath. It seemed familiar. And he wondered if 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. They were entering a passage between the two largest hills. The hill 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. Nithlaf will write you a Horse Permission. Tomorrow, you can go back, and fetch your grandmother,” he paused to smile, “my aunt, and take her to Fritha.”
“Where I will 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. The others were to join him at the inn where he would consult with Nithlaf, the captain of the Guard stationed there.
The stables were empty. There was not a single horse in the entire building until the three men entered with their fifteen mounts. The three men quickly removed and hung the saddles. After a few minutes, the two others drifted away, leaving Agon to rub down the beasts in their 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…. I will take care of your mother.”
He stood alone with the horses, and watched them eat oats from the bins in front of them. Their coats now slick, some shining in the torchlight. 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 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 a high ridge. On those days, he had kept climbing until he could see a larger world.
He looked up at the stairs; they rose ever higher, disappearing into the darkness. He hoped the Guardsmen would stay another day here, so he might reach the summit when the sun was shining. As he 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, 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, and repeated the place’s name, “and this is The King’s Staircase.”
“What is a king?” he asked, turning back to watch the last sliver of sun sink beneath the horizon.