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       Slumber, p.19

         Part #1 of The Fade series by Samantha Young
 
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  “Wel?” I asked, my heart stuck in my throat.

  For an answer she scooped the coins up and pocketed them, grinning from cheek to cheek. “I’l help ye, my Lady,” she replied in the soft burr of the Alvernians.

  Breathing a sigh of relief, I went over again what I needed, and then waited for her return. She wasn’t long in reappearing, a few bundles in her hand. In one was a pack with food supplies and a canteen of water. In the other was boy’s clothing, stolen from one of the stable boys. Hurriedly, the girl helped me into the trousers that hugged my figure in a way that would make me blush if Wolfe ever saw me in them, and I puled on the overlarge shirt, waistcoat and warm overcoat to see me through the bitter cold nights in the mountains. The boots she brought me belonged to her, they were worn and soft, but stil foreign to me, and I hoped my feet would cope in them. Lastly, I pinned my long thick locks in a bun and hid the hair under the woolen cap she had brought me. Hopefuly in the dim light, if I kept my head low, I could pass for a boy. If I removed the overcoat no one would ever believe it. I just had to make sure I never removed it. Lastly, I stuffed the dagger Matai had given me into the pack.

  Thanking the servant profusely, we hurried through the darkened house and out to the front gates where she had a horse al ready and waiting for me. Once mounted, I gave the house one last look. Wolfe was going to be furious. But I was counting on him not to be foolish enough to folow me into the mountains without the Guard. He knew my magic wouldn’t get me lost. But he didn’t know the way. The Guard would keep him right… and slow him down.

  I sighed. I had to put al my trust in Lieutenant Chaeron. He wouldn’t let Wolfe leave without him.

  Chapter Twenty Two

  Fear wasn’t something new to me. I’d first encountered the feeling, with its dripping jaw of sharp teeth and painful unbreakable hold of gnarled fingers and claws, when Syracen kiled my parents and I ran through the fields with my brother. For months, maybe a few years, that fear never realy went away. And then it had shown up in little spurts these last few weeks, perhaps not as toothy as the first time, maybe not as adept at keeping a hold on me, but it had been there, smiling at me and laughing.

  Now it was back.

  I was blind, galoping out of the city wals and down into the valey beyond Arrana. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the night, and with my heart already racing at the thought of getting caught, I wasn’t sure my poor horse would escape me being sick on it. But I held strong, my hands biting into the reins, as I widened my eyes, desperate for them to acclimate to the darkness. By the time I had put Arrana at a fifteen minute galop behind me, I could see more than just shapes and shadows ahead of me. I drew the horse to a stop, sorry that I didn’t know his name so I could soothe him. I could feel his tense muscles beneath me as he attuned to my own tension.

  The land before us dropped into a steep valey that stretched for miles, the mountains peeking up over it in the distance.

  I was al alone, I suddenly realised. I snorted at the irony of it. Al I’d ever wanted was a moment of peace, to be truly alone, and now that I was, I was terrified.

  This land before me was alien and unknown. I didn’t know the people, I didn’t know the towns. My magic was the only thing keeping me together, that and the coat that was protecting me from the cold night air. I had never known it to be this cold at night during the summer months. Stroking the horses’ face, I leaned over and murmured soothing words in his ear. His ear flicked against my mouth, tickling me, and he scuffed his hoof back, giving a little snort. He was ready then. I smiled. At least I’d have him with me for the journey through Silverian Valey – named so because it was the one area in Alvernia, other than Arrana, that was closest in temperament to the Capital City… in Alvernia that wasn’t realy saying much. I reckoned it was caled so more out of hope than reality. I trembled a little; thinking of the reports from the Vojvoda that the Valey people had grown more uncommonly uncivilised. I’d have to move through it inconspicuously, in a hurry.

  With a jerk of the reins we took off, the horse steady on his feet as we took the steep trade road down into the valey. Once on level ground we took off at a faster galop, hoping to put as much distance between myself and Wolfe as possible. The last thing I needed was him catching up to me.

  In the dark I didn’t see much. I wouldn’t have even if I’d wanted to, I was so determinedly concentrating on getting to those mountains. The trade roads were rougher in Alvernia, less traveled, and we stumbled a few times along the way until I realised I had to pul the horse into a less frantic pace. I’d wear him out if I didn’t stop soon anyway. Exhausted and tense, every little noise that I heard over our galoping making cold sweat slide down my back, I was thankful when the sun broke the horizon. It burst out over the mountains until the brownish-green roling plains of the valey became visible. We grew closer to the mountains towering over the valey in the distance, mountains like monsters beckoning travelers into nightmare. Thick, brutish, looming trees the Alvernians caled the Arans, covered what appeared to be every inch of the mountains; the lushness of those deep, black-green trees a sharp contrast to the sickly palor of the plains I was passing through. The mountain people of Alvernia lived among those trees, their homes shrouded by their darkness, and their lives sheltered in ignorance and uncivilised isolation.

  My stomach lurched and I puled the horse to an abrupt halt. Thankfuly I made it off the poor horse and to the side of the road before I vomited up last night’s fish.

  ***

  After a quick… break… I was back on the horse, racing him faster than ever as the mountains drew closer. I didn’t see much from the trade roads, only a farm or two visible from the road, but I wasn’t interested. My magic was beginning to hum and vibrate through me the closer I drew to the Somna Plant. The Silverian Valey wasn’t huge; most of Alvernia was covered by those mountains. It could be crossed in under a day, and as mid-morning crept past, the horse and I finaly drew into the shade cast by the mountains. Up close they were utterly mammoth. I watched a bird circle up ahead and then fly in among the trees. Disappearing forever.

  I roled my eyes at myself. “Stop being maudlin,” I hissed.

  Soon we drew around a bend in the road and the Aran trees stood before me, an entrance up into the woods, dark and waiting. I slowed the horse and trotted forward. The horse snorted again, feeling my thighs squeeze against him in my fear. My stomach was so ful of butterflies they were brimming over and touching my heart, their stupid wings tickling against the organ and urging it to react in kind. When we drew closer I could make out a wooden sign nailed to one of the trees, the words:

  ALVERNIN MOWNTINS

  TRED WIF CAYR

  carved crudely into the wood. I closed my eyes trying to draw in breath and calm. Shakily I slid off the horse, leading him over to a humble lane cut into the fields around us. Pitched into the ground was another sign in the same carving.

  HEVERS FARM

  I soothed my night companion who had gotten me this far and thanked him, before hitting his rump, sending him into a jolt up the lane where hopefuly the Hever’s would find him and take care of him. I couldn’t take him up into the steep mountains. It would slow me down and be unfair to him.

  For a moment I stood at the opening of the woods, looking up the hil into the gloomy inside of the forest. I could hear the crick and twitch of the woods themselves; branches snapping, woodpeckers pecking. Insects buzzed around me, smal animals skittered over crushed leaves and twigs, and in the far, far distance I even thought I heard the howl of a dog. I shivered. I imagined the overwhelming aroma of the forest might calm me with its musky floral, honey, laurel, and freshly cut-grass smels al breathing beneath the heady scent of rich, dark soil. It was wonderful. But I was stil quaking.

  With another deep breath I straightened my shoulders and took my first step into the mountains.

  “Only for you, Haydyn,” I whispered, and continued on in resignation.

  The climb was almost immediate. O
ne, two, three steps and the ground began to tilt upwards. There were no more signs posted to the trees giving me directions to towns or settlements or whatever it was these people had in here, but I was folowing my magic, managing to keep to the rough track that already wound its way up through the mountains. The longer I climbed, the more I began to wonder where the people were. My ears were practicaly pinned back, my body and heart jumping at every little noise. I must have stopped and spun around a hundred times, my eyes probing through the trees for signs of life. So on edge, the nerves in my body had taken on a life of their own. I wasn’t going to sleep tonight.

  I climbed for hours, my feet beginning to blister inside the maid’s boots. I fought off the pain by refusing to think about it, thinking only of the growing darkness within the woods, how cold it was becoming. By dusk I was beginning to panic that there were no signs of life. My magic told me the Pool of Phaedra was stil days off yet and I had hoped to find some safe place to shelter for the night. Safe. I snorted. Was that even a word in the Mountains of Alvernia.

  I stopped suddenly, my ears kicking back at a familiar noise. Water! The trickling noise in the distance set my heart racing again. Surely where there was water, there were people! I folowed the noise, tripping over a thick root and taking my first tumble in the woods. I landed on soggy leaves and damp soil, little dirty circles staining my trousers at the knees. I grunted and got back up, determined not to feel foolish considering no one had seen me. The noise drew me to a stream and I folowed that stream, making sure it didn’t pul me too far from the direction of my magic.

  Surprise rippled through me as the woods broke beyond me, the stream leading out of the trees and into open mountain. This part of the mountain had been cleared.

  Stretching before me, encircled on al sides by the Arans, was a town. Shacks, I gathered were houses, dotted here and there, some by the stream, some further off until they looked like little black squares from where I stood. Lights shimmered in the dark. An extremely wel-lit larger shack, some way in the distance, caught my eye.

  “Can I be helpin’ ye, son?”

  I jerked and then froze, my mouth faling open, my eyes wide, my palms and underarms instantly giving into cold sweat. Slowly, afraid of what I’d find, I turned to confront the gruff voice with its strange burr. A huge man, exactly what I had in my mind when I thought ‘mountain man’, stood before me; burly, tal and suspicious of me. He was wrapped up warm in worn clothes, a furry hat covering his head. I gulped at the sight of the huge axe laid casualy against his shoulder.

  I felt threatened by more than just his height. I was a woman alone and I had been caught by a strange man. But then I realised… he’d caled me ‘son’. Glancing down at my boy’s clothing, feeling the boy’s cap on my head, I exhaled in relief. He thought I was a boy. I deepened my voice and tried to emulate a rough accent.

  “Just lookin’ for a place to rest before I pass through.”

  He straightened a little, eyeing me closely. “Oh yeah? And where you be headin’, boy?” I’d never heard such an accent before. It was clipped and tight with triling ‘r’s, dropped ‘g’s’ and a grammar I couldn’t get my head around. I shook myself from my momentary distraction and thought about my answer. It was wel known to everyone in Phaedra that the Pool of Phaedra was considered mystical and fascinating.

  There had been many an adventurer who’d dared the mountains to find it. “The Pool of Phaedra.” The man smirked at me. “An’ what would a sprite like ye want with the Pool?”

  I shrugged. “I’m on a spiritual journey and that is al I wish to say on the matter.”

  He laughed and I bit my lip. I’d sounded far too wel-bred. But he didn’t say anything, just chuckled, “Wel don’t be gettin’ al ornery, yer business is yer business.” He laughed again, shaking his head. There was something joly about him. Something reassuring in his eyes. I began to relax.

  “My name is Brint,” he told me, his booming voice carrying beyond us. “Brint Lokam. I’m about the closest thing Hil o’ Hope has to a Mayor.”

  “Hil o’ Hope?” I asked in confusion.

  Brint grinned and gestured to the open land before us. “Hil o’ Hope.” He winked at me. “We here at Hil o’ Hope have what some folks cal an ironic sense o’

  humour,” he drawled out the ‘i’ in ironic comicaly.

  I couldn’t help but return his smile. “My name is Ro-” I stopped, remembering I was supposed to be a boy. “Rolfe. My name is Rolfe.”

  “Nice to meet ye, Rolfe. Wel, ye don’t look like ye can cause much trouble. Why don’t ye join us at Hope Tavern?” Brint pointed to the larger shack al lit up in the distance. “They’l give ye some gristle and grub, maybe a splash o’ ale.” He winked again. “It’s no much but it’s somethin’. Plus, folks are in a good mood lately what with the Iavi people who used to crawl al over these parts havin’ taken off for greener pastures. Once yer done filin’ up, ye can come back with me.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and I noticed the shack up the hil behind us. A single light flickered in the window. “The wife wil be more than happy to put a palet by the fire for ye so ye can get some rest before movin’ on in yer spiritual journey.”

  I smiled reluctantly at his teasing. I knew I probably wouldn’t get a better offer so I nodded in thanks and began folowing him down the hil towards Hope Tavern.

  My first encounter with an Alvernian mountain person was not unfolding as I’d always imagined. That preconceived idea in my head was only further slashed to ribbons when we entered the tavern and Brint introduced me to the roughest looking people I’d ever seen. Even rougher than gypsies and the rookery thugs. To start, I couldn’t decipher age among them; they were al so weather-beaten and worn, laughter wrinkles tickling the corners of everyone’s eyes. Despite the obvious fact that their life was hard, that they didn’t have much of anything, they were so friendly and joly and happy with one another. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. No, they weren’t wel-mannered as a rule, but in spite of that, no one was il-mannered to me. And, if I were to go by the stories they regaled me with, in amidst this uncivilised, isolated community of theirs was a true civilisation of apparent camaraderie and teamwork.

  More shocking for me stil, I watched the barkeep - who had thrust a plate of strange food and the darkest ale I’d ever seen at me (but for free, so I couldn’t complain) - kiss a man who slid over the bar and wrapped his arms around him. Wide-eyed, I glanced around to see if anyone was looking but no one cared. Brint caught my look and laughed, explaining the two men were old lovers. Back home in Silvera, I knew of rumours of men who preferred other men, but society pretended it didn’t exist, happy to ignore it as long as the men in question kept it hidden. I’d always believed in every kind of freedom and it amazed me that up here, in the heart of savage country, people were freer and more loving than anywhere else. The worry in my chest began to ease. The situation in Alvernia wasn’t nearly so bad as we’d been led to believe. Mayhap Haydyn need never marry Andrei, whose father perpetuated the ignorance I had grown up with.

  It was true.

  Once again I had been ignorant and prejudiced.

  I decided then and there, as I enjoyed the rambunctious, raucous company of the people of Hil o’ Hope, that I would never again draw an opinion until I knew everything about the subject upon which I spoke. I thought of Haydyn’s long forgotten failed philanthropy regarding these people. If we’d listened to her, we would have done a lot of good. Once again I was ashamed.

  After I’d eaten, I had relaxed back beside Brint, listening as his neighbour Dru regaled me with the story of Brint, who organised a search party for a little girl who’d been kidnapped by the Iavi.

  “We were lucky that the group who’d taken wee Amelia were few, because no matter what, Brint would be ah takin’ us into the woods to fight the buggers and bring her back.”

  I stared wide-eyed at Brint who looked marginaly embarrassed by the story. “And did you?”

  “Oh inde
ed,” Dru went on. “We snuck up on the buggers and dealt them out a booting they wouldn’t forget. We got wee Amelia and brung her home to her folks.

  The Iavi departed the mountain no’ too long after that.”

  “You were very brave.” I nodded, lifting my cup to them.

  “Are ye brave?” A girl suddenly appeared at my side, swishing her dirty skirts and smiling at me, her teeth yelowed from having not taken care of them. I squinted, feeling warm and fuzzy from the ale. She would have been pretty had she been alowed the life of a lady.

  “No,” I replied promptly.

  “Ye’ve come into the mountains by yer lonesome. There’s a certain amount of bravery to be said for that.” She brushed her fingers down my face before abruptly dropping into my lap.

  Bewildered by her sudden proximity it took me a minute to realise she was reaching to kiss me. I squealed under my breath and jerked back, thankful as her weight was lifted off of me.

  Brint gave her a look and patted her bottom. “Be on with ye, lass. This one is shy.”

  The girl huffed in disappointment, striding off before throwing me one more longing look. My cheeks must have bloomed bright red because Brint was laughing at me again.

  “Tera is a bit free with her favours.” He shook his head. “Gotten worse since the Iavi have gone. Everyone be a bit more relaxed these days.”

  “I can’t believe the gypsies were that awful to their own.” I bit my lip. Up here, Haydyn’s evocation did not reach; up here where life was hard enough as it was.

  Brint glowered now, looking as fierce as I first imagined him to be. “We weren’t their own. You never knew which Hil they’d come barrelin’ into next, takin’ that which wasn’t theirs to take.”

 
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