by Dan Hiestand
“Every time I look at you, it seems like you’re deep in thought.”
Aquamarine (March) 12, 2013
Relican Avery rode beside his comrades as they made their way down the mountain pass. Descending the high point of the ridge – the saddle, Outriders of yore had called it – the air changed in an instant. One moment, they were navigating narrow, waterlogged switchbacks—
The next, they were facing straight into a dry, driving wind with a hint of sand in it.
“—ook out,” Cedwyn was saying, but it was too late. Relic raised the hand he’d been using to sedately scratch Midnight’s mane and wiped his sleeve furiously across his mouth. Phht, phht!
For the better part of a day, the four had picked their way across treacherous terrain, the kind that could break the leg of even the best-trained steed in a single false step. Here, Relic had found that the more relaxed he was, the more attentive his horse became.
It was a lesson – one of many – he’d taken from that night.
Although he couldn’t help but think he should have known.
As one knife-edge pass bled into another, though, he found his mind wandering—
“I tried to tell you,” Cedwyn said, shrugging in the saddle as Relic looked his way.
As Relic straightened his back, his horse took the cue and continued forward.
The terrain was far different on this side of the pass:
They were rising slowly up a cliff. Bit by bit, step by step, such that it almost went unnoticed.
“What were you thinking about?” Cedwyn asked, close enough now to share a hushed whisper.
“I don’t—” Relic started to say, then stopped to grab the offered handkerchief from Cedwyn. He dabbed at his forehead, pulling off the grit and the first beads of sweat. “—know why, but I just found myself remembering a strict tutor I had as a kid. And wondering if she’s ... well.”
“Oh?” Cedwyn asked. “What subject?” He waved to tell Relic to keep the handkerchief.
“Philosophy, I think,” Relic went on. “Best forgotten, I guess. I don’t think I did so well.”
“Goes to show we’ve officially reached the Provinces,” Cedwyn said wryly. “There’s lots of stuff here that people would rather forget. Maybe that’s where your philosopher ended up, too.”
“I certainly hope not,” Relic said, making a sour face. “I probably still owe her an assignment.”
Ahead, the others had halted, giving them time to appreciate the view beyond the bluff on which they stood. Cedwyn let out a low, thoughtful whistle—loud enough to mask Relic’s quiet gasp as he came around to look. The vista stretched beneath his gaze brought a tightness to his throat.
Here was the very place where, as a boy, he had felt he could see the entire Tri-State spread before him. From this spot, the land bore not one scar from what so many chronicles called the Grassland Campaign. Everything looked vibrant and new—
As bright and full of promise as the day he left for the last time.
Bridgewater’s farms and lush apple orchards unfurled like a tapestry – one he’d known intimately once upon a time and now longed to know again. In the sunny late day splendor, golden light gliding over every creek and thistle turned the countryside into a storybook world.
Off in the distance, his gaze fixed on cottages with smoking chimneys—
And he remembered the last time he saw that sky smeared with black smoke.
Relic was only half-aware of Cedwyn easing past. Rather than seek his friend’s eyes, he hunched over his pocket-watch. Thirteen hours, seven minutes, 35 seconds since we set out. Just as he suspected, they were far ahead of expectations. But that was no surprise, really.
His head bowed, he took a few deep breaths in time with the ticking.
It almost ended there, with the little heirloom cradled like an egg between his hands. But the others were gone, their comforting presence lifted like a shroud to reveal a chill he never knew was there. In the dark behind his eyes, he saw a different shroud entirely.
The dark smoke and his last glimpse of the kind, gentle man who taught him everything.
The one whose hand he could practically feel on his shoulder in his moments of triumph.
Cedwyn had slowed and was looking back at him, head cocked slightly to the side. Relic nodded his way and carefully slipped his pocket-watch into its accustomed place. Their day's journey had been fast, yes, but not short, and any delay now wore heavy on them all.
Glassy-eyed, Relic straightened himself and willed his horse to move forward.
In his private logbook, the time would be recorded rather differently.
The lat time he had seen this place—
Seventeen years, six months, three weeks, thirteen hours, seven minutes, 35 seconds.
The Outriders passed over the edge of Bridgewater Province without stopping. Here and there they would spot old men or teens with hunting dogs, working to rout out the skinks from their fields or the cracks in the old stone walls. Invariably, the locals paused to watch them go by.
None gave even the slightest hint they knew of the massive enemy host Jace would have sworn he saw clearly from the ridge that night. Whatever had attacked Fairlawn, had attacked the very Republic, gave the impression it had floated over these lands as stealthily as morning mist.
Like that mist, it was gone without a trace.
Jace waved once. Met with icy, wordless gazes, he didn’t do it twice.
The Outriders held silent, somehow preferring that to the brazen logic of information-seeking.
Having entered mere hours before, these lands were all but foreign to three of the travelers, and a vision out of time for the fourth. Each Outrider felt a sensation that could not be named, only sensed among the rest: An all-pervasive feeling that naught should be disturbed.
To diminish the solemn silence was to invade. They were outsiders here, not just Outriders.
Something else, equally mysterious and inexplicable as that feeling they all had, was ahead.
And whatever it was ...
Logic had nothing to do with it.
Isabelle was watching Relic carefully from a few paces ahead.
Noticing her, he spurred Midnight to catch up and ride alongside.
“Thirteen hours, ten minutes,” he told her.
“Making good time."
“A serendipitous happenstance,” Relic said with a satisfied nod. Then: “What?”
Isabelle turned away from him in a flash, hiding her grin with her hand. “Nothing.”
“There’s nothing wrong with serendipitous,” he said. “It comes from a very famous fairy tale.”
“I’m sure,” said Isabelle – and was surprised to see Relic glance away, mind already elsewhere.
“Every time I look at you,” she said, “it seems like you’re deep in thought.”
“I’m a deep thinker, that’s why,” he answered, a faint smile on his lips.
“Daydreamer, you mean.”
Relic shrugged, his smile fading only slightly.
“If you say so,” she said.
They passed a gazebo at the roadside, its only furnishing a wooden table and two stone benches.
Relic gathered his words, then asked Isabelle, “What are you thinking about?”
“Just how weird it is that the climate changes so fast up here.”
Relic nodded slowly to himself.
“They say the Magonda Desert has grown hundreds of feet in all directions since the founding of the Republic. One side of Parnassus is one way, one side the other. Plus, it gets hotter down here every year. Because of the ...” He waved vaguely. “... sand creatures, or so they say.”
“I know,” Isabelle said, jabbing him with an elbow. “It’s just weird, that’s all. Like ...” She brought her hands together, miming objects colliding. “Puzzle pieces that don’t fit together.”
“If it helps, we’re almost there,” said Relic, rubbing the spot she’d struck.
“That’s good, at least,” Isabelle said. “When’s the last time you were here?”
Seventeen years, six months, three weeks ...
Relic took in a deep breath that came out as a small sigh.
... thirteen hours, eleven minutes, 41 seconds
“Long, long time. Funny thing, though – it all looks exactly how I remember it.”
“Yeah?” Isabelle asked; at his nod, she admitted, “I barely remember living in the Provinces.”
“I was a different person,” Relic said, thinking again of his pocket-watch and its steady ticking. When he looked back to her, though, his eyes were wide – animated with an energy he’d hardly shown through the journey to the Gap, and now, beyond. “Feels like a lifetime ago.”
“You can say that again,” Isabelle responded. Just enough to encourage Relic.
“A lot of it is hazy. But this pass, these mountains—”
“Crystal clear,” Isabelle said, and smiled as his eyes widened a tic in acknowledgement.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s just ... weird. The things you remember and the things you ... don’t.”
Then, a little abashed by his own excitement, he reached forward to scratch Midnight’s ears.
Isabelle laughed a little and laid a hand on his shoulder.
It wasn’t the touch he’d been thinking of, but it made him feel a little better, after all.
It hadn’t escaped Cedwyn’s notice that – as astonishing as it was – Jace seemed happiest with silence these days. He had withdrawn into himself over the course of their journey, and weeks on end had passed with only a handful of words shared between them.
Whatever was on his mind, poking and prodding at it was as likely to do harm as good.
There’d been whole days when Cedwyn had been content to ride alongside Jace, never breaking the silence. Times when he felt the younger man look his way, weighing words that went unsaid.
Cedwyn found, to his relief, this was not one of those times.
“You been up here before?” Jace asked him.
Cedwyn reined in a little bit. “Once or twice.”
“As far as Sandia?”
“Yup. Interesting place. You’ll see.”
Cedwyn found himself smiling wryly at Jace’s back as The Kid led their way by the smallest margin. Now and then, from this vantage, he noticed Jace sneak a look at Isabelle, who – until Relic had approached her – had been sitting as solitary and regal as a queen.
There was something going on there.
And it wasn’t the usual something.
No one else was here for Jace. Not Relic – who was facing Bridgewater like a man in a waking dream – and certainly not Isabelle. Simply observing the set of Jace’s shoulders and the coiled uncertainty of his movements, Cedwyn knew what he was seeing. The realization made him sad.
Jace felt alone.
More alone than he could ever remember feeling—
Though, Cedwyn had to admit, that circle is getting mighty small.
There was more than enough Jace didn’t remember – might never remember.
In Cedwyn’s memory, Jace is dead—not merely hurt, but gone. His heart’s blood cuts a swath as wide as Westwood, and there simply isn’t enough left to warm the spark of his life. That night, the monks’ robes are the very same red. They are tasked to save him.
Every one among them knows it is impossible. Yet, they must try—
Jace Dabriel’s star will fall. But it cannot disappear without struggle.
There are implements and devices of many kinds in the tent. Some of them are tipped with the smallest quantity of precious stones. Some are illegal. And some are so ancient that the words for them exist in no language you can use to order food at an inn.
As one monk works, the other gazes at Jace’s reflection in the mirror set up just so.
They exchange words – urgent words – in a strange lilt that goes up and down.
Cedwyn has his back turned to them, feeding the little brass idol of Fotamecus—
When he hears the urgency in their tone give way to relief, then to awe.
Later on, the monks will speak to Cedwyn.
One will say: “He walks a greater path than most.”
And perhaps – perhaps – that was what he, Cedwyn Knight, was meant to remember.
But it’s not the first thing he thinks of when he sees Jace straining under the weight that sits upon his shoulders now. Instead, Cedwyn remembers the very first word he heard one of the monks utter in a language he understood without effort.
The chief healer, bent over Jace’s broken body, whispers in disbelief—
A man who stands with his feet planted in two worlds—
“He should have been gone for hours.”
—had never seen, and would never again see, a miracle greater than Jace.
Cedwyn reached over to give Jace a brotherly clap on the shoulder.
Right there, he knew well, was one of the fantastic scars Dabriel still bore from that night. But when Jace looked up, not a trace of these thoughts darkened Cedwyn’s smile. For his part, Jace was uncertain: There was a guardedness in his eyes. The hunter had become the hunted.
And his instincts were right.
“Y’know, I’ve never seen death take its grip off a man like it did with you. It let you go.”
Jace shook the hand off him in an instant.
“You heard me, man,” said Cedwyn, leveling his gaze on Jace and raising his eyebrows.
“So – you wanna keep ignoring this elephant in the—” He let his gaze flick back and forth. “—mountains, or do you wanna finally talk to somebody who understands what it’s all about?”
Jace clinched his legs, bringing Highfly to a stop, and gave an expansive shrug.
“Don't take this the wrong way – but how could you possibly think ...” Jace’s fists clenched, and he found his anger unexpectedly sputtering out. His voice was even and low, suddenly aware of the others, when he finished: “Even you. Even you.”
“I haven’t been through what you have,” Cedwyn said smoothly. “But I know as well as you do that the unspoken words are the heaviest. And we’ve all got to get focused before we hit Sandia.”
“Yeah? Know what’s goin' on there, do ya?”
“Me? No,” Cedwyn said, raising his palms. “But I remember what it was like. A rough place. A crossroads between two worlds, two ways of thinking. Two futures that can’t co-exist together. Lots of danger, lots of strange days. And the nights are worse.”
“A fight doesn’t sound so bad right now,” Jace said, finally spurring his horse on. “And it'd have to go a long, long way to be rougher than us."
“It might not be the kind of fight you w—”
Cedwyn snapped his head toward an unexpected sound.
Isabelle and Relic were still talking. That alone was good enough; better than having her steam silently over whatever had happened between her and Jace, Cedwyn thought. But there was more. For the first time since they’d left, Isabelle was laughing.
Jace was drawn toward it, leaving Cedwyn behind.
The subject, for the moment, was closed.
Through torrents of laughter, Isabelle was asking: “But how is that even possible?”
Relic was still laughing a little, himself.
“He knew them all. First-name basis.”
Isabelle let out a quiet hoot, bracing herself on the saddle to glance sharply at Relic.
“He ... knew the Blades?”
“Well enough for them to let us pass. Dad was the kind of guy who talked to everybody like they were somebody. Sure, they tried to rob him – but he said none of those watches were right for them, and he meant it. They needed something that could get jostled hard and still run.”
“So ... what, exactly?”
“So – he made them a custom set. Learned all the same tricks he used in this one.”
The gilt edge of Relic’s pocket-watch flashed as he dangled it between them.
“That’s crazy,” Isabelle said. “You know, he could’ve gotten in trouble for helping them.”
She gently pulled back on Snow’s reins to let Relic take the curve in front of them.
“Oh, it was still a robbery,” Relic said as Midnight cantered past. “Just a very slow one.”
“How long did it take?” Isabelle asked, now hanging on his every word.
“Three days.” Relic said, voice echoing as he passed beneath a natural arch of stone. Looking around, he let out a whistle – and Isabelle half-expected to see bandits emerge with clocks in hand for repairs. “Would’ve been longer, but he had all his tools with him.”
He fell silent, as if comparing his mental map to the territory around.
“Yes ... this is it. This used to be their favorite place to lay an ambush.”
“Think they’d recognize you?” Isabelle asked as Snow clip-clopped along in pursuit.
“Not a chance,” said Relic with a chuckle. “But it’d be worth a try, I guess.”
As they approached the tightest spot in the trail, Relic’s hand hovered over his crossbow.
“Odds are they’ve all been driven out by now,” she said, noticing the shift in his posture.
“Probably so. But you can never be too careful.”
“Especially if you always feel like you’re being watched.”
“Especially then,” he acknowledged. “I just had a strange feeling.”
Sure enough, as they rounded the corner, there were no bandits or highwaymen or dissatisfied timepiece customers anywhere to be found. Isabelle smiled quietly to herself, but it took another few seconds before Relic lowered his guard.
As if on cue, the other two Outriders emerged beneath the stone archway to join them.
The Gap of Ezru was officially behind them, and the roads beyond lie wide in anticipation.
A grand old tree stood a few paces away, stretching its luxurious branches over a crossroads. Red and gold leaves swayed, softening the harsh desert breeze. Someone had knotted rope around its bark to create a makeshift cradle for a massive pineapple, an ancient sign of luck and welcome.
The rope was weathered, though, and a few flies buzzed lazily around the succulent prize. A grim-faced stone griffon, no larger than a man’s fist, had been left to stand watch over it; the flies should have been intimidated, but they didn’t seem to notice.
Typical, Cedwyn thought.
The path forked in two directions – to the right hand, dipping toward an endless sea of sand.
To the left, a disjointed jigsaw of stones had been left to molder and sink into the sand, outlining the vaguest contours of what once had been a well-trod path. Far below, almost out of sight, two grim sentries remained: Squat griffons of pale limestone, wings held close to their leonine forms.
The sight of the town wall – a sweeping edifice of stone, perhaps sandstone or lime, brought Relic up short. He stopped, shielding his eyes with his hand, as he peered up and down: There were half-domes in the corners, pale paint flaking away under the smoldering sun—
And between them, more of the stone griffons, their gazes on anyone who would approach.
“The wall – they’ve built it up,” Relic said. “It used to be so much smaller. Barely a stockade.”
“I guess we made it,” said Isabelle.
“Pretty quiet on the road, considering,” Cedwyn added.
“Sun’s almost down and it’s better than staying out here for the night,” Jace said, easing Highfly forward so he take point. Glancing over his shoulder, he looked at each of the other Outriders in turn. “Come on – first one down gets to keep one of those pineapples.”
With that, he lightly slapped the reins and headed off toward Sandia.
As they passed between the stone griffons, Relic blurted out a single word: “Birds.”
“Gonna need a little more context here, Avery,” said Cedwyn.
No one else had heard him, and Relic didn’t look up. Instead, he stopped – gazing at the nearby griffons for a heartbeat longer until the fleeting shadows he’d thought he’d spotted trembled across their pale flanks once more. Then he peered up, searching for something.
“It was ornithology, not philosophy.”
“Mind like a steel trap,” said Cedwyn, nodding appreciatively while tapping the side of his head.
As Relic rode onward, Cedwyn stopped long enough to briefly rest his hand on one of the statues. Like Relic before him, he looked up – scanning this and that way for something darker than the fast-encroaching gloom of night.
He found it by the greasy sheen of its feathers, sitting stiffly.
For an instant he was eye-to-eye with it: A great black bird.
A vulture, perhaps?
It craned its neck toward him.
Cedwyn spurred Valerian on, and the creature leapt up, spiraling high into the oncoming night.