Baron Valdemar and his people have found a temporary haven, but it cannot hold all of them, or for long. Trouble could follow on their heels at any moment, and there are too many people for Crescent Lake to support. Those who are willing to make a further trek by barge on into the West will follow him into a wilderness depopulated by war and scarred by the terrible magics of a thousand years ago and the Mage Wars. But the wilderness is not as "empty" as it seems. There are potential friends and rapacious foes....
....and someone is watching them.
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Roads Less Traveled
Charlotte E. English
:I can see you, you know.:
Uselessly, Rosia tucked herself deeper into the thicket in which she had taken refuge, as though doing so might turn her invisible if she only wished hard enough.
The dulcet voice went on, inexorable. :You look nice!:
A choked sound emerged from the girl, comprising disgust and-in spite of herself-laughter, albeit without much mirth. Nice? She looked nice? After weeks on the road, wending ever deeper into the wilds of the Pelagir Hills; without money even to eat half the time, let alone bathe; dressed in ragged garments that were now hopelessly soiled and torn and had never been nice even when new.
:Perhaps it isn't the way you look so much as the way you smell,: conceded her pursuer, the words coming somehow from inside her own head. She might conclude she had gone mad and was talking to herself, save that the bright white horse, with its silvery bridle and its bells and its wide, friendly eyes, had been following her for hours; and every observation made, in those mellow tones, was accompanied by some hopeful movement. This time, it was a nuzzling at the branches of Rosia's friendly thicket. One clear blue eye peeped in.
"That's even worse," Rosia said. "If I could only get away from my own smell, I would."
A pause followed. Rosia received the impression that the horse was thinking.
:No, you're right,: came the reply. :It isn't a vision or a scent but a . . . feeling. You feel nice.:
Rosia, exhausted and hungry and despairing, swallowed a sob. "Why won't you go away?"
:Because I'm lonely.:
"So? Find another friend."
:But I like you.:
"Who wouldn't," Rosia muttered, clenching her fists. "When I've been so friendly."
:I am your Companion,: said the horse. :That is the best friend anybody could have.:
"I don't need a companion." And I don't deserve one, Rosia thought.
The horse lay down on the other side of the thicket, clearly prepared to wait all day if necessary. :I am here anyway, my Chosen.:
Rosia briefly thought of running away, but the horse would only follow. "Why are you so stubborn?" she said instead, hating the whining quality of the question. She was an adult-or nearly, anyway. Adults didn't whine.
The horse lipped at a scrubby thread of grass. :I am your Companion.:
"You said that already."
Rosia received a sense of warm amusement, like . . . a giggle. Her Companion, if she was such, was too young for sober dignity. :For some reason, I got the idea you weren't listening,: she said. :My name is Lilan.:
Rosia sat up as far as she was able, ignoring the tangle of thorns in her hair, and folded her arms.
:And you are . . .?: prompted Lilan.
"Rosia," the name ungraciously muttered under her breath. "Peddler." Thief. "And a girl who talks to horses, looks like."
:I am not a horse,: said Lilan patiently. :A Companion is something else altogether.:
"I know what you are. You think I haven't seen Heralds?" Rosia had no intention of telling this peculiar creature what kinds of feelings she'd witnessed at the passage of Valdemar's Chosen. In their immaculate Whites, with their Companions at their sides, they'd blown through Rosia's life like a fresh, bright wind, untouchably distant. Unfathomably magnificent.
Not that any of them had ever stopped to talk to the likes of her, not even when her parents were alive. Peddlers were beneath such folk. She and Ma and Pa had passed Heralds on the road sometimes, that was all.
:Well, then, you know why I am here.: Lilan settled herself more comfortably, as placid as a summer lake, and if a horse-Companion-was capable of smiling, she was smiling now.
"You must be confused," said Rosia.
:Not in the least. You are my Chosen, and when you're feeling better, we shall be off on our way to Haven.:
"You picked wrong. Go find someone else."
:Why do you say that?: Lilan asked the question in a spirit of gentle enquiry, as though mildly curious.
Rosia bit her lip. "Heralds are s'posed to be good people."
:And you are not?:
"I'm not." She heaved the boundless sigh of a wearied spirit and added, in a smaller voice, "I wasn't so bad, before . . ."
:Before?: prompted Lilan.
Rosia tightly closed her lips.
Lilan, unconcerned, fell silent. Rosia peeped through the thorns and saw the Companion, eyes closed, lightly dozing. Or so it seemed.
"Before Ma died," Rosia said. "And then Pa, and . . ."
It was her turn to fall into a silence, though hers was of a brooding quality.
:Why don't you tell me what happened?: Lilan said. :Once I know how awful you are, I'm sure I'll be off like a shot.:
Rosia shrank into herself, appalled at the thought of confessing aloud to-anybody, least of all a stranger. Least of all a . . . horse. Companion. "I can't. It's too hard."
:Don't start with the hard part,: Lilan suggested. :The trick is to start at the beginning.:
The Pelagir Hills loomed ahead, dark and uninviting. Heavy old boughs hung over the road, casting long shadows, despite the day being rather young yet. Fall had that way about it sometimes; winter lurked just behind, and sometimes you could really feel it.
Rosia felt it keenly today.
She'd meant to plunge straight into the forest without stopping. That was how you did things that were scary: quickly, without pausing to think. But her feet had betrayed her, or perhaps it was her heart that had failed. The darkness under those trees daunted her. Even the road this far northwest did not much deserve the name, being a crumbling dirt track that hosted few travelers.
And then there were the stories . . .
Fever had taken her ma, not long since and her pa soon after. There hadn't been much left in their packs by then, and there hadn't been money enough for a donkey or a pony in years. Still, Rosia had never known what it was to go truly hungry-until Pa had gone. Then she'd learned.
She was hungry now. Not the light, ordinary hunger of the well-fed, but an urgent need for sustenance that tore at her insides and weakened her knees. She had sold most of Ma's ribbons and Pa's trinkets for medicine; and when that failed to save either of them, she had been forced to sell everything else for food. Now there was nothing left, not for food, not for new supplies to sell in some fresh town farther up the road. If she didn't do something, she would starve.
Something had presented itself. Her last coin had gone to purchase a loaf-stale but edible-from a baker a village or two back. In passing, she'd heard talk.
"Them Pelagirs, you wanta watch yersel' up there," the baker said in his gruff, deep voice to the customer after her-a man with the look (and smell) of a trapper about him. "Dangerous parts."
But the trapper had laughed. "S'alright for them as knows 'em. I'm off to get me a Firebird. Heard tell there's a few of 'em not too deep in."
"Can't say as I know anything 'bout that," answered the baker, cautious-like. "Wouldn't think it worth the danger, meself."
"Ain't much that could kill me," said the trapper cheerfully, and tipped what there was of his hat. "And for that kind o' money, I'm game to try. Good day to ye."
That kind of money?
Not for nothing was Rosia a peddler's daughter. She knew well what a Firebird would fetch. A single feather would be enough . . .
" 'Scuse me," she said, turning back to the baker. "Are we near the Pelagirs here?"
"Aye, but you don't wanta go up that way," the baker replied. "Nasty place. Be lucky to come out alive."
Clutching the last piece of food she was likely to see in a while, with her pockets empty of coin and her packs empty of goods, Rosia knew she would be lucky to come out of the week alive. Her fingers tightened on the loaf. "Please, could you tell me the way?"
The baker had done so, if reluctantly, and now here she stood on the very edge. Hesitating.
It was the pain in her stomach that decided her. She took a step, and another-and then with a great rush of desperate energy, she plunged deep into the forest and didn't look back.
She did not, of course, stumble over a Firebird feather just lying there under the trees. Nothing so easy could come of so risky a venture.
But nor was she disappointed of her aim.
Mouthfuls of her precious bread sustained her for a day or two's wandering under the thick boughs, bolstered here and there with handfuls of berries, or an occasional mushroom. Ma and Pa had known a bit about foraging, learned during the leaner times. Rosia kept her wits about her, listened and watched for the dangers the villagers had been eager to warn each other about. Wild beasts of all kinds, they said. Some of them . . . different. Not as they should be.
The stories used words like magic. There used to be a lot of it, out in the Hills, and some of it lingered still.
Rosia was no careless child, not after a lifetime of wandering the roads with Ma and Pa. Even so, when the wild beasts of the Pelagirs found her, they caught her unawares.
She'd paused to gather a mushroom, a fat specimen with a broad cap. It was the sort with the meaty texture, one Pa had taught her to look out for, and her empty stomach growled in anticipation of sinking her teeth into it.
There had been nothing to warn her; no snap of a twig, no soft footfalls, no snarling menace. Just a sudden rush of movement, a loud rustling, as something leaped from the depths of a thicket; and then Rosia was down in the earth, the wind knocked out of her, and a weight on her chest pinned her where she lay.
A low, awful growling reverberated around the clearing.
The beast was some sort of feline, though larger than any Rosia had seen before. Its sleek coat was dappled with spots, and jaunty tufts adorned the tips of its ears. There was nothing jaunty about those eyes, though: topaz-gold, and fierce. The cat had bared every one of its ivory teeth; Rosia had no trouble imagining just how easily they would rip through her.
:You probably blundered into her territory,: Lilan said, carelessly interrupting RosiaÕs story. :She may have had one or two young still lingering in the lair.:
"Don't stop me," Rosia begged. "We're getting to the hard part."
:I am sorry, my Chosen. I am listening.:
Several agonizing moments passed. Rosia, her eyes squeezed shut to block out the sight of her imminent destruction, held her breath, expecting every second to be torn to pieces.
But then the weight lifted off her chest, and the growling stopped. Faintly, Rosia heard the soft sounds of a large feline padding away.
She opened her eyes.
The cat had vanished into the undergrowth. Rosia was alone and-cautiously, she flexed her limbs and ran a hand over her torso-unharmed.
She sat up-and froze, for she was not alone after all.
It wasn't the cat. Another person watched her, half-hidden behind the gnarled trunk of a great, old evergreen tree. Shadows hid the details, but Rosia was almost certain the person was a girl, and not that much older than she was herself.
"She wasn't going to eat you," the girl said. "She just wanted you to leave. But there's plenty out here that will hurt you." She lifted one skinny arm and pointed. "The road is that way."
Her voice was cracked and dusty and . . . thin, as though it hadn't been used in a long time. Nonetheless, Rosia heard the words plainly enough.
"Wait," she said, when the girl began to slip away. "How do you know all that?"
"She told me," said the girl, and she withdrew.
Rosia sat in stunned silence for a moment, thinking that over. The cat had talked to this girl?
"Wait!" she called again, but no reply came.
Hastily, Rosia scrambled to her feet and took off after the girl who could talk to the beasts of the Pelagirs.
:Animal Mindspeech,: Lilan offered wisely. :You run into it, now and then.:
"Lilan," protested Rosia.
The girl with the Animal Mindspeech lived in the Pelagirs entirely, Rosia discovered, for she had a dwelling there.
It wasn't much. She had doubtless built it herself, out of fallen boughs and branches and the like. So cunningly was it tucked between two craggy old trees, and camouflaged by the undergrowth, that Rosia would have walked straight past without noticing it at all. She was just in time to witness her quarry disappearing into a gap between the branches-and when she followed, she found a little arched entryway there.
"Hello?" she called.
No one answered her. But a fiery glow emanating from somewhere within intrigued her sufficiently to forget whatever manners Ma had tried to teach her, and she went inside. "Hello-" she called again. "I just want to thank you, and-and to ask you-"
There she stopped, for the glow had a source: a Firebird.
The graceful creature sat atop a perch near the "roof" of the dwelling-such as it was. A network of branches hung up there, all tangled together and covered with foliage. The Firebird sat with its sharp claws hooked over a lower-hanging branch and its glorious tail spilling halfway to the ground. Crimson and orange and gold and purple met Rosia's eyes in a spectacular display of color, and the bird radiated the ruddy glow of a burning sunset.
What was more, the Firebird had shed some of those feathers. More than a few. The floor-rough-spun matting worked from forest reeds-was covered in at least half a dozen of them.
"She was sick," said the girl, from somewhere Rosia couldn't see. "But she's well now."
"She's so beautiful," said Rosia, with awe.
"Yes, she is, and now go, please."
"Are you . . . do you live out here alone?"
"I'm never alone."
"I mean without . . . humans."
A soft laugh answered her, scornful. The message was clear without words: What use have I for humans?
"I see," said Rosia. "Thank you for helping me."
"You didn't need help."
Rosia withdrew. But she didn't leave right away. She stayed.
Later, she could not have said what prompted her to do so. She hoped it was curiosity or, better yet, concern for the Pelagir girl. She hoped it wasn't a calculated plan.