When Thurie had first set eyes on the wagon that would be taking them east to Fenlick, he’d had a hard time believing it had enough room to shelter Tia, Natlin, and their merchant companions, let alone two extra passengers. But the merchants’ goods had sold well, and with a bit of rearranging everyone managed to cram in at night when it was time to sleep.
So far they hadn’t drawn suspicion, though they took precautions against attracting attention. Tia’s cane and Dunna’s splintered wooden hands made the two of them the most recognizable of the four fugitives, so they both stayed hidden within the wagon whenever they passed through a town.
But even though Thurie worried sometimes about being caught, the journey was overall a happy one. During the daytime he walked alongside the wagon with his father. Dunna had bought him a fur-lined cloak and snow boots, and Thurie thoroughly enjoyed trekking through the snow imagining himself as a northern fur trapper, hunting some great cat or bear. Sometimes he’d clamber up on the wagon to sit beside the male merchant, Alan, who would happily regale Thurie with all the stories he knew about the fearsome creatures in Bleskar Bog.
Thurie spent time before bed each night sketching mock-ups of mechanical hands, with claws and hooks and blades. The sketches were mere flights of fancy, so he kept them secret. Yet every night he fell asleep thinking about those drawings and the land eastward—not just Fenlick drawing ever nearer, but the bog, the Gray Swamp, and finally Corim, land of magic. He’d turn things over in his head and let his wondering bear him away into dreams.
The sketches weren’t his only secret.
He hadn’t told his father about the slab. One part of him liked having a real, true secret, not just private hopes and dreams. Another part… well, if he were being truly honest with himself, his main reason for keeping the existence of the slab to himself was because he didn’t want his father to read it. Whenever Thurie had a spare minute or two alone, he’d pull out the wooden slab and study its strange messages. They’d been on the road for nearly two weeks now, and Thurie had read the slab over enough times to glean that its secrets all involved Hygotian and Corimian politics. He could read between the lines well enough to understand the words hovering behind it all: war and death. It was nothing he wanted his father involved in.
The silver mist had not made a reappearance since he’d first found the slab in the palace, but the last entry on the slab haunted him. He’d read it so many times now that he knew it by heart.
We have been arrested. They are questioning my mother and father. Perhaps torturing. WHAT IS THIS THING?
This last message was etched in a different handwriting from the rest, and Thurie studied the curves and bends of the letters, trying to envision who could have written them. It looked like a girl’s handwriting, he thought, but had a hard time surmising any more than that.
He thought about writing back, but didn’t know how. Would a simple pocketknife suffice? Did he need to conduct some ritual, perhaps perform a chant or spill a drop of blood from his fingertip? In the end he would always put the slab away with a feeling of frustration, like someone had given him a present neatly wrapped in paper and then forbidden him to open it.
Meanwhile, the days passed, and the wagon drew ever closer to its destination.
Was it just Tia’s imagination, or did the wind blowing from the east carry with it a trace of smoke? Despite her sister’s stories about all that had occurred in their hometown, in Tia’s mind she still saw Fenlick as it had always been—a bustling, no-nonsense city, full of people that prided themselves on being able to live, and live well, on the edge of Bleskar.
Well, she would see the state of her hometown soon enough. They’d left Fimbleful this morning, and Alan had promised they would arrive in Fenlick later today.
She sniffed the air again, then continued her slow and steady pace behind the wagon. She was careful to watch her step. In the last few days the coldness of winter had ceded to an early, chilly spring. The snow melted into the ground, revealing a gray and brown tangle of dead grass that was all too eager to catch at her ankles and trip her.
She was glad to see the frigid, sparkling beauty of Chyor’s winter pass. In the god’s northern home, Chunvar, Chyor’s lover and goddess of spring, would be preparing for her annual journey throughout the kingdom. Her warm breath would coax green sprouts from the earth, and flowers would bloom in her footsteps.
Tia drew in another deep breath, tasting the moisture in the air. It was time for new ventures.
But now the acrid smell of smoke on the breeze was unmistakable, and when she looked into the distance she could see a faint gray haze in the air. She swallowed. When she’d set off for Haplyr with Master Maaj, she’d known her life was changing. Yet somehow she had never imagined that the place she’d always called home might change too.
The last few weeks had been a time for rest. She’d done her best to keep off her feet, finally allowing her ankle its proper time to heal. A long time ago now, Master Maaj had mentioned that getting out into the countryside to breath the fresh air was healthy. Tia was now a believer; three days ago she’d woken to a jittery urge to get up and move her legs. When the wagon hit a slow patch, she’d hopped down and joined Thurie, who’d shot her a wide grin and relaxed his pace. Her ankle, though stiff, did not hurt, and though she’d brought her cane on the walk as a precaution, she didn’t end up needing it at all.
She started coming up with a detailed program to get back into shape. Floor exercises, strength training, stretching—it had never felt so good to move.
The training was a welcome distraction from the rest of her thoughts. The world around her lately was drained of color, the shadows deeper, and it wasn’t just the grayness of the season. And though the flames of pain in her ankle had finally subsided, sometimes she wondered whether that fire hadn’t simply spread to her heart. There were some nights where she would lie staring at the wagon ceiling, using all her willpower not to cry out in anger.
It wasn’t enough that they’d escaped the king. She wanted revenge. Her thoughts often turned to that conversation she’d had with King Orrus. He had nearly made a happy, willing puppet of her, blind to her own strings.
Facing into the wind, she let a grim smile play on her lips. Oh, she would speak with the people of Fenlick all right, but the message would hardly be king-approved. What happened after she let them know the wicked machinations of their king might be out of her hands, but she had to say something; she owed it to Wynna and all the others.
“Land ho!” Alan called from up front, and the others let out a chorus of whoops and cheers. Sure enough, Tia could see a darker blur taking shape from within the distant smoke: the shadow of the city.
She quickened her steps, ready to be home at last.
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