He crested the summit at noon with the north sea’s winds encouraging his climb. Years ago he’d stalked a knot of goats and discovered their passage, a keyhole in the granite. That route thrilled him: a steep climb over brittle stone, now slick with frost. He liked to steady himself with the alpenstock and that he had to rely on his ice pick to stave off a fatal stumble. His cousins favored the longer way around. One day you won’t be so spry, his cousins had said. One day when you have more meat on your bones, you’ll take the oxcart path. He’d nodded without comment. The boy goat would never be an ox.
The eyes watered. The nostrils dripped. The body’s salve against the freezing wind. A veil stretched across his face, green and black. Snowflakes clung to the silk, then melted by his exhalations. The lashes fluttered. The cheeks pinched. The legs climbed inexorably.
Black tresses bundled at the boy’s nape and cascaded over his pack, gathering a nest of snow. Silk wound the face, wool round the head—the boy favored green, his mother’s eyes—the rest of him sealed against the winter by deerskin. Gloves nearly as old as he. Softened by his labor, oiled by his sweat. The worn shaft of his alpenstock revealed his growth. He held it lower as a child, as he grew taller the umber stain followed his height. Already as tall as his older brother the last time they embraced—sternum to sternum, forearms set in the grooves of each other’s spines—before the elder vanished into the summer wheat.
At the peak, he loosed his pack and stretched his spine for a moment before the cold seized him. To the east, a storm beyond mountains. Thunder from the ominous north sea. Clear skies to the south, over the cliffs, the valley, the oxcart path winding all the way down a hundred leagues to the other end of the continent. Not even the boy’s hale and studied eyes could see the merest consequence of mankind’s expanse across the land. Wilderness was all. From that peak in the far north, there seemed to be no people who could survive the winter, the granite, the winds, the thunder, the frost. Above the treeline, above the world, above all other people, he felt less alone than he did the moment he chose to descend. Hiking down from the zenith of wilderness to the sparse and huddled civilization of whom seven people knew his name, he stomached the despair of endless, aimless running. He was a boy, compelled by the child’s reckoning that labor begat purpose, that strength begat comfort, that there must be a worthy vocation beyond mere survival.
— – — – —
Red silk waved from a nude birch, knotted thrice like the joints of an arm. Among the bare forest ringing the granite peak, the boy hopped one foot to the next, stomping meek divots into the snow. Beneath the birch tree, the boy dropped to a knee, sketched the signal into his field journal, and recorded its location. 1000p south of summit, 20p east of road, 12h up tree. As he scratched his notations into the soft sedgepaper, the silk flagged on the wind that rolled up the mountain pass and brushed the snowcaps seaward.
The black grooves along every inch of the trees seemed to mimic the calligraphy of an artist’s landscape rather than the reverse. The papery bark peeled back like collars loosened. The first art taught to the boy. Even now, rushed for daylight, he sketched the tree that held the silk by scoring black grooves onto his page. “Birchbark. Nature’s gift to poor artists. Simple strokes and the paper provided.” His father’s lecture.
He recognized the scarf. Of course he did. His job was to notice, to recognize, to learn and recite. The scarf’s owner ran a week ahead of him in the rotation. His grandmother’s sister. He could think of no need for such a startling signal when a simple lace would have shone as brightly against the colorless, leafless forest. She would have dire need of all scarves when the storm arrived, which was like to happen any day according to the almanac. A great blizzard. Deeper, meaner than they’d seen in a century.
He buried his nose in the silk to vanquish all doubt. Days of ceaseless wind and snows stripped her scent from the draped lengths, but he found a familiar odor nestled in the knots. She wore the silk around her neck for decades; it would take more than a week of exposure to blanch all reminisces of her. Her footprints were as informative as a diary. She approached this tree from the southeast and returned along the same path. But she spent a while standing at the base of the trunk, much longer than she needed just to hang the signal and tie the three knots. His eyes swept the bark from roots to the first branches. Above his head he saw twine tied just under the armpit of the first branch. A pinch of the fingers, and the twine unfurled, revealing a swath of birch paper wrapped around the thin trunk. On the interior, he found words that he copied into his notebook even before he understood their meaning.
I’ve seen the flooded sky of snow
Burst with smothered lightning.
I’ve seen the bloodied fields fallow
Thirst for brothers fighting.
I’ve seen timber from a sapling grow,
Oceans drain, the sun in hiding.
I’ve read secrets sealed beneath tallow,
Yet found nothing worth confiding.
The terror he’d been ignoring now took hold of him. His great-aunt abandoned a favorite article, raised an enormous warning, and drafted what seemed to be a funerary epigram. She had known she was going to her death.
— – — – —
Footprints led him to the southeast until they vanished amid brown needles and the scrub of the deep wood. The birches filed together closely enough that they shaded the forest even while leafless. He stalked along the mulch of the forest floor, his fur-lined leather boots emitted no sound. Perpendicular to the gaunt trees, at about shoulder height, an arrow wobbled in the breeze; its iron head burrowed into bark. This was not the work of his great-aunt. With rare exception, his people hunted with rabbit sticks: smooth, symmetrical, cylinders of hickory or pine that cut through the air and walloped their target. Maintaining a bow, sourcing string, and fletching arrows proved impractical for their lifestyle. Further, their arrowheads were chipped from stone, not cast from iron. Whoever they were, this archer sighted their aim much too high for even a deer.
The slope of the mountain curled to the south. The boy followed along what his feet assured him was the swiftest path through the forest. He was angling towards the oxcart road when the trees thinned and led him to a grove. Cast in the bronze light of departing day, a mound of stones glimmered with frost. Significant labors were devoted to the arrangement of the stones, fitted each within each and packed tight. Even to his eyes that had never seen a cairn, the boy knew a body lay beneath. His people burned their dead. Burials, and especially those above ground, confounded him.
Moisture welled in both eyes. He stepped forward and placed his hand on the structure but that hand recoiled. He pressed the butts of his palms into his eyes until the pain overwhelmed his sorrow. The rimy stones felt no different than he expected. But the sensation of touching them elicited a dreadful image of the body within, and no body should be so cold.
The boy ran the same rotation for five years, beginning alongside his father at ten and succeeding his brother at thirteen. His father taught him speed, his brother taught him silence. His people took common names to appease the thick-eared villagers, but the boy refused the practice and used only his birth name, Golgrae. On the missives he carried for their employers, they spelled his name Gull Grey, which never ceased to enrage him. His great-aunt Baelbel they called Babble. And now she lay dead, hidden away in a midden heap.
The wind rocked the boughs of the pine trees and snow sprinkled down. The clean white powder lined the jagged edges of the cairn. Nothing excited Golgrae like the sight of even distribution across chaotic forms. Be it moss on a craggy riverbank or a host of gulls resting on a cliff face. Instead of a rude stack of rocks, the dusting of snow imbued each stone with its own dignity, and each stone was a separate tribute to her life. He slashed a lock of his hair and cut a ribbon from his sash. He tied up this lock and secured it under the topmost rock. “A friend was here.”
Golgrae dropped his head and recited the few words he remembered from his brother’s funeral. The Dodae, like many of the other tribes from their era, believed in a spirit called Morgumar the Collector who swept souls from the dead and carried them to the world above the winds. As his mother explained it to him, the winds blowing across our landscape are much like the currents down at the bottom of the sea, for the spirit lands are way up in the heavens and only the Collector can dive deep enough to rescue our souls from eternally foundering down here. Golgrae’s first question was, “What happens to drowning victims? Can he go places where the wind doesn’t go?” Golgrae by the age of three had seen enough ash floating above a fire to suspect that the souls of burning victims would be carried upwards upon the heat and in his young brain understood that to be best. His mother patted his head and leaned down to him. “Don’t you worry about how you will leave this world. Worry about what you will leave this world.”
Little faith though he had in the chants, he sang them for the respect he held his family and their traditions. Real or not, he would do his part to summon the Collector. He spent his life running circles across the landscape, if he were doomed to a life after death, he’d want better for his spirit than a continued wandering.
The boy lowered his pack and rested it beside the jagged mound. Seventy-odd pounds of tent, cookware, bedroll, tools, and rations; nearly doubling his weight. He folded his bison-fur cloak on top of the pack, exposing himself to a sudden shock of cold. He carried no weaponry, only an icepick, a hatchet, a bone knife, and the rabbit sticks. To a scurrying rodent, he was a monster. To any other human being, he was just a twig. The tools were left behind.
Wearing a suit of deerskin, the swift-footed runner transformed into the deliberate naturalist, picking along the forest as nimble as a spider, scrutinizing faint mounds of days-old footprints and gentle furrows left by dragged timber. In winter, when the landscape is nearly vacant and every movement scores its memory into the snow, a foreign creature generates a sphere of disturbance like a ripple in a pond. The sweet aroma of a campfire on the wind, the crackling of the wood, the meddlesome crows blotting the snow-laden branches, the footprints of the foxes, coyotes, and wolves avoiding the stranger. Golgrae traced these signs directly to a unfamiliar camp.
A lopsided tent stood beside the oxcart road. The seams of the leather sides were lined with a glimmering white; winter’s grout sealing over the threads. The carpet of snow climbed up around the cedar poles as though dragging the tent below. A wisp of smoke shimmied from under the folds of the tarpaulin. There was a pitiable quality to that squat tent, half-buried under thick snow, and its meek fire. An irrelevance, a hopeless errand. Take the discolorations of the leather. Even the sun, bruising the hide with its might and melting away color, could not stall the creep of winter. Like a dog let off its leash for a few hours a day, the winter let the sun play in the sky, certain of its inefficacy.
Whoever was inside the tent would not last the season. They were lost; foolishly stoking their twig furnace and huddling beneath the frost-furred reach of death. A person imperiled beyond salvation can only hope to become insane. Runners on the road hid from strangers as a rule. Golgrae’s father put it more gently: “A desperate man is a cracked bowl. Handle delicately and fill only with what you can afford to spill.”
The boy kept moving, circling their perimeter. He discovered the copse of elm trees they sourced for firewood; wedges and kindling left to dry in the sun. Recent tracks confirmed their privy; a clump of overturned snow beside a well-tamped latrine ditch. Other tracks led Golgrae to a frozen-over creek that provided fresh water. He heard one of the campers crunching across the stamped path to the privy. The man wore a woolen head-wrap twisted into a thick cord around the skull and a faded indigo scarf twisted and tied beautifully under the chin. The practiced handiwork betrayed the man’s upbringing in the southeast, where snow never falls. His cloak’s collar had no fur, explaining to the cautious boy why none of them stood sentry in the freezing temperatures. He carried a blue-and-white, six-foot spear, with long white quills tied round the spearhead’s collar, rattling with each movement. These were not madmen lost in the mountains. They were soldiers of the far-reaching expeditionary forces, as unfamiliar to this landscape as they are unloved by its inhabitants. Furthermore, they were bitter enemies of Golgrae’s family. These men were Fallicorn.
“Why would the Fallicorns kill Aunt Baelbel?” Golgrae said, whispering to himself. “Why are they bivouacked so far north?”
“The real question,” he said in a lower voice, his father’s voice, stretching his throat back, “Why bury her so deep in the woods? Why no pyre?”
“They must have known I’d see the smoke. They are expecting me.”
“They know our rotation but not our ribbons.”
“These are not Novos’s men, are they, Pop?”
“How did they get past Novos?” he said to himself.
Golgrae waited for the man to return within the tent and then he scaled a thick birch. He sliced his headscarf into thirds. He tied a length of his scarf around the branch. With the loose end, he tied up a pinecone, to counteract some of the wind.
He descended and ran back into the woods, half the distance towards the cairn, and scaled another tree. He hung the second third of his scarf identically. Then he ran south, leaping over the narrow frozen creek as it coursed through the woods, and arrived upon the oxcart road. Golgrae took a deep breath and climbed a third tree. He rested in the nook of the fattest branch. From this perch, Golgrae could see the tracks of the soldiers winding down the switchbacks for miles. He studied them until he was certain how many there were. Three sets of footprints, three knots in Baelbel’s warning. Golgrae hung his final alarm, this one for the widdershins, and descended.
“Please, run down to Novos. He will protect you.”
“But why did Baelbel risk her life?”
“To save you, my boy.”
“No,” he said, hiking up the path, from the south, following their tracks. “She wanted to know what they’re doing. So do I.”
“We are voices carried on the wind.”
“Yes, but we are also eyes, pop.”
“If they would kill an old woman, they will kill a young boy,” he said. And even though he was arguing with himself, he didn’t have a reply.
The height of the mountain peak exploited the final hour of sunlight. Down below, the frigid valley lay in darkness while Golgrae’s surroundings glowed pink and orange. As he returned to their camp, he spied his colorful headscarf way up in the bare white limb. The Fallicorns might notice it, and there would be nothing they could do. A Dodae courier would never miss it. If the same fate befell Golgrae that buried his great-aunt, his cousins would at least be certain that he understood the risk.
“Please, my boy,” he said. “Don’t be foolish. Please.”
— – — – —
The soldiers had trampled the snow all around their campsite in the days they’d been there so that Golgrae could move about undetected by hopping along their divots. From the oxcart road, he could walk to their firewood stack without bothering to look down. A long-handled axe and a hatchet stuck up from the plate of a felled tree’s trunk. The timber lay sectioned on the ground beside. Golgrae grabbed the hatchet by its thin haft and yanked it free. He admired the rough ironwork of the head; a black ingot wedge flattened out to a thin beak. The wood bore no scorings, nor paint, nor tassels; a tool produced by the hundreds with no time nor inclination toward aesthetic. Had he seen only this hatchet and no other evidence, he’d have known a Fallicorn was near.
He slipped the hatchet into his belt.
From the firewood stack he moved to the privy ditch, stepping irregularly to syncopate his footfalls with the snapping of the fire and the thrumming of the wind against the leather fly. Beneath his feet, the packed divots of snow creaked like dry boards. Golgrae doubted they could hear the thin noise, but if they did, they would not recognize in it any pattern of moving creatures.
He stepped along the well-trod path from the privy—beside which lay a black spade worked from the same ore as the hatchet—to the tent. Smoke rose in a thin column, wagging in the wind. At the corners of the tent, the wires sunk beneath the snow in the deadman method; secured around a log or stone and then buried. Deadman weights solved the issue of pitching tents on ground that won’t hold tent pegs—sand, mud, snow. Fallicorn soldiers trained and hunted in the southeast, a territory soaked in perennial rains. With the exception of their clothing, they’d adapted to the wintry terrain. Golgrae sighed. Everything he’d seen indicated the highest level of capability. Against his strongest convictions, Golgrae admired their wilderness acumen.
Loose hairs tickled his nose, sprung from the locks that draped over his shoulders, free now that he sacrificed his headwrap, which was when he noticed he was shivering. He’d been ignoring his body’s alarms. Climbing up and down trees kept him warm, but now as he snuck around their campsite absent his bison-fur cloak, absent his normal speed, the cold air latched around his wrists and neck and spread across his torso. The sweat on his chest and back betrayed him to the frost. The leather clothing became frigid and hostile to the touch. He grabbed the coils of his hair and tied them under his chin.
A malicious thought crossed his mind. Cut the wires on the backside, collapse the tent. In the time it would take them to get the flap open, run around front, yanking the fly to cover the flap. The smoke inside would blind and choke them, and they’d have to cut their way out of the tent. Run off, grabbing the spade, the axe, and the hatchet, and leave them with a ruined tent, no tools, and nightfall. They would die. They would die tonight. He discarded the instinct. He was not there for revenge or even justice, he was there for information. Choking them out and leaving them to freeze would be of no benefit to the Dodae. And curiosity would haunt him. He had to know what they were doing.
But the true reason Golgrae chose not to manifest any of his violent thoughts was even more simple. His entire life he had been a traveler, sleeping in tents on the skirts of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by perils and predators. Nothing in the world could convince him to ambush men, no matter how evil, resting inside their tent. “There’s no way around it, pop,” he said. “I have to announce myself.”
He hustled back to the oxcart road, hallooed, and hiked up from the road to the tent door. “Who thatta be? Yeah?” said a voice from within, confirming beyond all doubt the origin of these southeastern killers. Golgrae withheld his name and status. He wanted to see their faces when they recognized another Dodae in their camp. He thickened up his voice with phlegm and bit down half his lip to sound like southern folk and said, “A cold traveler who’d thank you to share that fire.”
The thongs popped off the toggles running along the inside of the flap, beginning at shoulder height. A man’s face appeared, brown beard crawling up gaunt cheeks and over wide cheekbones, the eyes bloodshot from the cloud of smoke that ignored the flue. “Oh,” he said. Then he turned to the interior and said something Golgrae couldn’t hear. More thongs were loosed. The flap curled in. “Come in,” the man said, kneeling to untie the threshold. Behind him stood a shorter man with a grey beard down to his belly. He stared at Golgrae with mean dark eyes and a pained expression. The skin around his eyes was puffy and irritated. He glanced up at the flue. With the door open, the cross-breeze rallied all the smoke up and out of the tent. “Hurry up then, ‘fore you let all the good air out,” said the first man. Neither of the these two were the man he spied returning from the privy. Where’s the third man?
The creaking snow gave away the deliberate footsteps from behind the tent. A concealed exit, easy enough with these leather tents. And that explains why it’s taking this man so long to let me in. Clever.
Three knots in Baelbel’s scarf, three sets of tracks on the oxcart road, three Fallicorns, and a cairn hidden in the woods. Golgrae’s mind was now convinced of what his heart had always believed. The first man pulled back the flap for Golgrae to enter and waved him in. The boy shivered all over. To enter was death.
In his head, he heard his father beg for him to run.
“Are you ill?” Golgrae said. “Any of you?”
“Whadya mean ill?” said the first man.
“In the time you’ve been camped here, you could have hiked to Moro. The road takes you all the way there. Two days, maybe three at your speed. You’re Fallicorns. Commander Bostrom would have thrown you a feast. The only reason you would have stopped is if someone twisted an ankle or fell ill.”
“No, nothing like that,” the man said.
“You came from the south, so you’ve already seen Commander Novos at Hurleweth. But it strikes me as uncharacteristic that he hasn’t outfitted southern soldiers with fur hats and cloaks.”
“Boy,” said the grey bearded short man, “nobody’s ill, nobody’s gotta hurt foot.”
“Come on in already,” said the first man at the door. “You’re letting all the good air escape.”
“Which one of you is in command?” said Golgrae. The two men hesitated, looking at one another, expecting the other to answer. “Or is it the guy on the side of the tent taking a leak?” Their eyes went wide but then their expressions differed. The shorter man seemed angry with Golgrae. The first man smiled and rode Golgrae’s lie.
“We didn’t want to say. You came at a bad time. The sergeant’s been poorly all day.”
“So you are ill.”
“Here I am,” said the false sergeant turning the corner of the tent. Golgrae’s heart choked and his lungs folded. Draped across the man’s shoulders: a motley cloak of red, green, and blue patches, with a interior lining of badger fur. By far the warmest garment any of them could get their hands on. And its previous owner lay under stones in the forest.
The false sergeant’s lips twisted up, but his guise collapsed when he saw the look on Golgrae’s face. Glancing down at the cloak, he said, “Oh, crap.”
For an instant, Golgrae’s mind flitted along a dozen paths: this stolen relic of Baelbel’s stolen life, swaddling the villain responsible for the crime; the returning trauma of his brother’s death under similar circumstances; the memory of his father barked at by Fallicorn soldiers; his mother warning him to stay a thousand leaps from the blue spears. Golgrae had gone too far, had ignored too many instincts. That mad belief that you can re-spool events through sheer willpower, sheer hatred, sheer disappointment in your own actions. Too late. Too far. The time to flee had passed.
Golgrae found death at his throat; thick fingered, ungloved death scrabbling at his neck. Luck, entertaining itself, doled out favor to Golgrae. His long tresses, knotted under his chin for warmth, entangled the man’s fingers. The grey-bearded man could not find Golgrae’s gaunt neck to throttle. The false sergeant drew his sword and readied it to strike. The other held a bow at his side but didn’t bother to nock the arrow. According to his demeanor, the job was already done. “Grab a holt of eem,” said the false sergeant. But the grey-bearded man couldn’t hold the boy still. Golgrae’s arm flailed about and his feet slid across the ground, pushed backwards. The campsite sat on a slight rise above the oxcart road. Golgrae slipped and his body teetered and he would have tumbled end-over-end to the road had not the murderer’s fat nubs of flesh gripped Golgrae’s hair. The boy slipped to his butt, landing on the ancient hatchet that hurt so sharply that it ripped him from his traumatic reverie and awakened him to his violently imperiled life. It also reminded him that he had a hatchet.
Golgrae pulled himself up on the man’s wrists and the man shouted, “I’ve got eem,” and he believed that he did and Golgrae believed him, and together they shared in the absurdity of the hatchet embedded between the man’s ear and eyeball and the thin hickory shaft leading from it to the skinny fingers of the frightened boy.
No one had expected it. No one had seen it. No one remembered it. Golgrae chopped the iron beak of the hatchet into the man’s skull. In a flash of desperation.
The short grey bearded man let go of Golgrae’s locks and his hand rose to Golgrae’s shaking grip and caressed the fingers until they let go. The man gently placed his hand on the hickory shaft. A hatchet. At first the damnedest thing, then a moment later the most obvious thing. A hatchet to the brain. Of course.
He stumbled into the tent, shouldering the other two men out of the way, and sat on his cot, fondling at his canteen. He tilted his head back to drink, the pressure on the wound shifted, and the man’s bones folded over one another.
The men turned from their dead comrade to glower at Golgrae. The false sergeant lunged. Golgrae leapt backwards, lost his footing on the hill, and toppled to the road, rolling in the powder.
The false sergeant slid on his butt down the slope after him and came to his feet before Golgrae could even stand. Desperate for movement, Golgrae threw himself sideways and then turned somersaults until he could scramble on all fours. An arrow smacked just beside his hand and skittered away. The oxcart road consisted of muddy ruts and smoothed over stones that froze early in the year, every year, at this elevation. Just beneath the few inches of snow lay a sheet of ice eager to send an incautious foot twisting. Golgrae rolled to his back and crab-walked over to the center of the road until he could feel the ruts on the ground. He crawled backwards as the false sergeant charged. Leaning over to grab Golgrae, his heel slid forward along one of the ruts and his arms flailed backward—the Dodae cloak slipping free—and in that moment Golgrae rolled to his knees and sprang to his feet. He ducked into the woods as another arrow clattered against the trees. Golgrae sprinted into the darkness with the swordsman swiping at his back. Running at full speed, he cycled through various ideas. He’d only survived this long because of the extreme terrain. Which reminded him of the frozen creek just ahead. He leapt over it and decided to run back north to his pack. Then he heard a loud crack and thump and a man’s voice hollered. Golgrae turned to see the swordsman doubled over against the tiny bank of the creek. He had stepped right into it and twisted his ankle. With his left hand he pushed himself backward until he was sitting in the middle of the creek in water no more than three inches deep, high up in the mountains at dusk in the middle of winter. He was freezing to death before Golgrae’s eyes. The ghastly demeanor of the man drew Golgrae nearer. Against his better judgment he jogged toward the man sitting in the creek. Even in the failing light of a forest in twilight, the blood shone like wax against the silvery leafblade sword in the false sergeant’s hand. Upon tripping, he’d evidently fallen against his sword, which cut deep into the tissue of his inner thigh. The hot fluids stained the ice and swirled with the trickling water under the frozen surface. The swordsman didn’t take his eyes off Golgrae as his face blanched and life drained out through his leg into the frozen creek.
Twice in two minutes he observed the opposing states of life and death. There was no moment of fatality, there was no action of dying. The energies of the bodies waned, but life did not recede to nothingness like a wave rolling back into the ocean. Even life at its faintest, at its most dismal, is as vibrant as the sun in comparison to the sack of wet oats that is a corpse. Golgrae did not witness their deaths. Life ceased at an interstice of reality so finite Golgrae felt like some cosmic giant whose blinks shuttered out six months at a time, staring at a harvest and then blinking to see that field fallow.
“Dodae,” he heard. The archer yanked the bowstring to his cheek and launched an arrow towards Golgrae in the manner you’d throw stones at a rat. Golgrae ducked behind a tree and the arrow continued on into the forest. A sheet of snow clung to every inch of his body. Clumps of powder matted his hair. He could hear the archer crunching the pine needles, approaching his position. He’d been lucky about the arrows, but the archer only had one left. He would not waste his last shot. Golgrae studied the shadows of the canopy on the floor. His father was obsessed with patterns. His father lectured, The eye sees what it expects to see, the mind sees what it wants to see. Conceal yourself in the familiar. His body was shimmering with snow. There’d be no hiding among shadows. He sat against the trunk of a pine, plotting his escape as the archer approached the creek. He heard him talking to his dead friend, “Wiese, ya ready, pal? Can ya get up?”
Staring forward, the pattern of his escape occurred to him. And such as it is, as soon as the answer became clear he chided himself for being so oblivious before. He stood up and ran straight forward. The pattern wasn’t anywhere on the ground. The pattern was in the forest. He was leaning against one tree that was certainly between he and the archer. So long as he ran in a line that kept that tree between them, he’d be safe. He sprinted forward, shaking his head to glance over his shoulder and then at the roots on the ground, over his shoulder then forward, again and again. He saw the archer drop his bow. Golgrae stopped to observe. The archer shook the dead body in the creek. From Golgrae’s distance, it appeared that the man wept.
— – — – —
An hour after nightfall, standing beside his tent, chomping on a mouthful of jerky, Golgrae stared up at the night sky.
Stars. Endless stars in a moonless vault. He reached his hand before him. Fingers, palm, and elbow vanished, passing through negative space, blotting what light it touched; a perfect silhouette, as distant to him as the night sky. “So must we all pass into the night,” his father told him years earlier, “no brighter than a single taper flickering before the sun.” If any of those stars were spirits or worlds or suns or prophesies or dreams or charms or coins or hearts or teeth or eyes or snags in the infinite, if any of them were anything important, as he’d heard from dozens of fables, he delighted in obliterating those disdainful mutes with his narrow fingers.
“As many lies are told as there are stars to lie upon,” his father told him, “and as many truths as suns.” Golgrae remembered his father’s words in his father’s voice. “Love is the truth, if you’d like to know,” his father continued on many occasions when they were alone with the wilderness. “The trick is not to learn to love those you do not, but to learn how to love those you do.“
Golgrae was accustomed to differenthood. The Dodae practiced a different religion and paid no tithe to the councils. Even the Dodae who traveled with the Fallicorns to the southeast to aid in the hunt were never called Fallicorns. They were always Dodae. He’d always been different but he’d never been feared.
He remembered when he first met a family of Quey how disappointed he was when he saw that they weren’t actually giants, as he’d been told. How strange that he was saddened by the knowledge that they were just like any other family. He again thought of his mother. Imagination is our constant foil and empathy its only relief, his mother would say. But neither mother nor father with all of their shared wisdom could predict which stranger on the road would share their fire and which would throw a knife. Miles away, a coyote howled, soon joined by its kin. Golgrae could not know what that meant for the fate of the archer, but it reaffirmed his loneliness. He flipped the lid of his firepot, an iron disk that locked the embers within, and transferred it inside his small tent. At this elevation, in this season, he daren’t waste even a little heat. He crawled in beside.
Commander Novos would know what to do about the Fallicorns. He’d been a Fallicorn his whole life. One of the last of the generation that grew up hunting alongside Jaen. Between Golgrae and Novos lay five leagues of mountainous terrain. So long as the snows held off one more day, Golgrae would be safe, warm, and well-fed by the next nightfall.