The storyteller sits up by the fence that surrounds the field, a flimsy canopy over the area of bright matting where his audience sits. By his face and build, I can see he's from the same eastern land as Lai was, and indeed most of his stories have a flavour of that distant country about them. But he knows other tales, too, and the five of us sit entranced before the Enimari Rangers and Sorrowsoul, Fenland sprites and Istanian djinni. But the story that really grips me... although I couldn't say why... comes from the mountains around Tesonia and Enimar, those high regions that near-defeated me.
It begins ordinarily enough, with a bold young man from one of the mountain villages, who goes in search of a mysterious woman whose beautiful voice he has heard on the mountain slopes.
""This was against the words of all who knew him," the man explains, his audience entranced by his descriptions of the enigmatic voice... me included. "Don't go! cries his mother, holding him back. Don't go! cries his father, running to his side. Don't go! cries his brother, and his sister, and all his friends, but Dail isn't listening, oh no. For all he can hear is the music that runs through his mind and burns in his soul, night and day, waking and sleeping, without pause or rest, calling him to it.
A sailor could have warned him with tales of mermaids and sirens beguiling men to their doom; a woodsman might have described the dryads and elves who steal the unwary away and seal them forever in their unearthly kingdom. An Istanian nomad might speak of the tricks worked by djinni; a Satht Da'yri farmer, of the games mesti love to play. But no such tales had reached the mountains, and even if they had Dail would not have heeded them, such was his obsession.
Up he climbed, from the day he left his village, day and night without rest, until he was high above the clouds and guided by nothing more than the clear voice that sang to him from the peaks by night. Ice frosted the bitter rock, tearing his skin and leaving his limbs numb, and still he climbed. Blizzards drove at him, wild beasts tracked him, slopes of scree gave way beneath him, a thousand wounds gained a day and forgotten in his drive to keep moving upwards. In his village, he missed and counted for dead, mourned and remembered with sadness as a fool.
Finally the day came when Dail reached the very peak of the mountain, the top of the world itself. There, he could see nothing save for the snow-capped peaks of the mountains around him rising from the vast sea of clouds that surrounded them; a breathtaking sight, but not what the youth sought. Where was the woman who sang in such an unearthly and wondrous voice? Feeling himself a craven fool, the young man sank to the ground, exhausted and on the edge of death.
But around him... ah! The sounds of a voice, gentle yet unending, a melody of pure starlight and wind. And warm arms around him, lifting him, carrying him somewhere soft and warm.
So it was that when Dail awoke, he found himself not in the afterlife, but in a deep cavern within the heart of the mountain, warmed by the lifeblood of the world and tended by the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Her long copper hair was braided and bound; unlike the women Dail knew, she wore breeches, although she was herself bedecked with the finest and most wonderful jewellery ever before seen with human eyes. And her eyes were themselves as grey as smoke, and in a single glance at their haze Dai fell in love.
Not once did the woman speak to Dail; not once did she do more than smile and tend to him. Only at nights, when she thought him sleeping, would she sing in the voice of the mysterious singer, combing our her long hair by the red glow of the bubbling pool of radiance in the centre of the chamber. And the mountain man, only pretending to slumber, would lie awake and listen as long as he dared, sometimes until the light of dawn found its way into the cave.
As his strength returned, Dail's wondrous guide showed him her kingdom, the people who lived in the caverns beneath the mountain. As he saw the beauties of that land, the skill of the many smithies who worked there, the youth knew that he was truly in a place of marvels and wished he could remain there forevermore.
Finally the day came when his strength returned, and he was well. The beautiful woman, whose name he still did not know, guided him to the exit of the caves. Outside, the path away was clear, but even as his eyes saw it Dail realised he had no wish to take that road. Falling to his knees, he asked his enchanting companion to be his wife.
With sadness in her eyes she helped him to his feet, and took his hands in hers. With infinite gentleness, she guided them to her long hair... and through it, to the long tips of the ears below. Even as Dail realised that she was no mortal, but one of the stone-kin, the fabled spirits of the mountains, his vision darkened and he fell to the ground.
Awaking in his home village amongst his astonished and overjoyed family and friends, Dail realised how foolish he had been to fall in love with an immortal, when a union between them was forbidden. Yet there was no choice in his heart; after recounting his tale to the villagers, he left once more to seek his love. And that is where this tale ends. I pray you will not fear it is the last."
I go to bed still thinking of the story; Brin and I can't stop discussing it. Imagine climbing a whole mountain and falling in love with a spirit... I can't imagine being in love with a mesti. Martin and Dean are unimpressed with the whole affair, and Eárin seems to be finding the idea laughable, but my sister and I agree that it's incredibly romantic.
My dreams are full of mountains; fire and ice together.
"Hey, Yjadd, wake up! Come on!"
I groan and wave an aimless hand at Brin, who ducks and then persists in pulling at my arm.
"No, you've got to come! You'll never guess who I've seen!"
With exaggerated reluctance, I get up and follow her out of the tent into the bright sunshine of the day. There's no sign of the others; I remember that Martin and Dean have once again been held back by their teacher, but what about Eárin? I ask, and my sister grins.
"I left him to watch... come on!"
Unable to get any reasonable explanation out of her, I decide to follow and see what all the fuss is about. We hurry past stalls that are already doing brisk business and the entertainers who are already out in force; I'm starting to get the hang of where everything is by now, and I realise that Brin's leading me away from the village and towards the edge of the forest.
"What are we going to see?" I demand, pulling back. The girl looks at me impatiently, then glances back over her shoulder. Just then, Eárin's hooded head appears around the corner, and leaving questions I hurry over to see what's going on.
"Over there," my friend whispers, and I follow his finger to see two very familiar figures standing beside a stall, chatting amicably to each other.
"What are they doing here?" I hiss to Brin, who shrugs.
"They said they were meeting someone, right? Maybe they met them."
I look back at the two women, one dark-skinned and dressed in green, the other blonde and wearing blue. Kuyi and Sarah, just as I remember them. Only what do I remember? Only that they were very odd indeed. I recall the dream I had about Sarah, and look over at her again. She looks perfectly normal now.
"There's a couple of others showed up while you were gone," Eárin whispers. "They left again... oh no, here they are."
At first I can't see who he means, then I catch sight of two young men, about the same age as our erstwhile companions, weaving their way through the crowd with a determined air. They're every bit as odd as the women, wearing clothes that are almost but not quite normal. The one has very pale skin and a lot of fine, white hair that puffs around his sculpted face; he looks almost like a marble statue, and has a vague, slightly dreamy expression despite the old leather and battered sword he wears. His companion is shorter, with tanned skin and close-cropped red hair. His face is alert and clever, his movements quick; he stands out despite the loose, nondescript clothes he wears.
The red-headed youth runs up to the two women and plants a lively kiss on Sarah's cheek; she laughs and pushes him away. The vaguer of the two is smiling at Kuyi, and she's smiling back shyer than I've ever seen her. So they're two couples. Odd. Knowing Sarah and Kuyi even a little, I wouldn't have thought they'd be with these other two... but then, there's something odd about all of them.
"Weird, huh?" Brin asks, eyes sparkling, and I nod. I turn to Eárin, to see what he thinks, but to my surprise his face is thoughtful.
"What?" I ask. He shakes his head.
"Nothing, really..." he begins. He gets no farther, as the red-haired man looks up and catches sight of us. His friends see us too, and realising our cover is blown we troop out to greet them in a more polite manner. Kuyi raises an acidic eyebrow as we approach.
"Do you spy on all your acquaintances, or is it just us?" she demands. I attempt to stammer an apology, but Sarah cuts me off.
"They were just curious, weren't you? Here, let me introduce you to Cal..."
... the smaller man nods amicably...
"and Bren. They're close friends of ours."
The pale man smiles broadly and offers me a square hand to shake; this close, I can see that his eyes are a clear stormy grey.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Yjaddetht Doresoth," he smiles.
"How do you know her name?" Eárin asks immediately. Four pairs of eyes swivel to look straight at him.
"We told him," Kuyi replies bluntly. Then a fleeting smile crosses her face. "Sorei leát anui tamiurel, eldan."
I blink. The words are no language I have ever heard before, but the accent in which she speaks them is unmistakeable; it's the same as the one Eárin speaks with.
His reaction, too, is unusual to say the least. With a small cry, he flushes red, then immediately takes to his heels. With a momentary glance at me, Brin sets out after him, leaving me alone with the four strangers. Strange being the operative word.
They're also watching the way Eárin ran, and as I watch Cal gives Kuyi a thump on the arm. "Way to go, High-and-Mighty."
"Watch it, Smart-Alec," she replies with a smile, and I sense an old but friendly rivalry at play. These two have been teasing each other for a long time, an impression confirmed by the way Sarah smiles tolerantly and Bren rolls his eyes.
"So how are you doing?" the blonde woman asks me. I shrug.
"Okay," I reply. "I'm playing for these acrobats on afternoons... the Durien Troupe?"
"Hey, I heard of them!" Cal exclaims. "They're meant to be pretty good."
"Anyone object to going this afternoon?" Sarah enquires, and there is a chorus of shaking heads and shrugging shoulders. She turns back to me. "You go after your friend now, and we'll see you later, okay?"
I nod uncertainly, unsure of whether this is a good thing or not, and escape after Brin and Eárin. I find them a short distance away, the first trying to get some sense out of the latter who keeps breaking into the same unknown tongue that sent him running in the first place.
"Calm down!" I exclaim. "Now, what's up?"
He shakes his head. "I... I can't tell," he whispers shakily. "It's not... not a thing anyone else should speak of..."
And that's all we can get out of him for the rest of the morning. With Martin and Dean absent and Eárin clammed up like an oyster, Brin and I find ourselves falling into awkward silence too. When afternoon comes, I'm happy to escape from the mood and head for the Troupe, even if it means seeing the strange foursome once more.
As it happens, though, I don't see them, not once. The whole afternoon I'm sitting and waiting for them to show, going through the motions of making music as I scan the faces of the crowd, but there's no sign of them. I eat my evening meal in thoughtful silence as I hear once again of Ralun's failure.
Even as I go to bed, I can't be sure of whether or not this was a good day.
I'm woken by the sound of low voices outside; Ralun's talking to someone. Curious, I stick my head out of the canvas, and in surprise see that it's Cal he's speaking to. The young man grins and gives me a thumbs-up.
"Nice show yesterday," he compliments. For a moment I'm stunned; he didn't come to my show! Then I realise I must have missed him and his friends in the crowd.
"I'm just suggesting a few folk your mentor here might try for a winter place," the youth continues. "And then I was going to ask if I could show you around for the day. There are some things I want to discuss with you."
Baffled, I look to Ralun. Surely he won't just be taking the word of a total stranger... but he's nodding and smiling, and as I look closer I'm sure I can see something in his eyes, something tiny and almost invisible...
"Come on!" Cal grins, hauling on my hand, and suddenly we're moving away from my mentor and the tent, out towards the empty field on the opposite side of the festival to the forest. Fear flutters in my heart; what's going on here? I try to pull away, but the man has my arm in an iron grip. I try to open my mouth to scream for help.
No sound comes out.
"Relax," Cal smiles, seeing my fear. "Nothing permanent has been done to you or Ralun. Just a couple of tricks from my friends." With a wink, he holds up his other hand, and my eyes widen as I see the two crystals that sit in it. Both should be clear, but in the centre of one is a bright blue light, and a cheery yellow one blazes from the other. Even as I watch, the blue light in the first winks out, and Cal pockets the crystal.
"There. Your bard is back to normal," he smiles. "Just a bit of a calming influence... nothing heavy-handed..."
My eyes widen. I still can't speak, but with all my mind I think; you're mages!
Quite right, replies Cal's voice into my mind. Special ones, too. But that's just a means to an end, and right now, you need to listen to me.
The yellow light winks out, and I find I can speak again. We're at the edge of the fair by now, and we sit by the thick hedge that marks that boundary.
"Why should I listen? You practically kidnapped me!" I snap. Cal flushes.
"Okay, so maybe I lack subtlety," he admits. "Sarah would've been able to do it without resorting to any magic at all... but that's Sarah, that's her stuff. Me, I tend to be a bit more direct about things." He sighs heavily. "The reason I'm talking to you is because, like I said, we're a special kind of mage. And we know some things that other people don't, and one of those things is that you need some training and advice your bard can't give you."
I shake my head. "I can find other people..."
"Only if you know where to look," comes the reply. "I can give you that, too."
I frown, curious. "Training in what?"
The youth gives me a lopsided smile, and with a flash of his fingers draws a coin seemingly from the air. "Theft," he says simply. "I used to be a professional thief, and I still know more than magic tricks... I can give you a few basics, and some people to go to."
I shake my head. "I'm a performer, not a robber," I tell him firmly. "I don't need to know much about stealing."
Cal raises an eyebrow. "You're Windsoul, Yjadd. Where you are today may not be where you are tomorrow. And you know it, too; that's why you keep trying to learn new skills. So what do you say?"
I look up at the young man, and see only goodwill in his dark brown eyes. In truth, I can't remember any of the four ever causing me harm; I was just scared by their presence, and knowing that they're mages makes that a little easier... besides, a new skill would be useful...
"You're on," I grin, and he reflects it in his face. With one hand, he helps me to my feet, and we clamber over the hedge into the field beyond.
The rest of the morning is interesting, to put it mildly. Cal is friendly and open, but not particularly patient; admittedly, I'm not either, but between the two of us we can't seem to stick at anything long enough to achieve a thing. Still, somehow I start to get the hang of what he's trying to show me; he uses magic frequently to produce props from the air, locks and bells and all manner of other things besides. I've never seen a mage use so much power without collapsing; I didn't think they could. Or perhaps this is what makes him and his friends "special".
When afternoon arrives, I head off to join Vera and the Durien Troupe once more, and this time I do see people I know in the audience; Eárin, Martin, Brin and Dean are all there, the latter two holding hands. Just for them, I throw in a few bars of Brin's song, Forest Green Eyes, then continue with more normal playing.
As I go to bed that night I reflect that, all in all, it's been a pretty good day.
I have a hard job persuading the others to join me at my lesson with Cal; Eárin, in particular, seems terrified by the very idea. But at least Ralun's in a good mood. He hasn't found us a place for the winter yet, but acting on Cal's advice yesterday lead him to someone who knows someone who thinks there's a strong probability... it's not much, but it has made the bard optimistic; he gives Brin and I a handful of coins each and tells us to go enjoy ourselves.
So it is that we all end up going over to the field where Cal is already waiting, lying on his back and idly chewing a blade of grass. He looks over as we approach, and springs to his feet with a grin.
"Hey, more of you?" he laughs. "You guys want a lesson too?"
There is a moment of blank stares, and then he sighs. "Well, you can have 'em anyway. I ain't got time to argue."
And with these words, he starts his lessons once more.
The others soon manage to relax around him, even Eárin, and with a few more people things move on faster. After a few hours, he's challenging us to take anything we like from him without being detected.
"Except this," he adds, tapping a chain that hangs around his neck. I've noticed it before, but whatever it holds is hidden in his shirt.
"What is it?" Brin wants to know. Cal shakes his head.
"Doesn't matter," he replies firmly. "Just don't take it."
As if we could anyway. Half an hour later, we've all tried and failed a dozen times to get past him, and been constantly frustrated. Brin seems quite bored by the activity anyway; I don't think she's enjoying herself as much as the rest of us. I say as much to Cal, who nods and closes his eyes. A few minutes later, Sarah appears and takes the girl off to one side, the two of them talking nineteen to the dozen. I guess Cal must have done that mind-speaking thing he did to me.
The morning passes quickly, and I head over to the Durien Troupe as my friends set out to explore the festival, Cal and Sarah in tow. Once you get past their oddness, the mages seem to be quite friendly... although I can't speak for Kuyi or Bren, to be honest.
The festival isn't just a celebration, it's a palce where news is passed and spread, so I'm not too surprised when I arrive at the Troupe's spot to find them discussing the latest they've heard.
"It's the princess," Vera tells me. "Of Enimar? She was sent off to be married to some bigwig in Yeindar, the great high clan chief or whatever they call him... anyway, it was pure politics, only way to forge an alliance."
I remember the sad-looking woman our ship passed in the Inat Channel all those months ago, and nod. "Go on."
"Well, they're saying that she's just been wed... to a Namirran refugee!"
I can't believe it. "You're kidding!" I gasp. I know enough to know that royal weddings do not happen like that.
"No, I swear it! I've heard it ten times from different people, although..." the acrobat frowns... "they did all give different reasons..."
The eloping princess is the talk of the evening at Meia's fire, too.
"I say good on her," Jorn smiles. "I married for love, and it's done me the world of good."
"Oh, I agree totally. By the way, love, I put poison in your dinner," his wife announces, her eyes glittering with mischief. The tinker gulps it all down with a smile, amongst our laughter at their teasing.
The only thing that overshadows this is Ralun's announcement that he might have found us a place.
"The lady in question wants to meet you two tomorrow, and if she approves we're in the clear," the old man announces happily. We all cheer.
"Where is it?" Brin wants to know.
"She's from Fen Irian," Ralun replies. "Her husband's an old blood noble. A good family, from what I hear."
I go to bed in an irrepressibly good mood. Today has gone well, beyond all expectation, and tomorrow promises to be just as interesting.
Thank you, Sother, I think, just before falling asleep.
For our meeting, Ralun demands that I and Brin look our best. So it is that we get up at the crack of dawn and wash our faces and hands clean in a bowl of icy water, before finding out clean clothes to wear; we've been responsible for washing our own, but after the mud and rain a few days ago we cleaned most of our things. I don't wear my performance gear, mainly because I don't want to put a skirt on, but by the time my sister and I are dressed we both look very smart. Well, comparatively.
The sky is light and the air fresh by the time we set out, and there are already plenty of people around to smile and wish us well. Ralun leads us through the packed festival site to a large, brightly coloured tent that is somewhat larger than the small shelter we've been sleeping in. This one is large enough to walk into, orbited by several others and at the centre of a bustle that appears to include an army of servants.
Ralun marches confidently, but Brin and I are more hesitant as we approach the door-flap; a man in very smart clothes seems to be guarding the entrance, but our mentor has a few words with him and he waves us by. Clearly we're expected.
Inside, it's as if we're standing in a room in a wealthy house; there is a waterproof groundsheet covered by rugs and mats, a small but sturdy bed, chests and cabinets... it's quite incongruous, really. A round table sits in the centre of the space, with a few stools situated next to it. On one is a woman, her dark colouring speaking of Tesonian or even Istanian blood, despite the bright Fenland clothes she wears. She smiles as we enter, and waves a hand to suggest we sit.
"It is good to meet you both," she says, her accent almost flawless. I still can't tell her origins. "I interviewed your teacher yesterday, and he seems to be a most interesting man. My husband and I like to have interesting people around us, especially in the cold days of winter. But I would like to speak with you both first. Shall we start with your names?"
"I'm Yjaddetht Doresoth," I inform her, smiling broadly.
"Brin Hawkwind," says my sister. The lady raises an eyebrow.
"Strange. Ralun tells me you're his granddaughter, but I would not expect a child raised in Enimar to use a mountain name. Are you not named for your parents?"
Brin shrugs. "I prefer my grandfather's name," she declares. After a moment, the woman nods equitably.
"It is good to know what you prefer your name to be. I am the Lady Naruna Thaness, and that name I got from my husband. I find it far preferable to my old one, as he comes with it."
I can't suppress a small grin at her deadpan humour, and her quick eyes see this with ease. She doesn't miss a thing, as far as I can tell; it's an impressive trait.
She spends a long while asking us questions about ourselves, our pasts, our ambitions. There's something about the woman that persuades you to open up, and I learn things about Brin I never knew before. She probably learns a bit about me, too, for that matter.
Eventually, Lady Naruna sits back with a nod.
"I think you are both quite fascinating," she chuckles. "Not to mention skilled. It will be a delight to have you with us this coming season."
We all smile with relief, and the woman laughs aloud.
"We're leaving the day after festival ends," she informs us. "You had all best be ready to come along by then."
We thank her profusely and stand to leave, but before we can go she holds up a hand and her eyes rake across my face once more.
"Tell me, have I seen you in the course of the festival?" she asks me. I shake my head.
"Not as far as I know," I reply. "Although it's possible."
The woman sighs and drums her fingers on the table. "I could swear you look familiar," she mutters. "But I can't for the life of me imagine where we've crossed paths."
The interview has taken us to the afternoon, and as we leave I head straight for the Durien Troupe. When they hear the good news, they insist that I come for a drink with them after the performance, and so when evening arrives we all head into the inn and buy a mug of ale apiece. One mug becomes two, which becomes three, and since I haven't eaten since a rushed breakfast I start to get very tipsy indeed. In fact, I need a little help getting back to my tent, since I'm sort of staggering and weaving all over the place... Ralun doesn't even bother to scold me when I arrive. He just puts me straight into bed and tells me to sleep it off.
To be honest, my own body doesn't give me much choice in the matter. As soon as I'm horizontal, I pass out and become impossible to wake.
My mouth feels like a hairy slug died in it.
Every sound is impossibly loud and close.
I'm apparently made from rubber.
These four things tell me I'm hungover. As if I need any clues, remembering the night before. Well, sort of. There are bits and pieces... not the kind that make any real sense, but which do build a certain picture, and it's not a pretty one.
I am never going for a drink with the Durien Troupe again.
Brin and Ralun are already gone. I pull myself out of bed and go in search of some water; after guzzling what feels like a river, I'm a bit more human, and manage to deduce that the others will be with Cal.
Light and sound are still unwanted intruders. I stagger through the fair like the poor unfortunates I saw the second day, who had stayed up partying too late. My turn now. Poor Yjadd.
Cal and my friends are indeed in the field beyond, and their lesson has already begun. Brin isn't with the boys; she's sitting off to one side with Sarah and Bren, the three of them seeming to work on something musical. I smile and wave before joining the red-haired mage. He grins when he sees me.
"Hangover?" he asks. I nod, determined not to let it slow me down. Cal rolls his eyes.
"Sarah!" he calls. The woman looks up, and he points to me. She waves a hand, and suddenly a cool sensation spreads through me, a calming wave that eliminates my symptoms completely.
"Woah," I exclaim, taken aback. Cal chuckles.
"Yeah, I know," he laughs ruefully. Looking at him, I wonder how many times he's needed the same treatment.
He's already heard of our success from Brin, and joins in with Eárin, Martin and Dean to congratulate me and hold an impromptu cheering session. The lesson is as good-natured as before, and this time I actually manage to half-snatch a handkerchief before he grabs my wrist.
Afternoon, and I set out for the village once more, seeking Vera and the Durien Troupe. I arrive to be informed that they're not performing today, and further investigations at their campsite tell me all I need to know. Looks like I'm not the only one who woke up feeling lousy today.
With a free afternoon, I decide it's time to take advantage of the festival once more. My curiousity has been roused by my meetings with Cal, so I head over to the mage's area and watch a few shows, hanging around afterwards to ask about the kind of things magic can do.
"Sure, you could cure hangovers, if you were a healer," one man tells me. He's a fire-raiser, and has just thrilled the audience with his brilliant display. "Most mages have a couple of main talents, so I suppose you could affect people's minds, too."
I remember Ham telling me something similar. So far, then, the "special mages" haven't done anything too remarkable. I ask the man about their seemingly limitless energy, and he frowns.
"Can't say I've heard of that," he replies thoughtfully. "The thing about magic is that it defies the rules of the universe, but to make those changes you need power, and that comes from the mage. To use magic as frequently as you're describing, the mage in question would need to have pretty large reserves. I've heard of some masters who build up stores within themselves... and you can hold power in crystals, too. So if they had large enough reserves..."
I thank the man, and resolve to get to the bottom of the mystery. It's not much of one, to be sure, but there is something almost other-worldly about those four, and I want to understand what it is.
The others, not so interested in my quest, have been watching clowns in another part of the field. We join up to explore together for the rest of the day, becoming part of the audience, soaking up the atmosphere.
I'm happy to do so. There's no pressure here, no pressure anywhere. Our future is, for now, secure, and there's no need for any panic.
My world is just fine.
My friends and I set out early in the morning and find Cal sitting in the audience for a storyteller, grinning fit to split his face. A glance tells me that the man he's listening to is the same one who told the mountain tale at the beginning of the week, but although he's undoubtedly skilled I can't see what's made the mage quite so amused. Unless he knows something I don't.
"I'm listening," he informs me when I ask about a lesson, so rather than bug him any more I sit and start taking in the tales too. None of them reproduce the vast grin I saw earlier, but with such quality entertainment I hardly feel cheated; every time the man passes a hat around, I put a little money in, eager to stay where I am. To my delight, he tells another story about Dail and the mountain spirit.
"Long ago, love was forbidden between mortals and the spirits of this world, for it was thought only grief could come from such unions. But the ways of the heart cannot be so guided, and in Dail it was the heart that ruled as he climbed the mountains once more. No longer did he seek an unknown and mysterious voice; now he sought the woman he loved, and not for one moment did he care that she was not of his own race.
But the spirits of the mountains are not found when they choose not to be. Dail climbed over peaks and valleys, searched mountains near and far, survived greater perils than he had ever dreamed of before. But when a year and a day had passed, and still he had no sign of his chestnut-haired beauty, he realised he would not succeed this way. So it was that he decided on a new plan.
Amongst his people, legend said that at the very top of the highest peak of the greatest mountain in the world, there stood a miraculous well whose waters never froze. It was said that if a man drunk of the waters of this well, he would have one wish and one only; it was on this tale that Dail now pinned his hope.
He set off first to find the mountain, heading northwards to where the great ranges of the world reside. Through Enimar he travelled, although in those times there were bandits aplenty, and he fell foul of their robbery many a time. Kingdoms that have since fallen he traversed, lands beyond locked in ice and snow. He came to the high reaches, the places where half the year is dark and the other half light, and where the suns face can be scarce seen for heavy clouds, then moved beyond, to the greater mountains that always lay on the horizon.
Dail knew more of mountain travel than he once had, but still the journey was hard. Few things lived in the cold peaks, fewer still that he could find. His supplies dwindled and failed, yet he could spare little time to seek food. Slowly he began to starve, and to thirst, for melting the snow to water was a chore he forgot often. He moved, then, as if in a dream; as if his whole world had been consumed by that place where he now was.
Until, one day, he reached the peak he had been trying for and found he could go no higher. He was above the mountains, above the clouds, taller than any other in the world. And there, right before him, was a well, an icy bucket sitting on its side. The air here was thin, and dizziness overcame him as he reached for the rope and lowered the vessel into the darkness below.
There was a splash, and the bucket returned, brimming over with bright liquid. The burning sun overhead shone icily on its surface; breathless, almost dead, Dail reached out and took a sip of the water.
He had thought long and hard about his wish, knowing that to find his loved one was not enough; he needed to be with her also, to stay with her forever and always. And so, with his last human breath, he whispered aloud his desire.
"Let me be of her kind," he breathed into the wind. "Let me be a mountain spirit as she is, able to find her and wed her."
And as he spoke, the pain in his chest vanished, and the bitter cold that pained his skin faded, and he looked down to see a new stockiness in his limbs, a new strength in his arms. His wish had come true, and he was changed; a being of the mountains just as his love was.
And, so altered, Dail set out homewards, seeking the completion of his quest."
I play for the Durien Troupe in the afternoon, and go to Meia's fire in the evening, still thinking of the tale which I love as much as the Enimari Rangers. Ralun sees that something's up, and asks about it; it's Brin who tells him about the story. The old bard nods and smiles.
"The Lay of Dail," he nods sagely. "Yes, I know that one. It's popular in Baenpas, too; there's a local story he passed through on his way to the Well of Wishes."
"So does he ever get to marry his true love?" I ask, excited. Ralun chuckles.
"You'll have to wait and see," he informs me. And no matter how many times I ask, he refuses to tell me any more than that.