Elthan was not the first to avoid the northern mountains, nor would he be the last. Caravel traditionally shunned the mountains for reasons unnamed, warning all who would venture near them. Though it had been this way for time beyond measure, nobody thought to question why the mountains should be feared. The answer was clear in the dark mists and looming peaks: it was an ill place.
To most of the world, these mountains had no name; they were merely a distant danger, a vision of the unknown. But to others, like Lyanth and Thanas, they were home.
The sky held no stars when Thanas awoke. Every muscle in his body ached, thanks to a cold night spent on hard rock. His right arm, rather stiff by now, was firmly coiled around Lyanth. He allowed himself to study her in the semidarkness. Though her hair was disheveled and her clothing rumpled, she made a serene picture as he slept. Where was the girl who stammered and cowered whenever he spoke?
With a shuddering sigh, Lyanth stirred. Her foggy eyes were shadowed with confusion as they scanned the area. She straightened slowly, wincing, and shrugged away from his arm. "Is it morning?" she asked groggily.
"Soon, yes." Thanas scratched the stubble on his chin as he pushed himself to his feet. Morning came quietly in the mountains; there were no glorious sunrises or singing birds. The heavy mists simply lessened, fading away but never disappearing entirely. Thanas looked down at Lyanth, who still looked disoriented. "Time to go," he said. "Get up."
The drop from the ledge was a good twenty feet. The cliff face, jagged and sharp, led to a narrow gully. A muddy stream lazily wound its way through the gorge, gurgling mutedly. Thanas checked the water pouch by his waist: empty. Thanks to Lyanth, no doubt. "Need water," he grunted. "I'll find a way down; don't move 'til I say so."
Finding a way down proved to be easier than would be expected. A series of niches and grooves were scored into the rock, serving as footholds. The gap between each was large, and the grips were small. Thanas, being six feet of hard muscle, had little trouble climbing down. The blind and frail girl on the ledge above would perhaps have more difficulty.
"Thanas?" she called, on her hands and knees to peer over the edge. "Should I follow?"
Thanas sighed and rocked back on his heels. His muddied leather boots creaked in complaint. "That's what I'm trying to figure out," he shouted back to her. "Can't see how there's a way for you to get down without breaking your neck."
"Should I have gone first?"
"That makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?" called Thanas distractedly. He paced alongside the jagged rocks, thumping the stone with the flat of his hand. "Send the blind girl first…"
Swirling vines and spined weeds forced their way through the rock, sending thin cracks snaking outwards. The weathered stone was crumbling in many places and was obviously unsuitable for climbing down. One last, sweeping look confirmed that the only path available was in the narrow grooves dotting the cliff.
"Listen to me, Lyanth," barked Thanas. "Don't think about what you're doing, just do it. I need you to move to the left - no, more - good, right there… now down…"
With Thanas's guidance (and impatient rebukes) Lyanth began to descend. Each time she found her footing was a victory in its own. When she reached the bottom several long minutes later, she felt a thrill of success. Her fingers were raw and her arms shaking, but she had not broken her neck as Thanas had predicted.
Lyanth smiled, and he did as well. For a moment there was no thought of hunger or thirst or escaping. For a moment, a sweet moment, they stood together as equals.
It was a moment that passed all too quickly. Thanas knelt by the stream to fill his waterskin and muttered, "Drink up before we go. We've a long road ahead of us and need to make this last."
Lyanth knelt beside him in the gravel and dipped her finger in the lukewarm water. Withdrawing her finger, she rubbed it against her thumb. The sound of squishing mud and gritty sand helped her decide that she was not, in fact, thirsty. She conveyed this to Thanas with a sheepish smile.
"Your choice," he replied, shrugging. "I can promise you'll regret it a few hours from now."
Lyanth did regret it. Their trek, though uneventful, was long and hard. Early attempts at conversation had fallen flat; finding a path required all of their attention. Each was soon lost to the monotony. Rocks, rocks, rocks. Down, up, down. Rocks. Crunching gravel. Day faded into night as quietly as it had come.
Thanas showed no signs of weariness as the road wore ever onward. His temper might have shortened slightly and his answers grown more curt, but his step was light. As often was the case, Lyanth created quite the opposite picture. She lagged behind, bowed beneath the weight of her light pack and stumbling often on the uneven path.
"Keep up," called Thanas without turning. "We're almost there."
By "almost," he apparently meant "only a few more hours." They walked, they walked… Though Lyanth was long past exhaustion, her spirits lifted and her mind cleared as they went on. Soon, she would be home. She had never been particularly attached to the notion of "home," as being anything more than a rough stone shanty that she slept in, but the past two days had given her a new appreciation for it. Home meant a warm bed and closed doors.
There were also, of course, her parents. Family. Short conversations over cold porridge, expectations never met. Did she miss them? No, but she missed things about them. Lyanth missed the creaky humming of her mother as she weaved, and the rough texture of the blankets she created. She missed the scuffing of her father's boots on the dirt floor as he came home and even the rumbling snore that kept her awake through the night.
Had it only been two days?
Distantly, she became aware that Thanas was speaking to her. "…and just around this corner. Watch your step, it's a long-" His voice cut off sharply and he stopped so abruptly in his tracks that Lyanth collided into him. From the brief contact, she sensed a tension in his muscles that boded ill. Whatever unnerved Thanas would certainly terrify her.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"Variya," he hissed, and that was answer enough. Variya was not a person or an animal, but a trial for only the most grievous of crimes. Its occurrence could mean only one thing: someone in the village was lying dead at that moment.
The two went unnoticed by the villagers as they arrived. Small fires lined the main road, leading to a large blaze in the patch of dirt that served as a town square. The young and old of the village gathered around the bonfire on their knees, the closest thing to mourning. Further away, a group of five men stood in a circle around a boy.
The youth in the middle could not quite be called a boy, nor could he be called a man. He was lean and lanky, all arms and legs. Thin, uneven fuzz dotted his chin and upper lip. The planes of his face were still round, though showed signs of growing more angular. In many ways he looked like an average boy on his way to manhood, save for the blood smeared on his clothing.
Thanas let out a horrible, strangled sound and broke off for the boy at a run. His vision was a blur, all dancing flames and kneeling shadows. It was not true. It was not true.
Recklessly shoving his way through the circle of men, Thanas grabbed the boy's shoulders and forced him to look up. One look was all he needed to confirm what he feared: his brother was the Accused.
"Is this a joke, Renith?" he asked weakly, even while he knew it was not. The people of the mountains did not joke, especially over such matters. It was not a joke, not a dream. Thanas was nearly overpowered by the sudden rush of confusing emotion; he wanted to shake his brother senseless even as he wanted to kill anyone who would accuse him. Steeling himself, he choked out, "What did you do?"
Renith shuddered wordlessly, his downcast eyes saying everything.
"The Accused is not at liberty to speak at present," said one of the village elders in the circle. The reedy-looking man nodded towards a face in the crowd. "Direct your questions to her."
Thanas approached the indicated woman with Lyanth trailing along behind him. His features were hard as he said simply, "Explain."
The woman nodded, steering him gently to the side. "Aiden was killed," she said impassively, not bothering to soften her voice.
Thanas turned his face away, being acutely aware of the dozens of stares fixed on him. Friendships were rare in the village, but if there was one man generally liked and respected, it was Aiden. The village physician had cared more for strangers on the street than most parents cared for their children.
"My brother is no murderer," said Thanas slowly, keeping his voice even with great difficulty. "It's not him. Look, just - look. I'll help you find the killer myself."
She shook her head firmly. "It's undisputed, Thanas. Many saw it happen."
Thanas said nothing. He simply could not.
"It was last night," she continued tonelessly. "A small group had gathered to look for you and the girl. Aiden was among them, wanted to provide his services. He told Rethin he should stay behind, that he was too young. Then, as calm as anything, Rethin set upon him with his knife."
Thanas vaguely recalled asking more questions, which she answered. He demanded proof, which she provided. When he ranted, she only stared at him with either pity or disgust. In the end, he walked away, unwilling to hear more.
One look at his brother's guilt-ridden face told him all he needed to know.