Meanwhile, Kyri had made a decision...
Kyri turned and looked back, finally unable to keep herself from doing so as the shadows of morning had shortened, shortened, and then begun to lengthen again as they passed to the afternoon. She had been walking all that time, forcing herself not to look.
But just once…
She had come a very long way; the Great Road here was as smooth as a ballroom floor, with just enough added roughness to be an ideal surface for walking or riding, and she had long strides. Zarathanton was now sinking below the horizon, only the tallest spires visible now, with the rolling hills of the landscape and her distance coming between her and the high walls of the city. She could see the bright lines of the Dragon's Palace shining in the sun, but to the north she could only see the Forest Sea; it was cut back from the Road, a full ten miles on either side, but the road curved and the Forest Sea was high and dark, a bulwark of green that filled the entire center of the continent.
She turned away, feeling as though she was swallowing a ball of ash. You silly! You've hardly been there a few days!
But that wasn't it. She was leaving her family behind, leaving Urelle who wouldn't know where she'd gone for days, long enough that she could be convinced not to try and follow. Leaving Aunt Victoria. Leaving home, because home really was where your family was, and she realized that Rion had left home, but she never had.
That's what you're crying about, isn't it? her sharp inner voice said. That you're all alone now, the little girl in the dark.
"It's hardly dark now, is it?" she answered the voice aloud. There were few people on the Road now, this far from the great city and not yet approaching Eastern Twin, so no one else was there to hear her talking to herself. "And I'm not a little girl… in any sense of the word," she added, looking at her shadow stretching off to her left, exaggerating her already excessive height. On the other hand, if I wasn't that tall, I wouldn't be able to use a greatsword.
The greatsword, a small backpack, and a few pouches and common tools – a knife, a flamestick, and such – were the only things she carried visibly. Aunt Victoria had insisted that she take Victoria's adventuring pack – a neverfull model that, while not quite literally never full, could hold more equipment and supplies than she was ever likely to need. And she shoved what must have been a small fortune in there, when she thought I wasn't looking.
Which, she had to admit, was just as well. She looked to her right, the west, which was where she was headed – though technically the road led south for the first few dozen miles. Then the Twin Cities – across the lake from the Eastern to the Western – and keep west until I reach the Dragon's City, then North… She remembered much of the journey, and just how long it had taken. It will be months before I get to the Spiritsmith, and who knows what I'll need money for on the way.
No point in musing on it, though. A bird doesn't fly by looking over the edge, she does it by spreading her wings.
Eventually the sun did begin to go behind the distant hills of trees, and she started looking for a good campsite. I think I remember… Ha!
There was, in fact, a waystation – a large, open-sided roofed structure, with space for several groups to camp under it, and three firepits. She felt that small satisfaction that comes from having a faint memory vindicated, then reminded herself that the same faint memory said there were a lot fewer waystations maintained along the later parts of the route. Enjoy it while I can.
There was another figure already under the Waystation, sitting near one of the pits with the fire already going. She approached slowly and obviously – it was unwise to surprise anyone on the road, especially alone.
As she got closer, she noticed that the firepit was burning cleanly with no fuel. A mage, or he had something with enough magic to run it – fire essence, maybe. The figure nodded, his strange five-sided hat emphasizing the gesture. "Good evening, young woman," he said in a deep, sonorous voice.
"Good evening, sir," she said. Looking carefully in the dwindling sunlight and firelight, she saw that the long hair streaming from beneath the man's hat was pure white. His hands, partly wrapped in some ritual fashion, were weathered and tanned, the hands of an old but still healthy man.
"Join me, if you wish," he said. "It will save you the trouble of building your own cooking fire."
"I thank you," she said. He could be dangerous… but most people on the road aren't, and there's no particular reason he would be one of the few that are. She corrected herself. Many people are dangerous – myself included, I guess – but most of them aren't hostile.
A waystation wasn't a good place to plan an ambush anyway; too many people likely to happen along to spoil your fun. She got out some tineroots and, after a hesitation, the racerunner steak Victoria had packed for her. It won't last long even in the pack, so I might as well eat it now. The tineroots she wrapped in some of the thick, wet leaves of the hallius that twined up the waystation's supports, and dropped them at the edge of the pit. The pit also included a grill that could be set over it, so she did so and started the steak cooking. "Would you like some?" she asked.
"I thank you for your courtesy," he said, and she saw a white smile flash from beneath the hat. "However, I have already eaten."
As she continued cooking, he spoke again. "You are travelling from Zarathanton?"
She nodded. "Left there this morning."
"This morning!" His tone echoed his respect. "You have long legs and quick strides indeed, Lady…"
"Vantage. Kyri Vantage," she answered, before realizing that perhaps she should have given a different name. Well, I guess it won't matter this far away. But I'd better figure out how I'm going to hide when I get closer!
"Lady Vantage, then."
"Oh, gods no. That's my Aunt. Just Kyri will do."
"As you wish. You travel impressively fast. Alas, I left the day before yesterday, and as you see you have already caught me."
"Oh, I'll probably slow down after a while," she said cheerfully, turning the steak."And it's only a few days to the Twin Cities." She said the last with a faint questioning tone.
He laughed and shifted. A chiming sound came from the staff she saw lying near him. Definitely magician or priest. "Ah, now, a reasonable guess, but not, I am afraid, accurate. I have much, much farther to go, and aside from the occasional inn at this rate it may be the better part of a year before I sleep indoors again."
She looked at him in surprise. "Where are you going?"
He hesitated, and she realized that her question might be intrusive. Then he shrugged. "I suppose there is no great harm in telling you. I travel past the Dragon's City, then north, far north, past Dalthunia, even."
She was stunned. "Are you… going to Evanwyl?"
"Evanwyl? Hmm… no, not there, precisely, but not far from there, either." He sighed. "An old friend of mine lives in that region, one I have not seen in many years. He had been wandering about most of the continent, off and on, but I finally had word he had settled down and was invited to visit."
She could think of several settlements around Evanwyl – and others that, on the scale of this journey, would also be "not far". "That is quite a coincidence, sir; I travelled from there only a short time ago. From Evanwyl, that is."
"Indeed?" For a moment she saw the flash of a surprised eye, blue as an untroubled sky. "Truly that is amazing. Yet, then, where are you going now? Have you travelled so far only to return?"
The steak's appetizing odor now wafted throughout the shelter. "As you said, not there, precisely, but I will be much closer to there than here by the time I am done."
The steak was done, brown and black on the outside with lovely pink inside, and she dug out the tineroots, handing one to the old man. She noticed him make a quick gesture and the wrappings not only came off, but flattened and cooled, making a sort of plate on the ground where the old man sat, cross-legged.
He was quiet for a time while she ate, then he spoke again. "If I might be so intrusive, will your course take you past Dalthunia?"
She considered; she'd already almost told him so already. "At least some distance past its southern border, but not in any area they patrol, I think."
"I see." He rubbed his chin – clean-shaven, she saw, despite the long hair. After another moment, he seemed to reach a decision. "You move like a warrior, though you are young. Has your sword been blooded in combat?"
She thought back to that terrible night when Rion died and shuddered. "Yes, you could say that."
"Then I have, perhaps, a proposition that might benefit us both. I have a… method, let us say, of swift travel. Exceedingly swift travel. But it has certain dangers about it that I would not, myself, assay alone. With someone to guard and protect me along the way, however, I would feel it worthwhile to attempt."
It was a tempting offer. Reducing the travel from what might be half a year to… "When you say 'exceedingly swift', what do you mean?"
He smiled. "I mean, Kyri, that if tomorrow we set out together, then by the time the sun has set four times we shall be past the borders of Dalthunia and over the Straightcut, on the banks of the Gyre itself."
She felt her jaw sag open and knew how foolish she had to look. Teleportation? No, that would be instant… and hasn't been reliable at distance for many years, not in that region. Too many wards up. Flying? Maybe, but I don't know much about how to handle myself in the air… "How?"
The smile sharpened. "I will explain tomorrow… if you have accepted my offer. Otherwise," he looked more serious, "I will have nothing to show you, nor to explain. I will say, however, that it is likely no method you have ever heard of… or ever will again."
The momentary twinkle she saw in his eye, revealed for a fraction of a second again as he raised his head, was maddening. He obviously knew how that mystery would nag at her.
Her more stubborn and reactionary side wanted to balk, to just roll over, go to sleep, and let the old man walk his way across the continent – far behind her. But… reduce months of walking to a few days?
She gave an exasperated sigh, then smiled. "All right, old man, you win. Tomorrow we'll use this method of yours – if your explanation's good."
"Tomorrow, then," he agreed. "Then we had both best get our rest," he continued, deep voice now with a warning tone that sent a faint chill down her spine, "for while swift, our journey shall be neither easy nor safe."
The words, and their tone, followed her that night, and sleep did not come easily.
Yes, the implications are not comforting. Encouraging in a way, but not comforting.