It was the very next day that we encountered our first fellow traveler on the road to Épineuil. We spotted him downhill from us some distance as the road descended yet another steep, broad, slope, this one grassy and unobstructed.
My initial reaction was that of relief and anticipation. News is always welcome on the road. But then, as is its habit, my mind caught up to me and began to give me worry. The silhouette was lone, accompanied by no cart nor beast of burden, but carrying on his body no small amount of baggage. From this distance it was hard to make out what. This disfavored some possibilities—not likely to be a farmer returning from market, nor a merchant ferrying goods—and favored others—student of the College, a traveling courtier such as myself, and so on.
What if the traveler was armed?
Were they a danger to Naht?
Our passage on the road was, fortunately, uneventful in the extreme. He gave the appearance of a hunter, perhaps sallying forth from one of the farming hamlets nearby in search of upland game (some skilled hunters seek out the unique feline and leporine species in this region). Which means he was armed. His eyes lurked suspiciously beneath his bangs in a way that made me tense, but then they flicked amiably over me and then over Mal and then out over the road. He huffed with effort as he climbed up the uneven road, but he gave a polite nod of the head as he passed, and we passed, and the sounds of his laborious climb faded behind us until it was subsumed by the plod and crunch of our own descent.
Mal drew up close behind my left shoulder as we turned onto a gentler, straighter segment of road.
“You’re not wrong to fear. You’re not wrong to prepare. But you’re still too cynical by half.”
“Was it that obvious?” I mumbled.
I brooded over this as we walked and as I worked the tension out from my shoulders, arms, and hands. I probably was too obvious. The hunter may well have seen my hands and jaw clench and my stare harden. I couldn’t even remember if I had given an appropriate greeting as we passed. Hopefully Mal had on my behalf.
But was I too cynical? This once, the man had been no threat to us, true, but was my assessment of my fellow man that wrong? What was too cynical? Was she afraid that I would spiral into paranoia, or that I would poison my own good cheer or good morals?
We carried on in silence for the rest of the day.
The next few days were dominated by a gradual crescendo of traffic on the road. There were farmers and porters and anonymous travelers. Several noticed Naht and gave us a wide berth, sometimes swerving entirely off the road in their haste to avoid coming within twenty paces of the accursed child.
The last day, we marched down a road that shot stubbornly straight over the undulating terrain, passing by flatter fields of grain and cutting through little brambly copses as it went. As we cleared one of these and crested a hill, the town announced its presence on the distant horizon: a wide, flat mark of stony grey and wooden spires on a grassy plateau.
Nearer on the road was a woman wearing a neat, belted yellow tunic and sturdy chaps, a bow slung across her back, all these things marking her not just as a hunter but as someone of station. That station was likely as one of Baron Lurton of Épineuil’s rangers, enforcing his law out in the hinterlands. Just as my mind began to calculate the ramifications, Mal touched me on the shoulder.
“Talk to her. Don’t hide anything. I’ll cast the seeming.”
I paused for a moment, then nodded.
As we neared the ranger I waved awkwardly and (what I hoped would be) amiably.
“Hail, traveler,” came her reply. “How fare you? News from the south?”
“Mm, well, thank you. The weather and roads are good. Peraise is lovely in the summer heat.”
The woman gave a sociable chuckle, and the four of us pulled up to a stop on the side of the road to converse. “I’ll say. But doesn’t everything being damp get tiring?”
“We were only there for one night. Long enough to enjoy the falls, not too long to pick up a chill.”
“Or become truly weary of the smell. No offense meant, of course, but it does smell. Where from?”
I noticed that Mal was beginning to guide Naht out from behind my bulk of stately robes.
“Ah. Farther south. We were hoping to stay over just here, then begin up the Blue.”
“Oh, hm. From Jealan-Fen? Perhaps Ilianath? Long journey you’re conte…” her eyes widened, and she drew up stiffly.
I turned my head just slightly to follow her gaze, and sure enough, Naht stood, uncertainly, just by my left hip. Mal was holding him reassuringly by the shoulders. I looked up to Mal. Her eyes had a slightly glazed look, as if her mind were elsewhere. Which, of course, it was.
I fixed my gaze back on the ranger, on her cropped black hair and her surprised but steady eyes. It was only polite to avoid staring at the immediate danger—her hands, bow, and quiver—and anyway, unless she were trained in deception, her eyes would give her intentions away first. She spoke rigidly.
“Long journey. I suppose… that,” she gestured toward Naht, “is the reason?”
“Yes, yes,” I explained, waving my hand dismissively. “I am a court wizard, and these are my charges. I am bid to take them north, to avail ourselves of scholarly resources there.”
She was calculating. Or at least contemplating. So was I. What kind of person was she? Did she see Naht as a threat, which she was balancing against the threat that my assumed authority posed? Did she instead see the disturbance he might cause in town as a threat? How did the Baron, or her commanding officer, factor into this?
Then, she shook her head, looked me directly in the eyes, and asked, “oh, I see. You’re a court wizard. What brings you to Épineuil?”
Oh. Of course. Just like that, her relationship to Naht—her suspicion, her concern for his presence in the town, her very knowledge of the child’s existence—gone. For now, anyway.
For the first time it struck me just how formidable Mal was. She went to great lengths to disguise that fact. Or maybe I should say that she lived her life such that it was effortless for her to ensure that people should see her incredible power and her strange presence as benign rather than as imposing. But it was obvious to me just then: whatever she truly wanted, she had many ways to will it to be.
And all the more formidable was her ability to do it without tools: no book, no lengthy treatises on astronomy, no words of power chanted aloud.
Such is the power of a Dreamer.
“Ah,” I replied, cheerfully. “Magical reagents and other such things. A short stop and a light burden. A few words exchanged with my esteemed peer Valthan.”
“I hope the stop is a pleasant one. Is there anything I can provide?”
“No, thank you. I’ve been before and I should have the means to secure lodging and such and so forth.”
“Good day, then. Travel safely, friend.”
At sundown we reached the gates of the town, passing travelers frequently as we did. Not a one paid a mind to Naht.
Naht seemed positively enchanted by this.
“Look! Look! He can’t see me!” he cheered, nearly stumbling directly into a young planter’s ox in his eagerness to exercise the strangeness of his circumstances.
Mal and I were both smiling. It was hard not to be affected by Naht’s excitement.
“Well. We can’t just turn him loose, can we?” I mused.
“And why not?” replied Mal.
“Well. He could get up to quite a bit of mischief, free of consequences like this.”
Naht careened around the ox. “Hahaha! I wonder what he has in is cart?!”
Mal frowned. “Hmmm.”
“Impunity is a kind of power,” I intoned. “And everyone—he most of all—should know what power means, and what it means to use it responsibly.”
“Don’t put it that way to him, of course. Too abstract. But yes.”
Afraid of being seen shouting to nobody in particular, I lumbered up to Naht (cursing my weary, leaden legs under my breath) and he turned an inquisitive gaze on me.
“Ahem. Please leave his cart alone.” I hurried him along with a flap of my arms, and we started again toward the gate.
“You know you can do it and nobody will raise so much as a finger to stop you. But he might not want you going through his things.”
“Oh, no matter why. You do like it when people don’t see you, so you can relax and do whatever you want, yes? He would like it if you didn’t know about his private life.”
“But he wouldn’t know!”
I sighed and took a risk. “And why should that matter?”
Naht, mercifully, took the bait and thought about this, unable to articulate his instinct that the man’s ignorance of a transgression against him meant that no harm would be truly done to him. By the time he got through a few cycles of “But! …hmmm.” and “Wait, but…” we were at the gates, and I hushed him gently so we could guide him through.
The gates to Épineuil were low, but wide, an architectural concession made long ago to allow plenty of traffic but also minimize the difficulty of building and supporting such a large wooden gate. This gate was unique: solid, heavy wood, finished and painted with a mural of King Forei II, quite unlike the light and strong (and drab) portcullis favored by most cities. It was a symbol of the town’s safety (sitting firmly in the Orlan heartland, it had never been seriously threatened by siege) and its wealth, both in material and in talent, and rightly a point of pride for its citizens.
A sentry nodded to Mal and I as we passed through the open gate doors, along with several residents of the town returning from a long day of work in the nearby fields. We had arrived at Épineuil, and I regarded the gate square, encircled with half-timbered buildings with high-peaked roofs, with contentment and comfort.