They would have to travel by dusk and dawn, so the faun said, until the village by the monastery was far behind and they reached wild country watched by fewer eyes. “Sleep now,” he told them. “Sleep if you can.”
The quilts were still wet from the morning dew, so Embery hung them over rocks to one side of the cave, hoping they’d dry a little before nightfall. The faun watched with unreadable eyes. Then, lacking any better option, she and Tay curled up in their clothing in a corner of the cave on a heap of dry reeds. Sleep felt far away, farther than Amalin itself, but all at once she was blinking awake, stiff from hours asleep without moving. She sat up slowly. Outside the cave mouth, long shadows of late afternoon stretched away.
“They came by twice,” said the faun: Uldin, Tay had called him. Embery gave him a worried look, and he went on: “Men in black robes. Monks. Two the first time, six with a gaggle of villagers the second.” His high-pitched laugh splintered against the stone walls of the cave. “Well for them I did not let them find me.”
Embery wondered what he meant by that. The stories she’d learned from old Neely had little enough to say about fauns, and not much more about any of the beings of Amalin other than gods and goddesses, men and women. Eremon had gone to speak to the faun before the last of his eight great quests, to be sure; there was the faun whose riddle in the woods set Cademalis on the road to his destiny, and there was the faun that Amtar met on the road to Tabris, who blessed the Four Hundred when they marched to what they thought was certain death and turned out instead to be a victory beyond hope—but none of that gave her any hint of what one faun might do to six monks and a gaggle of villagers.
She considered asking him, but he turned and scuttled to the back of the cave before she could find the words. With that option closed, she turned back toward the heap of reeds, watched Tay as he slept. Some while passed before she could find the will to wake him.
Evening took its time coming, lingering behind the eastern hills while the sun crept westwards and the sky soared up to the edge of forever. By the time the sun set and the dim harsh sound of the monastery bell came whispering up the valley, calling believers in the Holy Law to prayer, she’d shared out the last of the loaves they’d brought with them. Uldin matched the gift and more with strips of dried rabbit-meat and cups of berry wine: good fare, Embery thought, for what might be a long evening’s journey. She and Tay got the quilts rolled and tied again for slinging over shoulders, picked up their satchels. All the while Uldin sat near the cave’s mouth and watched them with golden inscrutable eyes.
“Soon, I think,” he said at last. “We have far to go.”
“Aren’t you going to bring anything?” Tay asked him.
The faun glanced at Tay as though the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “No,” he said. Then, after a moment: “You can take anything you wish.”
Tay beamed, darted to the back of the cave, came back a moment later with more of the dried rabbit-meat and two of the faun’s coarse brown loaves, which he tucked into his satchel. “That’ll keep us fed for a day,” he said.
The faun shrugged, turned to go. “You really don’t want to take any of your things?” Embery asked him.
“Things pass away,” said the faun. “You might as well try to clutch the wind.” He ducked out through the cave mouth, glanced around, motioned with his head for them to follow.
Outside, evening’s chill had just begun to spread. In silence, Uldin started south along Mollory Edge, away from the three rocks and the faint wisp of rising smoke that told of Gellen’s farm, and Tay and Embery followed. There was another village two days south, Embery recalled, if you followed the Edge and then turned west once it ended. Beyond that? She’d never traveled that way, knew only rumors.
They followed the Edge all the way to its end but didn’t turn west. Instead, Uldin led the way up into the hills, following winding paths that stayed off the ridgelines, out of sight of casual eyes. As the last light guttered out in the far west, he clambered through a gap between boulders. On the far side was a sheltered hollow half roofed with gorse-bushes, as safe a place as Embery could have hoped for. “You need sleep,” said the faun, a dim shadow among shadows. “I do not. We will go further when the light begins to stir.”
Night deepened. The quilts held off only part of the chill, but sleep came anyway, bringing dreams in its wake. In her dream, Embery walked down a long slope into blackened desolation. The half-burnt corpses of trees loomed up here and there into a sky the color of iron, but no blade of grass broke the hard surface of the soil. She passed tumbled squared stones, scorched as well, that might once have belonged to a building a long age before. Then, up ahead, a living presence: a tall figure, human or humanlike, wrapped in a hooded cloak so black it made the waste around it look pale. The figure stood facing away from her, though it seemed to glance back over its shoulder at her as she approached. No sign of a face appeared beneath the shadow of the hood.
She slowed as she came alongside the figure, glanced up uncertainly at it.
“Look.” The voice, little more than a whisper, strained beneath a burden of bitterness and wasted toil. “Look around you.”
She looked. Everywhere the scorched silent wasteland reached away to the edge of sight.
“This is Amalin,” the voice said.
Shuddering, Embery blinked awake. The faint gray light of earliest dawn filtered down through the gorse-bushes above her. Tay lay nestled against her, making slight motions that echoed some dream of his own; dew dampened the quilts; off near the gap between the boulders, Uldin sat, head tilted to one side, listening to the first tentative birdsong of the morning.
By the time she’d extracted herself from the quilts and tucked them back around Tay, the faun had noticed her. “Wake him,” he said with a quick motion at Tay. “We’d best be going before the day’s too far along.” Before she could gather her thoughts; “Food, drink, those will wait. There are too many eyes yet in this country.”
That seemed uncomfortably likely, so she shook Tay awake, got the quilts done up again as blanket rolls, shouldered her share of their burdens and followed the faun out through the gap between the boulders. From then until the sun burnt on the edge of the hills to eastward, they picked their way hurriedly through rugged country. Uldin had gestured for silence and kept it, giving directions only with quick motions of his hands, and so Embery had nothing to keep her mind off the troubling dream she’d had. More than once she’d tried to turn her thoughts to one of the old stories, only to find herself brooding again over the desolation in her dream.
Hours on, when hunger had begun to pinch and certain other needs were making themselves felt, Uldin led them down into a narrow valley where a thicket of gnarled pines huddled in a gap between walls of stone. “Here,” Uldin said, breaking his silence at last. “We’ll stay until evening. Food, water, rest, it’s time for those if you wish.”
Tay gave his mother an uncomfortable look. “Can I—”
“That also,” said Uldin. With a little ironic noise in his throat: “Humans weren’t always so shy about having bodies.”
That got a choked laugh from Embery. When Tay had scurried away to a private place to relieve himself, she said, “It’s the Holy Law.”
The faun gave her a blank look, and then said, “Something that the monks talk about.”
“Much too often.”
“Then leave it for them to speak of.” With a sidelong glance: “In Amalin there is no such thing.”
The faun’s words stirred the wild longing she’d felt before, but it also roused memories of the dream. “Uldin,” she said, “when you left Amalin, was it green and golden as the stories say?”
His golden eyes regarded her, inscrutable. “I left Amalin a long time ago,” he said. “And I do not know which stories you mean. Was Amalin green and golden when Dreela was beaten with rods of iron and cast out upon the snow to die?”
“No,” Embery said after a moment. “But the stories say it was when she came down from the mountains to sit on Kendath’s high throne.”
“I was not there,” said the faun. “In those days I lived in the hills beyond Altessa, where gray stone rose sheer from narrow valleys and gray fogs swept in from the sea.”She was trying to figure out how to bring the conversation back around to the thing she wanted to know when the soft quick sound of Tay’s footsteps on stone drew her attention. A glance back at the faun caught something elusive in his face, left her all but certain he wouldn’t answer her question in any way that mattered. She went the way Tay had gone, patting him on the shoulder as their paths crossed.