20.) As soon as the entire caravan was safely past the scree slope of the cliff, I called a halt and gathered my leadership crew around me.
“Where are we?” Marston asked. “Is this Moregone?”
We were on a mountain meadow, surrounded by large trees, with very little underbrush. Below us were low foothills and beyond a narrow valley with a river meandering through it. I didn’t recognize anything.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Then what is this place?” Tomber asked. “I don’t remember any of this being on the maps.”
I grunted. “Maps near the Shield Mountains are useless. The terrain appears to shift every time I visit.”
“How is that possible?” Favory said. “How can mountains and rivers change?”
“When you lived as long as I have, everything changes, even the land itself. But I don’t know if that is what’s happening. Maybe its location hasn’t changed but our memory of where it is has.”
“That would seem even more worrisome somehow,” Tomber muttered.
“I would have said the same thing before we set out on this journey, but we are discovering is what is real and what is imagined; what is firm in our memories and what are illusions. It has probably always been this way, but we simply notice it this time because our objective.”
To my surprise, Toug spoke up. I was always surprised how high pitched his voice was; but that didn’t affect the gravity of his words. “My memory doesn’t change just because the Mirror God wills it. I know what I know.”
I turned to him, ready to explain how unreliable our recollections were, especially here at the edge of the forgotten land, but the look in his face was stubborn.
He continued, “I have been here before. This is part of the Tenth Principality. That is the River Mortall. By the authority of Prince Selonos, no one is allowed to live here. It is to be kept pristine in perpetuity. In the summer his royal court comes here to camp.”
I didn’t think Toug had that many words in him. I didn’t ask him how he knew—Toug’s services were in demand throughout the principalities. There wasn’t a prince who wouldn’t hire him; he could live where and how he wished, and often explored in pursuit of new dishes, new plants and animals. Such curiosity was why I was able to secure his services in the first place.
“Which direction is Moregone?” Marston asked.
“I never inquired,” Toug said.
Marston waved the answer off irritably. “Then where is the Tenth Principality?”
Toug pointed downriver.
As one, we turned in the opposite direction. The top of a high plateau was barely visible on the horizon, with a thick mist covering the lower reaches. There were still several hours of daylight and I was anxious to be underway, but my crew was already sprawled about the meadow, prostrate from nervous exhaustion. Besides, we weren’t going anywhere until we found and buried our companions.
Instead I gave the orders to set camp. I pulled Tomber aside. “Scout ahead. Follow the river.”
He nodded. “I’ll be back by morning.”
I camped at the base of a large tree. It was of a kind I’d never seen before, with needles a foot long and tiny cones. The bark had an almost bluish tinge. The branches started far up the trunk, and were thick and wide, giving a roundish appearance to the evergreen. Lying near the campfire to drive away the last of the mountain chill, I closed my eyes.
It was dark when my eyes popped open, a small snap still echoing from out of my sleep. Two eyes stared down at me from the trunk of the tree. When Seed saw that I was awake, he scurried the rest of the way down and came to my side.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“Moregone is hidden from me,” he said, shivering. I took my extra coat out of my pack and draped it over his shoulders. He stood and tied the sleeves around his neck, like a cloak. The hem reached the ground. He sat down next to me again.
I put out my arm and pulled him close in a hug. Again a paternal feeling overcame me. There was something…just at the edge of memory, like I’d seen the boy before. But as I tried to capture the thought, it slid away and I was suddenly just as certain that Seed and I had never met. He seemed too young for me to have forgotten him in any case.
“As it is to all of us,” I answered. “Sometimes when I first awaken I can’t remember why I’m on the road at all.”
“But I never forgot my home. Not until the Goddess…” He spoke her name with a hiss.
“She visited me. She took me in her arms and--it was as if everything I ever understood faded away.”
I reached into my pockets where I’d secreted some of Seed’s crabapples—just in case. I proffered him one.
He took it and started munching absently, as if it had no effect. “Her magic is strong.”
I tried to hide my alarm at that. I patted him on the head. “I will remember for both of us, Seed. Our journey is nearly at an end. We wouldn’t have gotten here without you.”
He finished eating the apple and lay down at my side. Even though I wanted to sleep on the comfort of my blankets, I didn’t dare to disturb the boy. I fell asleep, his head on my chest.
When I awoke, Seed was gone. I looked up into the tree hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Our conversation of the night before seemed like a dream.
I fully expected Tomber to be waiting by my fireside. The early hours passed and I gave orders to break camp.
As I rolled up my sleeping blankets, Favory walked over. I looked at up her, amazed as always how refreshed and clean she looked. She left her red stallion behind at Inhut, but still managed to snagged the comeliest mule in the caravan, whose name was Handsome.
“Going in the direction your scout disappeared seems a bad idea,” she said.
“What choice do we have?”
“Send Marston,” she said. “Or wait longer.”
She was right, of course, but whatever lay ahead we were going to have to face sometime, no matter what Tomber or any other scout reported.
She shook her head even though I hadn’t said anything aloud. “The Tenth Principality is downriver. Let’s return home. What does it matter if we find Moregone? The Goddess’s gems have made this a profitable expedition.”
Again, I couldn’t argue. I was curious about Moregone, but even if we found it, we couldn’t very well load it up and bring it back. The land would be forgotten just as quickly with or without us finding it, or so the Goddess had implied. There might be a shortage of crabapples and artichokes in the Thirteen—or Twelve—Principalities for a time, but that didn’t seem like much of a tragedy.
I hesitated at the thought—which seemed to speak to my comfort not my ambitions. I could almost feel the Goddess’s touch.
“And what about Tomber?” I asked.
Favory started, and I realized that she hadn’t even considered it.
“We came to find Moregone and Moregone we will find,” I said.
Favory looked as though she wanted to argue, saw the look on my face, and walked away. I’d left the two mules with the Goddess’s gems in the custody of one of the carpenters, Samle, who’d proven to be trustworthy in the past. I looked around for him, caught him loading the mules, straining under the weight.
I’d keep an eye on Favory, but I thought that as avaricious as she was, her curiosity was even greater.
The trail along the river was easy enough to follow. As we approached the base of the plateau, the mists didn’t dissipate no matter how hot the morning sun. Instead, we were soaked in a humidity that was as damp as a thick fog. The roar of the waterfall could be heard for miles before we reached the base.
The cliffs under the falling water wrapped in a horseshoe around us. There was no way forward and the only way back was by the way we’d come.
There was a lake at the base of the falls, and by habit, the muleteers led their charges to the banks to drink.
“Here!” someone shouted. “Tracks!”
The footsteps were deep and impossibly long. They could only belong to Tomber. They led around the muddy banks to the base of the cliff, and then…under the waterfall. Upon closer examination there was rocky shelf that appeared to have been shaped flat by hand.
There was no doubt where Tomber had gone…but why hadn’t he returned?