21.) I took the lead this time, alongside Marston. When Favory saw what I was doing, she jostled her way to the front. I had a sense of urgency—not danger so much as time was passing and with it our chances of finding the truth.
As I crossed the natural bridge, Tomber emerged from the waterfall, drenched, his long hair dripping. He looked surprised to see us.
“How did you get here so fast?”
“You’ve been gone for over a day,” I said.
“But I…” he looked back into the cave, as if the answer lay there.
“What did you find?” I asked, as he trailed off.
“There is an exit on the other side. As soon as I saw a crabapple tree, I returned.” Again he looked back into veil of the waterfall as if confused. “I was only inside for a few minutes.”
More memory tricks.
But whether from whatever afflicted Moregone, or from the Mirror God, or the Goddess of the Gate was impossible to tell. No doubt they were all linked. I saw no choice be to go forward if Moregone was near.
The cave behind the waterfall was wide and low, mostly natural though it was clear that tools had shaped parts of it. We had no lanterns, so within a short time, we were in the dark.
“I don’t like this,” Marston muttered. “We’re likely to walk right into a crevasse.”
I drew my sword and poked it ahead of me, hoping it would give me at least a small warning. But the path was smooth and straight, as if it had been designed for traveling blind, which was reassuring.
I’m not sure how long we’d been walking, all of us silent. The huffing of the mules, the squeaking of leather harnesses, footsteps upon stone, that all we could hear. At least we’d be able to hear someone coming, or so I thought.
A flash of light seemed to burst behind my eyeslids. It was as if a flashlight had been directed into my eyes.
Flashlight…I knew what that was. I knew it was artificial, what would seem magic in the Thirteen Principalities but was coming from where I came. Another flash of light struck me, and I remembered my childhood home—a huge house, almost like a palace, with gables and balconies and wide windows. I’m young, looking outside, as a carriage approaches—and the carriage isn’t drawn by animals but propels itself.
A loud boom sounded in my ears, the sound of a gunshot, of a backfire, of machine parts. I stopped dead in my tracks. It was clear no one else had heard it.
“What’s wrong?” Marston asked.
“Don’t you feel that?”
“I feel a small breeze coming toward us, which is reassuring,” Marston said, sounding puzzled. I realized that my voice had been tight, alarmed.
Favory said, “I feel homesick. Let’s turn around, Evard. Let Moregone remain lost…who cares?”
“We cannot go back,” Viccare’s voice floated through the air like a ghost. “The Mirror God wills it.”
Memories of two worlds assailed me, equally familiar, equally fresh. It was as if I stepped outside myself—no, as if there were two of me standing side by side. I was paralyzed by the contradictions, not sure which body to animate, but finally I took a step and my legs merged, another step and we were joined at the waist, another step and I was one again.
The memories of both worlds were still there, but not all at once, not in full force. I could access them as I willed.
As we continued on, I thought of both of my pasts—and one thing became clear to me. Despite the miracles and inventions of my first life, I far preferred my life in the Thirteen Principalities. Despite the quarrels between realms, nothing rose to the harshness of that first world, the wholesale slaughter of life; vegetable, animal, and most of all, human. Destruction on a grand scale, such that would horrify even the martial inhabitants of the First Principality, who felt it was their destiny to rule over us all. I understood suddenly why there was a Goddess of the Gates, that such a world should not enter. I understood why the Mirror God wiped our memories clean, so that we could start new, and never become so corrupted that life would have so little meaning.
I was a fool to want to return. I had to save Moregone from such a fate.
I sheathed my sword and strode forward with confident steps. Favory and Marston hurried to catch up.
In the distance was a dim light that grew wider if not brighter as we approached. The exit to the tunnel was blocked by a thick tangle of brush and trees. Marston used his sword to cut away at the branches, opening enough space for me to join him with my own blade.
The gap between the cliff and the undergrowth was just wide enough to use as a path. It wasn’t until we traveled some distance down this gap that I realized that the forest was made up of crabapples trees. The apples looked dried and shriveled. I plucked one and cut it open. A huge worm squirmed into the decayed fruit.
I threw it to the ground in disgust.
The last time I’d seen this orchard it was spacious and ordered and healthy. Now it appeared that no one had pruned the branches or collected the fruit in years.
How long had I been gone? One problem with a long life is that time passes ever faster, so that what seems like months can become years and what seems like years can become decades. It may well have been a number of years since I’d returned, but whatever had happened here must have started not long after the last time I left.
I couldn’t imagine the Moregoneians letting this happen to their prized trees. I began to fear for their well being as well.
I stood aside as the caravan passed, waiting for Toug to emerge. The last mule out of the tunnel carried the crabapple crate. I went over to it, knocked on its side.
The wood fell away and Seed scrambled out. “Are we there?” he asked, eagerly.
“I think so…” I began.
The boy cried out at the sight of the trees and almost leapt away. He stopped himself and solemnly untied the sleeves of the coat I’d given him and handed it back to me. With that, he jumped from the back of the mule to the nearest branch. Then he froze. He looked back at me in alarm, as if he only then noticed how sickly the branches drooped. His head swiveled from me to the trees and back again.
“Go!” I said, giving him permission. He jumped away and disappeared.
We came out of the gap between the cliff and the forest onto a trampled meadow that led down to a creek. I stared at the water for a few moments, trying to make sense of it. There was only one waterway in the south of Moregone: the Soral River. It was hard to believe that this little trickle of water running down the middle of a wide gulley with crumbling banks could be that wide and raucous watercourse. Trees hung dry and broken over the bare sands.
The caravan filled the meadow with no room to spare, certainly not enough room to spread out our camp. I decided to keep going, anxious to see my old friends. When I looked back toward the cliff I recognized the tall pillar of rock standing away from the mountain: Dragontooth.
Which meant the village of Carsan was less than a mile away.
We continued on down the eroded banks of the Soral River. Within a few hundred yards a ditch was dug across our path, drawing what little water remained in the river channel. A crude bridge was built across the breach, little more than planks laid upon the two banks. It was strong enough to hold one mule and one person at a time, so it took us much of the afternoon before we all got across.
Lights began to flicker on the horizon.
“Should I check it out?” Tomber asked.
As he spoke, a figure broke away from the trees to our right, running away from us. It looked like a child, barefoot despite the chill. For a moment I thought it was Seed, but he wasn’t brown enough and other than his feet, he was fully clothed.
“We should keep going,” Marston said. “Don’t let them get the chance to organize.”
“These are peaceful people,” I said. “They have no weapons, except to hunt.”
Marston gave me a skeptical look. “Maybe they aren’t the same. Maybe they’ve forgotten.”
“Either way, there is no benefit to waiting,” I said. “Keep moving but stay on guard.
* * *
It was the same village…and it was different. There were the same two main streets, with houses on one side, businesses on the other, the same farmhouses dotting the outer perimeter. But everything looked old and rundown, unlike the vibrant sturdy village I remembered.
The few people who were on the streets hurried inside at our approach.
Closest to us, at a bend in the now dry river, was a large building with a caved in roof and broken walls.
My vacation home—looking as if it had been abandoned a hundred years ago.
I walked up the broken path to the door, which was ajar on its hinges. The inside looked filled with leaves and dirt. There was a pile of rocks to one side, where once had stood a tall birch tree. A carved sign lay on the ground next to it and I realized that the jumble had once been a cairn of some kind.
“Home of the Eternal Wanderer,” the sign read.
“They know who you are?” Favory said, beside me. “Or maybe I should say—they knew who you were, because whatever esteem they once had for you seems to have fallen on hard times.”
I turned to her in surprise. “How did you know…?”
She smiled. “That you are the Eternal Wanderer? It wasn’t hard to figure out. You appear eternal and you certainly wander enough.”
“Who else knows?”
“Just about everyone, I’d say. Of course, anyone who would be impressed by such a thing has only to meet you to realize you’re just like anyone else.”
Marston had moved up on my other side. “You’d think someone as old as you are, Evard the Just, would be a little smarter and savvier than the rest of us, but…”
“…you’re just as foolish and short-sighted as any,” Tomber finished the thought.
I was stunned. Here I’d thought I was being clever, moving around so much that no one would ever discover my identity.
“Don’t listen to them.” The thin high voice of Toug made me jump. “We follow you, Evard the Just, because you are a constant surprise and yet forever reliable. We count on you to be fair, but also to lead us places none of us would think to go.”
Viccare looked dumbstruck. “Are you a creature of the Abyss?”
I laughed. “I’m as human as you are.” Unlike most of the mythical creatures of the Thirteen Principalities, for instance the Toad King, I had not emerged from the bottomless pit at the edge of the Thirteenth Principalites.
The young pilgrim didn’t look convinced.
I looked around, spreading my arms. “I’m not at all sure where…or rather when…I’ve led you to this time. This is Moregone, but older somehow…drained of life.”
“Forgotten by time,” Favory mused.
I thought she was probably right. I’d always wondered if time ran the same in the Thirteen Principalities as it did in the outside world. Moregone was apparently outside this time stream, and it had fallen on hard times.
“What’s that?” Tomber said.
We turned in the direction he was staring. Far in the distance, probably visible more to Tomber than the rest of us, was a field of wavering red. It took a few seconds for my eyes to distinguish the individual flowers.
The irrigation ditch led toward the field of flowers, which unlike the pastures, the trees, or the village itself, looked healthy and vibrant.
“Those look like poppies,” Toug said. “Not common in the Thirteen Principalities. The seeds are a delicacy.”
A few hours before and the name of the flower wouldn’t have meant anything, but now the knowledge I possessed of my former life came to the fore. It sent a chill down my spine, because I knew that poppies weren’t just grown for their seeds.
The Flower of Forgetfulness, I’d heard it called.
“Someone approaches,” Tomber said.
From the nearest house an old man hobbled our way. He appeared to be reluctant, as if others had sent him. He stopped well short of our party.
“What do you want?” His voice was high and quavering. “Who are you?”
I started to answer, looked into his eyes and fell silent. I recognized him…though that seemed impossible. I took in the angle of his chin, the widow’s peak, the hunched shoulders. It was the almost purple color of his eyes that gave him away.
The last time I’d seen Hiemhol, he’d been but a boy, the son of the mayor.
He must have recognized me at the same moment, because he staggered, as if he’d been pushed, almost losing his footing.
“Evard?” he said in a faint voice.
“What’s happened here Hiemhol?”
He straightened up. His eyes had been clouded, fearful, but now they cleared. “Eternal Wanderer. You must leave. Before…”
As we were talking, a man had emerged from the same house that Hiemhol had come from. This man was tall and strong—almost as tall as Tomber, but thicker. His clothing probably seemed strange to my companions, but I recognized jeans and a button down machine-made shirt. He wore a cowboy hat.
“Do you know these people, Hiemhol?”
“No, sir,” the old man stammered. “I was just telling them they weren’t welcome.”
“Now is that any way to be?” The man turned toward me and stuck out his hand. “I’m Carter. We’re a little low on the victuals, but we have enough for one meal. Then in the morning you can be on your way.” He motioned to the open area outside the village’s border. The ground was churned up and I realized that this was where the artichoke fields had been. “You can camp out here.”
“Thank you,” I said. “We were just on our way to the Twelfth Principality.”
It was a test--and Carter failed it. He couldn’t hide his confusion. Wherever he was from, it wasn’t from the Thirteen Principalities. Then he smiled his false smile, as if he suddenly remembered something someone had told him.
“Come on down to the village square at dark…we’ll have some tables set up,” Carter said.
Hiemhol gave me a last beseeching look, then John put his arm around the old man and led him away.
I turned to my companions.
It was clear from the look in their eyes that I didn’t need to warn them of our danger.