The village, if it might be so called, of Caethron, nestled down between the mountains in the valley below the Gate. The houses made a little cluster, like mushrooms sprung up overnight, with whitewashed stone walls, thatched rooves, little gardens, and workbenches and washboards and the occasional sheep or chicken giving them an industrious air.
“Who lives here?” Weiss asked Hallan as they walked.
“Just a handful of us,” shrugged Hallan. “Most of us greyheaded now but all of us glad to serve Elionae by guarding his keep here. We are a rest for weary travellers—a simple task but welcome, I think.”
“And I am to meet the Interpreter?” Weiss’s curiousity had been piqued at the title, the weight which Hallan had given the name as they set off.
“Yes. He is a Loremaster and a wise man, and he gives all the travellers who pass through here such lore as will be helpful to you in your journeying.”
The Interpreter’s house was different from the other cottages, long and broad with small windows cut at intervals in the stone. Hallan rang a bell that hung at the door, and for many minutes, the two stood waiting on the stoop. Weiss listening to the birdsong, the sheep bleating, the wind rustling, and tried not to fidget. Then the door creaked open.
Hallan’s description of ‘greyheaded’ was apt. The man and woman who greeted him matched the mountains, granite-haired, their skin creased and scored, their features craggy. They smiled, though, with a welcome that was ageless and bright.
The woman was dressed in a long robe, red as wine, with her grey hair wound in a crown about her head. The man wore a pure white tunic belted at the waist, and a fur collar. They both had a regal look, and Weiss felt very solemn.
“You bring us a new pilgrim, Hallan?” said the Interpreter.
“This is Weiss, lately of Aiken,” said Hallan, putting one hand on Weiss’ shoulder.
Weiss bowed, and then was not sure if that was the done thing. It was all rather new to him. When the Queen passed by he and his friends used to do very low, mocking obesiances, but he had never felt so particularly awed by someone before, and the gesture felt as ridiculous as a simple nod or handshake would’ve felt irreverent.
“I am Seto, called the Interpreter,” said the old man formally, “and this is my wife, Ovesa. Please, come in.”
The room was long and low, and the sun that shone cool and watery seemed to come in no further than the outskirts, despite the rows of windows. Weiss followed his host and hostess a little ways into the room, and then they turned together and Seto said,
“Now.” His voice reminded Weiss of the storytellers in Aiken beginnning a tale, and he turned and saw that Hallan had not followed them in. “Weiss, lately of Aiken,” continued Seto, “why have you come here?”
“Hallan told me that you could tell me things that would help me along my way,” said Weiss. He folded his hands in front of him as he spoke, and then felt like a child and unfolded them.
Seto nodded gravely.
“Come in, then, traveller, and I will show you that which may help you along your way.”
Seto was very serious, but as they walked down the long room, Ovesa turned back to Weiss and smiled, a smile of anticipation, of reassurance, and perhaps a streak of mischief.
Before he could wonder what it meant, his guide stopped suddenly, between the last two support pillars that arced up into the ceiling, and lifted the candle in his hand.
The pillars were painted, vivid blue and pine green and blood red, with the figure of a man. The images were almost childlike, and yet with a depth behind them. They showed the man clinging to the book of Elionae, pleading in the face of destruction, overshadowed by a crown of gold.
“The Man who is Mother,” said Interpreter. His voice was low and sacred in the dim space and Weiss bent closer to the paintings. A thunderhead of awe began to gather inside him.
“The Man who is Mother, one in ten thousand,” sang Ovesa, her voice dusky-slow. “Travail with child does he, and suckle the children he bears, the children of the Master, unfolding the darkness to the darkened, holding the hands of the children as the children learn to walk in the way.”
“Watch for him,” said Seto. “Watch for him as you walk in the way.” Weiss nodded mutely. “Now come in,” said Seto, and they passed through the door at the end of the hall.
The next room was lit by a skylight, which shone a square of light on a painting swirling across the floor. It showed a woman, strong and smiling, bringing water to wash a room where a man swept violently, stirring thick dust into the air. The simple image was yet so vivid that Weiss’s throat tickled just to look at the spattered dust.
“Euvan, the Grace,” said Interpreter, and Ovesa sang again:
“Thick the dust of deeds lies upon the heart, heavy the weight. Tirsin, tirsin, the stirring of that dust is worse than the lying of it. But here! Here the sweet water of Euvan lays the dust, washing it away; rest she brings, and order, making the way for the good and the great.”
“Tirsin…” said Weiss, remembering. “Tirsin was the name of the Lady in the Mountain.”
“Tirsin, which in the Old Tongue means ‘weight’,” said Seto. “A dragon of the old kind. But we tell not only the fact of a thing, but the meaning of it, too. Here we have painted the meaning of Tirsin. Soon, little brother, you will meet the meaning also of Euvan.”
“Who makes the pictures?” said Weiss.
“We do. Together.”
“And everyone comes to see them?”
“For all your beard and and sun-rough face, you are a boy yet!” was all she said.
“I’m twenty-five,” said Weiss, a little wounded, having always considered himself rather a hardened man of the world. And then her merriment made him laugh.
“’Tis only that you watch everything with such wonder,” she placated him, and that made Weiss pause. How long had he been looking for wonder and been unable to find it?
There were many more pictures they showed Weiss, and after took him to a pleasant sunny room and read to him from his book while Ovesa made red-leaf tea and Seto stoked up a fire. Weiss fell asleep in his chair listening to them read and had a dream of a fire that would not go out, and a palace on a hill, a man in a cage, two children waiting in a room—all vivid green and blood red and blue as a lake in autumn.
“Stay low,” hissed Mare, unnecessarily, for Arris and Aldous had already pressed themselves flat as they could against the cold rocks. Below them, Vana and Cressus crouched in the pass. The horses were tied up a little way’s further in, their heads low and their ears down. It looked as though they’d been ridden all night—from the Gate back to the place where Aldous had been guarding their prisoners, and then back to this place in the mouth of the pass, Aldous supposed.
Cressus’ head was low and discouraged, too, and Aldous realised he must think her captured. Of course he wouldn’t assume she’d betrayed him. Her heart gave a fierce twist within her, and almost she wanted to stand up, call to him to come save her, let him believe that she had been overpowered and held captive. She stayed low against the rocks.
The three women had agreed to take the rougher way over the hills, instead of approaching the Gate by the road, where they would be nearly certain of coming across Vana and Cressus. Now it was proving to be a wise choice. They would’ve walked right into the pair, had they taken the road.
“Move slowly,” said Mare. “One rock dislodged could be all it takes to let them know we’re up here.”
They began moving along the lip of the pass in a slow, painstaking creep. Occasionally, they had to double back to find a new path, for the steep slope above the pass offered little in the way of cover and easy places to walk. Aldous looked longingly at the road below.
“Couldn’t we go down now?” she asked, when they had put Vana and Cressus behind them around a few bends.
“Suppose they scout up the path a little ways?” replied Mare. “As long as we’re off the path, we might be anywhere in these mountains.”
“Not anywhere,” Annis objected. “They must know we’re making for the Gate. If we don’t come into the pass before long, I should think they’ll move to the Gate itself, and they we shall have no choice but to face them.”
“We could make better time on the road,” mused Mare.
So they made their careful way down and, at a swift trot now, journied on. Every noise made Aldous start, every shifting rock sounding like a horse’s hooves and every whistle of wind the voice of a pursuer. When the Gate was in view at last, Aldous broke into a ragged city-raised run, forging ahead of Mare and Arris for a few strides before they fell back into step with her. Up the stairs, her legs screaming, her side stitched, Aldous nonetheless matched her two work-hardened companions step-for-step all the way up the stairs to the Gate. Or perhaps they matched with her. Chest heaving, leaning against the stone wall, she wondered if they reallly wanted her with them, their erstwhile captor slowing them down and bringing her assassins along behind them. She hardly listened while Mare knocked, caught in a swirl of confusion, and then as the gate swung open, Vana’s voice cut clear and sharp across the air.
“Cressus, Cressus, I have them!” Vana called, and Cressus thundered out from around the bend, kicking his horse wildly to pass Vana.
“Aldous!” he called, and Aldous froze, staring at him. He thought she was a captive. He was coming for her. He was pouring his heart and soul into coming for her.
Dimly, she was aware that she was alone on the step, that Mare was calling her name from inside the gateway, but chiefly she was aware that Cressus had dismounted and was running up the steps to her.
“Aldous!” he said again, and she took a step back. He slowed, confused, and for the space of two breaths his eyes held hers. She tasted in memory his sweat and desire; she was riding beside him under starlight, dancing her fingers across the creases around his eyes; he was listening to her, listening as no one had ever listened. Aldous opened her mouth to speak, but there were no words. She turned and passed through the gate, and the gatekeeper swung it closed behind her, with a sound of iron.
That night, after they had rested and eaten, Aldous sat alone on an outcrop of rock, watching the gate with her knees pulled tight against her aching chest. The sky behind the gate was crimson and orange, and somewhere down there Cressus knew she had left him. She started at the feeling of a hand on her shoulder.
“I beg your pardon, do I disturb you?” It was Hallan. Aldous shrugged. “I am here to care for all the travellers that pass through here,” he said gently, “and I cannot help but see that you mourn for something. This is meant to be a place of refuge.”
“Aye,” said Aldous, sudden and bitter, “and I was not meant to be here. Mare was bringing Arris here. I was their enemy. I am the enemy. I turned my back on my lover for the sake of something I have no part in.”
Hallan shook his head.
“You are in good company here,” he replied. “We none of us have any right to this refuge.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know the sign your lover wore on his arm,” said Hallan. He was laying something before her, something heavy and grave. “For I myself once wore it. In those days I was called only ‘The Executioner’, the swiftest and strongest in the Blind Eye. The last Thron of many to die by my hand, he spoke aloud the words of Life even as I burnt him slowly to death.” Hallan’s face was drawn in lines of pain and disgust, but Aldous had turned from the gate and was hanging on his words. “I could not forget his words even after he was burnt to ash. I could not forget. I knew I had no right to their beauty—yet here I am, guarding the King’s gate. Nay, Jesh makes the right– you have only to come, traveller. Come before him shrinking that you have no part in his kindness, but come before him bold, knowing that he has bid you come.” Hallan pointed to the east, down past the village to where a long, straight road stretched out between the narrow walls of the mountains. “If it’s a view you’re looking for, try that one. That road takes you straight into Jesh’s land, and there’ll be more joy there than can be found in a hundred lovers or all the power in Aiken.”
Aldous turned herself to follow his hand, and gazing down into the valley, she said, “Thank-you,” softly. Hallan slipped away, but he left behind him a little book, bound in leather and illuminated in gold. With her face set towards Jesh’s land, Aldous began to read the Song of the Living.