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We went in silence for a short time, winding between flat boulders high as my chest and covered with cedar needles and blankets of emerald moss. Above us, the mist hung in sheets between the broad, flat boughs of the trees, and a pale sun filtered from the overcast sky. I breathed deep, taking in the moss and dirt, the damp, cool air. If I listened, I could hear the ebb and flow of the ocean waves over the wind as it sighed through the trees. There was something else as well, a murmur, a distant humming.
My companion drew a breath. “Puwotok said that you spoke a little.”
“A very little. Do many of your people know Ularan? Or some other language than your own?”
We walked uphill. The hum grew nearer.
“I’m taking a risk in bringing you to Muspuahtche. There are many of us who do not think we should invite any outsiders.”
“I understand, given what the Rowatokon have been through. What they remember.”
“But you’re a walker of the Open Path. A warrior of the Crade. You and I share a bond.”
This, I wasn’t certain of. I hadn’t been for some time. “Do you know what became of the Crade? Have you heard?”
“Only whispers. It’s some years since I traveled outside Rowatokon. If Old Masters of the Crade have fallen, though, it’s all the more important that you’re here.”
I didn’t want to think on that any longer, nor invite too many questions. As a follower, he should know about the Crade, and the Old Masters, but, I felt, he needn’t know everything. “Askuwheteau,” I said. “I saw Haruk-Wei.”
He didn’t pause or miss a step. “That is good fortune.”
I laughed a bit. “It didn’t feel like it was.”
“You were below the cliff. It revealed itself to you. The spirit does not show itself to just anyone.”
So it was a spirit. My feelings were confirmed. The forest around us grew denser, the ferns taller. The boulders now stood high above our heads and we moved along well-trod, soft dirt paths below them.
“So you do not speak in the southern forest out of deference?”
“Something like that.”
I grinned at his back. “I suspect it’s more than just the spirit admonishing you for loud noise.” He looked over his shoulder and mirrored my grin. “So what about the north coast?” I asked. “Another spirit?”
Askuwheteau paused. His humor dissipated. “That is another matter. It’s ours, and ours alone. I wouldn’t bring you into it, and I strongly suggest you don’t mention it in Muspuahtche.” He held up a hand to forestall my reply, then moved a few paces ahead, where we came up out of the boulders. I could see the end of the land through the trees; the earth ended and there was only overcast sky beyond. Askuwheteau went ahead of me to this edge and I followed, and at his gestured looked.
Below us was a valley, and situated within it, a city. The mist obscured it, like a dream, but I saw deep gray timber and tall, pale stone pyramids of many steps. Earthen walls surrounded the place and high mounds, crowned with stone, or bare of all but grass, rose up at points throughout the city. The described a geometry which I couldn’t quite ascertain.
Below all this, people drew hand-carts, dogs ran to and fro, calls echoed against the pyramids and the shorter wood and bark and thatch houses. Children played, sellers hocked, and laborers hammered.
We descended the cliff by a narrow, hidden way. Guardians with slings and arrows hid off the path and I pretended not to notice their hideaways, the glint of their steel. Below we entered an orchard with long ditches between the cherry trees and apples and berry plants. The grass was soft between plots of shade crops, leeks and potatoes and other leafy things. Folk stopped their work amongst the plants and stood at my approach. One or two of them spoke to Askuwheteau. When we passed, I looked back and still they stood, watching after me, unmoving, unabashed, black eyes and drawn faces.
At the city walls, the high mounds, Askuwheteau stopped. Watchers called out to him, pointed at me with their arrows. He spoke to them and then went ahead and talked in a low voice with a group of guardians who stood before the main entrance, a break in the mounded wall bordered by massive plates of stone. I waited while my host gestured and whispered and cajoled, and meanwhile the guards’ voices rose and the pointed and spat.
They did not know, could not know, that I would be entering their city one way or another. Though I had arrived by chance, a long, careful design had led me there.
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