The Road

The summer wind bounced the new sunbeads against Dhel’s cheek. The air felt alive against his skin, his horse an unstoppable power beneath him. Ahead and above, the sky shone a barefaced blue. Today, nothing stood between him and the open plain. Today, he joined the ranks of the Rhyjanthi.

Beside him, Lumar rode with his chin tipped up, and Dhel was glad their shared naming year allowed them to take the oath side by side. The ceremony had faded to a blur around that perfect moment when Chief Magkta tied their beads and proclaimed them.

Lumar rattled the glass and shell ornaments tangled in the mess of his white-gold hair.  “Who’s the best rider now? We should race.”

Dhel cut in front of him. “Looking to be humiliated?”

“I wasn’t the one drooling at Makgta’s daughter this morning.”

“Shut it. We were just talking.”

“Sure. Oh let me carry that tackle for you. I just love the way you knotted your pony’s mane.”

“You go running your mouth, y’ditchpitcher, I’ll make sure Shentt finds out about your misunderstanding with Beduyne during the imbra dance.”

Lumar glared at him. “Only one way to settle this.”

Dhel gave his horse’s neck a pat. “Whistler and I can take you and Arrowfoot on any day. To the gatestone?”

At a silent signal the two horses bolted out of their loping gait. Buoyancy shivered through Dhel as he urged Whistler faster across the plain.

Lumar edged ahead. With a fluid twist, he plunged sideways off his saddle, then twisted upright, seated backwards. He shot Dhel a cross-eyed grin, stuck out his tongue, then reversed the move and upped his pace.

Dhel rolled his eyes. Lumar would use any excuse to pull out the tricks he’d learned on caravan ponies as a child.

The thud of Dhel’s heart quickened. He felt Whistler strain against the bit as the horse caught sight of the challenger pulling ahead. Whistler always started lazy, but give him some competition and he’d be on it like a snarp after a grasswog. Dhel waited until he could feel the horse wrestling for control, then gave him his head. Hooves broke from the ground in a stretching stride that forgot the touch of earth. Dhel laughed and for a few stop-heart beats knew only sun-warmed skin, fierce, playful winds and the muscle of his horse running for no reason but the run itself. He heard Lumar shout “Fly!” and the word flattened out to fill the green expanse around them.

Glancing sideways, Dhel found Arrowfoot now a nose behind but keeping speed. For someone adopted, not born, into the Würd, Lumar rode like he had the blood of Telkarron in him. Lately, they’d matched each other down to the last stride.

Time and space melted until the gatestone came into view—an immense granite boulder marking the outer edge of the tribe’s encampment. Sensing the last leg, the horses strained forward, hooves tearing the earth, muscles shedding beads of sweat. Flanks shook and loosened droplets shimmered captured glints of sun. Dhel’s blood thundered in his ears. His world blurred. Awareness of Lumar and Arrowfoot faded. Only speed mattered. Dhel could taste it in the back of his throat, the great forward momentum bringing him closer and closer to the gatestone and victory. Had Whistler ever run so fast? He felt unstoppable.

The great rock filled his vision. Three strides left. Two. One. Suddenly, he was past it. Dhel slowed Whistler with a wide turn and glanced back in time to see Lumar cross the invisible line. It took a moment to process what that meant. Then it hit him. He’d won.

“Hah!” he called out to his friend, “Lumar, you slowpoke.”

Lumar, reins dangling, jaw slack, sat frozen.

Dhel turned to follow his friend’s gaze. A black smudge marred the horizon. As Dhel squinted, it resolved into a horse—a horse and rider, moving towards them. The rider slumped sideways, causing the horse to sidestep for a few feet until it jerked its nose back. The tall, chestnut-colored animal bore a splotch of white on its nose.

“I know that horse. That’s my brother’s horse. That’s Alhan.” He knew then that something was terribly wrong. Alhan was not due back from the Pilgrim Road for three months. Dhel kicked Whistler into a gallop and rode out to meet him. As he drew close, he dismounted and caught the reins of the other horse. The edges of the animal’s mouth glistened with wet froth, its sides heaving exhausted breath. Dhel urged it to a halt and ran soothing hands down its neck until its eyes lost some of their wildness.

The slumped rider wobbled in his precarious perch. “Dhel?”

Dhel dropped the reins to catch his brother before he fell from his saddle. Lumar appeared by his side and together they freed the man from his stirrups and lowered him to the ground. Alhan lay on his back, gasping shallow, shaky breaths. His brown skin was drenched in sweat, dust and grime coating his leather vest. A gash smeared congealed, dirt-encrusted blood over his forehead.

“By Kija, what happened to you?”

His brother opened parched lips and coughed out, “We were attacked.”

Dhel fumbled for his water skin. His brother took it with eager hands, gulping down the liquid until he could wring no more from the vessel. He handed it back and Dhel hauled Alhan into a sitting position.

“You look awful,” said Lumar.

“I rode all the way from Idstandora.”

“Kija, no wonder you look half-dead.”

“Help me up, you dullards, I need to talk to Father.” Alhan fought his way to his knees, but it took both Dhel and Lumar taking his weight on their shoulders to get him to his feet.

“Who attacked you?” asked Dhel. “Highwaymen?”

Alhan shook his head. “Worse.”

“What’s worse?” said Lumar. “A pack of stampeding burro?”

“This is no joke,” said Alhan. “Keep moving you louts, Father needs to hear this first.”

The curved horseshoe arrangement of brightly dyed canvas tents hugged the high-banked elbow of Widow’s Creek. Most of the young people were out on the hunt, but the old women sitting by their tent flaps rose from their leather-working as Dhel and his brother approached. Surrounding them, they prodding Alhan with worried fingers.

“I’m fine,” he grunted.

A young boy with mud-covered feet and knees clambered from the creek bank and ran to meet them. Dhel recognized his youngest brother, Edham, and caught the boy by the back of his vest before he could attach himself like a leech to Alhan’s leg.

“You’re back.”

“Aye, little one.” Alhan ran a dirty hand through the boy’s tight curls, “Where’s father?”

“In the Elder’s tent. Mother said I’m not allowed there.”

Lumar snorted. “You’ll have to lie in the sun and bake yourself till you’re wrinkled as a dried gurr if you want to pass for an Elder.”

Dhel waved the reigns looped through his fist. “We’ve got some tired and thirsty horses. Think you can take care of Whistler for me?”

Edham’s lips broke into a wide grin. “Really?” He looked to Alhan, “And Thunderrun?”

Alhan nodded. Edham ran to open the corral gate. Two older boys who had been sitting on the fence jumped down to help with the tackle. No child of the Würd would pass up the chance to work on the horse of Rhyjanthi, even ones so new beaded as Dhel and Lumar, but of course they flocked to Alhan’s horse first.

With a last pat on the flank, Dhel left Whistler in their care. He watched Edham lug a water pail, splashing and staggering across the corral, and smiled. Then Alhan nudged his shoulder and Dhel remembered they had serious business.

Spindlewood incense and pipe smoke suffused the Elder’s tent. The chief’s abode where Dhel spent the morning had been double in size, but Itus kept his well-stocked. The numerous blankets on display, embroidered with the great stories of their past—the pilgrimage of the first Würd, Telkarron’s Ride—brought back memories of winter nights around the Elder’s fire, and Itus’ low, musical voice conjuring pictures in the stars.

Itus sat by the sandpit in the centre of the floor, the prominent men of the tribe arranged around him—Gregner the blacksmith, Horsemaster Shentt, and Dhel’s father Kinnan, interrupted in the midst of an intense conversation. While the others stared at the intruders, Kinnan leapt up and took Alhan’s arm from Dhel, helping his son to a place on a cushion beside him. Dhel pulled Lumar in and they took seats just behind the inner circle.

Kinnan regarded his oldest son with concern, “Alhan, why have you returned from the Road?”

“There’s a Cyadath in Idstandora.”

Kinnan’s eyebrows knotted.

“I swear to you, father, it’s true. It arrived with a host of Rassai. They’ve blocked the Road.”

“You saw this Cyadath?”

Alhan swallowed and shook his head. “No, but I was escorting an Aiayin. She could sense it. It was waiting for us, Father. Rassai cornered us as soon as we came into town. Pirhel from Harad’s Würd was with me. They killed him. I… got away.”

Kinnan gripped his shoulder, and Alhan quieted.

Horsemaster Shentt slapped his palms on the ground. “You’re sure they were Rassai?”

Alhan nodded. “Raijan Rassai. I know the uniform.”

Shentt shook his head, stormy frown building over his broad nose. “This makes no sense. The Raijans swore with us to follow no Cyadath except Kija. Aster Raija wouldn’t throw in his lot with a rogue upstart.”

“If Aster’s still on the throne,” said Shentt, “I heard a rumor down in Sehanen—”

Dhel rubbed his palms along his thighs. He’d never seen a Raijan soldier in his lifetime. In the peace of the last seventeen years, the rich Riverland kingdom had left the plains forgotten, a state of affairs most Würdsmen were quite happy with.

“Those Cyadath are tricky,” said Gregner. “They’ll mess with your mind. Maybe the Raijans couldn’t say no.”

“I told you, it’s hunting,” said Alhan. “Right on the Road. Any poor Pilgrim could fall to it.”

“Then it must be stopped,” said Shentt. “If the Road’s taken, our bargain with Kija goes with it.”

“You want to fight a Cyadath?” said Kinnan.

Tense silence spread over the tent. In an ordinary fight, Dhel would never bet against his people, but he’d grown up hearing stories of the Cyadath, of power that felled armies in one stroke. His brother had been lucky to escape.

Gregner shifted his large frame and wrung his hands. “They say they take the touched ones. What if it wants my Izzy?”

“There’s no point in speculating,” said Kinnan. “What matters is what we do next.”

The gazes in the tent shifted to Itus. The old man had stayed quiet thus far, sucking on his bone pipe. He began to stroke his beard, smoothing his fingers down the long strands of sunbeads braided into it.

“It’s been our duty since Kija’s sacrifice to watch the Pilgrim Road,” Shentt insisted. “Idstandora is the gateway to the North. Cyadath or no, if the Road is threatened, we are obliged to send aid.”

“I’m not risking my Izzy. You fellows know it’d be her, if any.” Gregner pushed to his knees.

“No one’s getting taken,” said Kinnan. “But we must be careful. Cyadath do not travel alone. If this one hunts, it may already have acquired Madthrenn.”

Dhel shivered. In the stories of the Cyadath, the only thing scarier than the demigods themselves were their bonded vassals the Madthrenn—fearsome warriors who gave up control of their minds in order to share their master’s power.

“Then we must send scouts,” said Shentt. “The Cyadath could have spread its creatures our way.”

Itus tilted forward on his cushion, quieting the other men. Gregner scowled but settled down.

The Elder spoke in that deep, melodious voice of his that had so mesmerized Dhel as a child. “Kinnan, can you think of any reason why Aster Raija would support a rogue Cyadath?”

Dhel couldn’t fathom why Itus was asking this question of his father. Everyone knew Shentt had once met the Raijan king. The Horsemaster shared the tale of his grand adventures during the war with all the children—or anyone who’d listen after he’d had some drink in him. Dhel suspected his father had fought in the war as well, but Kinnan never spoke of those times, and had certainly never mentioned any insights he may have gained into the mind of the famous Aster Raija.

His father, however, did not look surprised, just thoughtful. “No, and the more I think on it, the more this all seems a ploy.”

Itus sucked deeply on his pipe and nodded. “I too have doubts. But this matter must be brought to Magkta and the rest of the Fourteen.”

“They won’t call a moot unless—” Gregner started, but Itus waved him off.

“In the meantime I will make a visit to the Raijan King. If men misuse his name, he should be told. Or if he’s fallen in with a Cyadath, I would hear it from his own lips.”

“He should hear it from a witness,” said Alhan. “Take me with you.”

“Absolutely not,” said Kinnan.

Shentt surged to his feet. “Were you kicked in the head by your own horse, old man? You may be Elder here, father, but you’re no emissary and you’re certainly in no state to be trotting off to Whitecrest. Not with danger on the Pilgrim Road. The Cyadath will be old news by the time your sagging ass gets there.”

Lumar concealed a giggle behind a well-timed cough. Dhel blinked, a little shocked, but then, only Shentt could get away with treating Itus with such disrespect.

Kinnan grabbed Shentt’s elbow with the same calming touch he used on his horse. Shentt grumbled and sank back to his cushion.

Itus looked amused by the outburst. “If I take a ship across the Nesynn Sea, I can make the journey by Onarudim, perhaps less with the proper motivation. Did not my ungrateful son boast to me only two nights ago that he knew a captain in Sehanen who still owed him a favor?”

“You want to hitch a ride with that crazy pirate? You might as well go drown yourself in the creek and save us all the trouble.”

“A ship?” Alhan looked a little green at the thought.

“You have made a hard journey, young man,” Itus told him. “The Würd is grateful. I cannot ask more of you.”

Alhan stiffened and sat up straighter. “I’m still oathed to three more months of Pilgrim’s Watch, Elder. If it can no longer be spent in service to the road, then let it be in service to you.”

Itus chuckled. “I see you have raised a stubborn son, Kinnan. Very well, you may accompany me, but by Kija, not until you’re rightly washed and fed, or it will be your mother who drowns me, not the sea.”

Shentt punched Kinnan in the shoulder, “You’re going to allow this?”

Kinnan sighed. “Let’s hope Almaris talks them out of it.”

“It is decided.” Itus declared. “Now scuttle off so I can make my preparations. What does one wear to an audience with the Raijan King?”

“Fine, have it your way. See if I care when your body turns up bloated on the shoals,” Shentt stood and hopped across the sandpit, heading for the tent flaps.

“Shentt,” called Itus.

The Horsemaster stopped, but didn’t turn.

“Scout our borders if you’re worried. Kinnan will go to Magkta. You may escort me as far as Sehanen, but then you must return to make sure the Rhyjanthi are prepared.”

“Kija damn you,” muttered Shentt, and stomped away.

Dhel lingered outside his father’s tent, watching as a gaggle of coddling women led Alhan away. Lumar took off after Shentt, perhaps to calm his foster-father, but more likely to worm his way into a trip to Sehanen.

Dhel felt a hand on his shoulder. His father stood behind him, forehead lined with concern.

“I’m sorry, Dhel. You’ve returned to what should be your celebration but instead landed in this mess. Congratulations on getting your beads.”

Dhel reached up to touch his sunbeads. In another year it would be his turn for Pilgrim’s Watch. Pray Kija he encountered no Cyadath.

“Will Alhan be all right? He was falling off his horse when I found him.”

Kinnan scratched his chin. “Let your mother do the worrying. Thank Kija she still has Ali and Edham to boss around. Come, the day’s not all lost. I have a gift for you.”

Dhel followed his father into the tent with a lighter step. Traditionally, new Rhyjanthi received a bridle upon their oathing, made by their mother or grandmother. Dhel’s mother made the most beautiful bridles in the whole Würd. He’d pictured how Whistler would look in one for weeks now. But as he looked about the tent, his mother was nowhere to be seen.

Kinnan knelt in front of a heavy hornwood chest that had formed a part of the family belongings for as long as Dhel could remember. Fastened with a sturdy lock, he’d never seen it opened. As he watched, Kinnan pulled a leather thong from around his neck. A silver pendant hung from the end, and an iron key. The key popped open the lock with a soft click. Kinnan reached into the chest and removed a long, cloth-wrapped bundle. He held it across his palms, then beckoned Dhel to kneel and passed him the bundle.

“Unwrap it,” Kinnan instructed.

Dhel peeled back the layers of yellowed linen until he uncovered worn, reddish-hued leather. This was no bridle though. As he let the linen fall away, he saw that he held a sword tucked into an embroidered scabbard. He wrapped his hand around the hilt and tugged, revealing an inch of a slightly curved, single-edged blade. A symbol that looked like an eight-pointed star with an eye in the centre had been engraved into the metal. Dhel frowned. His father’s sword did not look at all like this one and bore the twin horseshoe mark of the R’Hael family. This sword was not a Rhyjanthi’s. It seemed… foreign.

“It belonged to a man I met during the war. Bvan Ti’Rath was his name. He hailed from the far west, beyond the great forest, but his people were a horse people, much like ours. He saved my life at Rokaar and died there.”

“You fought in the battle of Rokaar, Father?”

“Yes, with Shentt and Bvan, and many Rhyjanthi whose songs will never be heard. That sword is yours now. Bvan would want you to have it.”

“Me? I never knew him.”

“Even so.” Kinnan untied the thin leather thong that held the key and slipped the silver pendant off it. He pressed the cool metal disk into Dhel’s palm.

“Give this to your brother. I don’t know if Aster Raija will remember it, but if he does, perhaps it will help Itus get his audience.”

Dhel looked into his hand and realized that his father had given him a silver pendant bearing the Whitecrest royal seal. How in Kija’s name had his father acquired such an object? Mouth dry, he tried to ask a question, but couldn’t formulate the words.

“Yes, Father.”

“Good.” Kinnan stood, brushing his hands together as though they’d been dirtied. “Now I must break the news to your mother before she guts someone, and prepare for my own journey. After Magkta, I must pay respect to Harad. Pirhel’s father is a good man, and a friend. Someone has to tell him his son is dead.”

Dhel sat in the tent long after his father left, a little excited, but mostly confused. At last he stood and buckled the sword on his hip, wondering if he could still wear it with his quiver. He’d been trained with arrows, not a blade. He should be pleased at the gift, but a part of him would have rather had the simple bridle token. It was alway this way. Even his family treated him just a little bit different.

A crowd had gathered around the central fire pit. Itus appeared, dressed in his riding outfit and horsetail headdress, looking pleased with himself. Alhan stood in clean leathers with a bandage wrapped around his forehead.

Dhel shifted his feet, feeling out of place. Though he didn’t stand out as much as Lumar, that had never stopped the other children from poking fun at his straight hair and sharp nose. He’d hoped becoming a Rhyjanthi would change that. The sword dragged an unfamiliar weight at his hip. He’d seen the question in Alhan’s eyes when he’d walked over with it, but he didn’t know how to explain the gift. He didn’t need another reason to draw attention.

Murmurs swelled through the crowd, gazes directed at the gatestone. Shentt rode in from the marker, Lumar and a spread of Rhyjanthi on his tail, dust swirling in their wake.

Shentt’s horse skidded to a stop in front of Itus. He hopped off. Sweat dripped trails through the dust powdering his face.

“We spotted three riders where the Road turns south. In Rassai uniforms, but if their horses were Riverlands stock, I’m the son of a two-legged mule.”

Dhel glanced at Lumar. Next to the others, his friend stood out like a pale ghost, but he always managed to seem at ease in his own skin. Lumar caught his eye and winked. How could he look so jovial when they’d just spotted interlopers?

“Only three?” said Itus.

Shentt scowled. “Father, cease this foolish plan. You’re needed here.”

“Here is exactly where none of us should be,” said Itus. “Almaris, where are you my girl?”

Dhel’s mother pushed forward. Golden disks hung from the front of her leather-wrapped bodice, catching the light. Her curly dark hair haloed her face. The rest of the tribe members stepped back to give her space.

“You will take the tribe east along the barro trail until Magkta calls the moot. Our kind knows how to disappear, even from Cyadath.”

Almaris jutted her chin to a proud tilt.

“You agree with this?” said Shentt.

“My son is alive and strong,” said Almaris. “He will protect our father, even when he reaches for the sun.”

Alhan swelled up and straightened his spine at the compliment.

“Glad to see you both have such faith in me,” said Itus. The old man didn’t seem downtrodden by his children’s mockery. He puttered around his horse, poking at the saddlebags. “The Rhyjanthi will remain with the tribe, unless Kinnan wishes an escort.”

“More will just slow me down,” said Kinnan.

“I can go,” said Dhel, hoping his mother would take notice.

“No,” said Kinnan. “Dhel goes with Alhan.”

Dhel blinked, pulse pounding in his ears. Was his father serious?

Kinna’s gaze strayed to the blade at Dhel’s hip. “Dhel’s Rhyjanthi now. He should learn something of the life outside the plains before he’s called to his watch.”

“Babysat by my own grandchildren,” muttered Itus. “I thought I was Elder here.”

Dhel’s parents exchanged a long look. Had they discussed this? When? Prickles crawled along his skin.

Alhan clapped him on the back, grinning under his bandage. Lumar hopped from his horse and bounded over, catching Dhel with a looped arm. “Me too. Shentt said I could go as far as Sehanen.”

“I’m regretting this already,” said Shentt.

The other Rhyjanthi remained mounted behind the Horsemaster, arms folded. Dhel ducked his head. Was this his father’s way of telling him he wasn’t ready to join the hunt?

“Nice sword” said Lumar.

Dhel nodded, face flaming. He adjusted his belt, eyes on the two girls who peeled from the crowd to pester Shentt.

“And why am I left behind?” demanded Beduyne. She planted her feet with a huff, full lower lip thrust in a pout. She had her leathers on, hair tucked under a patterned band. She’d tie the beads herself if her father would let her, Dhel wagered.

Shentt refused to give ground.

Itus laughed. “That’s your own folly come back on you now, my boy. You should give the girl a horse. She already puts more meat in my stew than half your riders.”

“Don’t tell me how to raise my children,” Shentt snapped. He stalked off, directing the Rhyjanthi to begin dismantling tents.

Beduyne turned on her heel and made her way over to Lumar. Gregner’s daughter Isamyne tagged along behind her. The two had been fast friends since they were tots, but unlike Beduyne, she never dressed like a Rhyjanthi. Instead she was odd in other ways, strange ways that made the women whisper and the men keep their distance. Thinking back to the conversation in the Itus’ tent, Dhel wondered if Gregner had been right to worry. No one knew how the Cyadath picked people to bind to their will, but it was said that those touched by Kija were more desirable.

Dhel could admit that Isamyne made him nervous, but she was also one of the few people who never teased him because of his looks, maybe because of the orange tint to her frazzled hair, bouncing around her like rushweed.

She stared at him now, an unblinking appraisal that slipped under his skin like a hot knife. Beduyne whispered something to her and giggled.

Strolling up to her adoptive brother, Beduyne poked Lumar in the chest.

“I want a Tellak boneknife from Sehanen, y’hear? That’s your price for going without me.”

Lumar poked her back. “It’ll be worth it if I don’t have to look at your ugly face for a few days.”

Dhel sighed. Those two would be civil to each other the day horses grew wings.

A soft voice against his ear made him flinch. “Dhel?”

“Isamyne?” He blinked at her face, close to his. The round metal plates hung from her neck clinked as she leaned in.

“I have a bad feeling about all of this. A feeling, you know?”

Dhel shivered. No one in the Würd knew what to make of Isamyne’s feelings, but she certainly had an uncanny ability to find lost horses and forecast storms. Sometimes he wondered if she liked unnerving people with her predictions. She had him spooked right now.

“I thought . . . I wanted . . . just in case . . . Kija bless your journey.” Dry lips brushed his cheek, soft and fleeting. Dhel froze, heart knocking his ribs like hoof thunder. Isamyne ducked away and rushed off to hide somewhere among the folding tents.

Lumar slapped his back. “How come you get all the luck with women?”

Beside him, Alhan laughed, loud and brash. “Only you would go for the scary one, Dhel. Hey, maybe she’ll find the boots you keep losing.”

Dhel scowled, rubbing at his cheek.

He couldn’t help the relief when his mother approached. Then Dhel met her eyes and felt their coldness like a jolt. He read an accusation in them that he didn’t understand. Behind her, his little sister Ali stood wide–eyed, her bottom lip trembling. She broke away and ran toward Dhel. He scooped her up and held her in his arms, felt her little hands clutch around his neck.

“Hey, don’t be sad,” he told her. “Everything’s gonna be fine.”

She hid her face against his leather vest, then loosened one of her hands so she could play with his new beads. “Pretty,” she whispered.

“Yeah, I’m a Rhyjanthi now.” He jiggled her until she smiled.

Almaris planted her tall frame in front of Itus, hands on her hips, her best glare fixed. The old man blinked owlishly at her, then slipped past her defenses and hugged her to his chest. She stiffened, tried to push back, but something Itus whispered in her ear must have hit home. She relaxed and when she stepped back Dhel thought he saw tears glinting in her eyes. She turned to Alhan, enveloped him in a bone-crushing embrace, and threatened to set loose his horse if he didn’t return to her.

Lumar stepped back so she could say goodbye to Dhel, but with nothing but a quick nod, she turned away and retreated. Rhyjanthi or not, Dhel would have liked to feel her embrace just then, but she’d never been openly affectionate with him the way she was with her other children. Why, he didn’t know, but he feared it was the same reason that the women whispered crude insinuations about his birth. He should be used to it by now. He kissed the top of Ali’s head and put her down.

Kinnan came next, nodding to Alhan and trading a bump of fists. He paused at Dhel and lay a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Do you understand why I want you to go?”

Dhel averted his gaze, unsure how to reply. Hopes and fears warred in his heart.

Kinnan lowered his voice to a murmur. “Your brother has grown into a fine Rhyjanthi, but if he thinks a few trips to Idstandora have prepared him for the Riverlands capitol, he is sadly mistaken. I want you by his side, watching his back as Bvan once watched mine. Have a little adventure, gods knows you need it, but bring him back safe.”

Dhel gulped and nodded. Alhan was family. Of course he would fight at his side. But his older brother had always watched out for him, not the other way around. What was his father afraid of?

The tribe could move quick when they wanted. They finished packing the encampment within the hour. The young boys readied fresh horses for the travelers. Dhel was given Brightleaf—a sturdy mount, though not as spirited as Whistler. Alhan helped him pack the bags, their situation growing more real to him with each cinch of strap.

The horses moved restlessly as though they sensed the immanent departure. Itus mounted first. Shentt watched the old man warily, but no one would dare presume to offer the Elder assistance in mounting his horse. As Dhel hopped onto Brightleaf, Lumar flashed him a brave smile and Dhel made a half-hearted attempt to return it. Kinnan observed them from below, the lines of his mouth restrained to a thin line. “Take care of them, Shentt,” he said, and in the formal farewell, “May your horses be swift and the Shepherd guide you.”

Shentt nodded and urged his horse to a trot, forcing the others to slap their reins and follow. The forward momentum felt unreal, like the haze of a dream before waking. Dhel glanced over his shoulder and watched the Würd slide away into the distance, the people who had represented his home and family for as long as he could remember. Was this what it meant to be a Rhyjanthi? He could only follow his horse’s nose and find out.