I woke to the sounds of fire.
No one ever speaks of the sounds in tales and songs. The bards speak of the warmth, the fear. They speak of the destruction. But no one talks of how it cracks out at the night, how it cackles and how it snaps. It is the sound of the Inferno itself. You can hear the demons laughing from within as it devours the Sycamores, hear the screams of the souls who have been lost to its roar.
“Up!” It came out as a shriek, terrified and wounded. I snatched at Enoah’s shoulder, kicked at Alahn’s back. They stumbled to their feet, eyes wide but unseeing.
Then we were running.
We had run so long, so often that past week. This was but another trek, but one with a beating heart and constricted throat. Smoke hazed the view more than ever, and fire laughed behind us, seeming to snap at our feet.
It did not spread far. The forest was too damp for that, the streams too many and too wide. But the fire’s fear was as agonizing as the flames themselves.
And even more painful was the knowledge that the fire was coming from the Stronghold.
No Rogues were running with us. And I knew they were only corpses, burnt or burning, trapped in what was once their only haven.
I grieved. Not for the Rogues themselves, but for what they had stood for. One stronghold gone.
We will feel the pangs, I thought. For a long time, this will strike us.
Alahn and Enoah, as turned around as they got in the woods, did not know. They did not realize that our only plan for safety had gone up in smoke.
“Here,” I gasped, charred scents clamoring in my throat. We were calf-deep in water, one of many small yet wide streams that webbed across the forest, like a vein. I sat down, the frigid water splashing onto my clothes. Enoah and Alahn sat tentatively. “The fire will not touch us here, should it spread further.”
“What could have caused a fire?” Alahn asked, then coughed.
I grew silent for a moment before answering. “I cannot say for certain. Perhaps an accident, if someone were foolish enough. Unlikely but possible. Or a group of neighboring… Rogues, could have grown angry for some reason.” There was another idea. One I didn’t dare to speak. It would only confirm what we had feared for nearly a decade.
“It… the fire was at the Stronghold?” Alahn whispered the last word, leaning back as though to avoid another slap.
“Yes,” I said, a little sullenly. I did not like what we had to do next.
“Where do we go, then?” Enoah asked.
I stood again. The next portion of our journey would be very long. And worse yet, we had to cross The Road, which was very heavily guarded and fraught with Elites and Prevalents both.
They were ordered to shoot Outcasts on sight.
But the only other way to get where we needed to go was nearly three times the journey, and through the thickest part of the woods. Only the hermits dared stray that deep, on that side of the city, and there were rumors of the Tylwyth Teg. I had never heard of someone surviving that area of the woods. Only one tale was told of a man fully circling the city from the outside, but the rumors also told that he was pierced many times by the guards’ arrows.
“We have far to go,” I said. Alahn and Enoah shared a look.
“Crest,” Alahn said. “Where are we going? We greatly appreciate what all you’ve done for us, and how yo-“
“Stop with your Elite ramblings!” I snapped. “What is the point?”
“We can’t follow you blindly,” Alahn said simply.
“Do you have somewhere else to go?” I pressed. Alahn hesitated, then shook his head. “Do you have a goal, then?”
“Peace,” Enoah said softly. “We wish to live peacefully.”
“Then you must follow me to the stronghold,” I said grimly. “The only one remaining.”
Once. Once there had been many strongholds. Hatred boiled deep within the Sycamores, the lust for revenge always a constant threat against the Elites. Until Bradwyr. He warned the city. He died so that he could tell the Elites of the Rogues.
The strongholds were attacked.
The anger flared brighter than ever.
Then it began to die.
“The Sycamores are thirsty for blood,” The man said, looking down at the girl. “Do you want it to take yours or those who hurled you here?”
“The Elites,” She guessed. She’d eavesdropped on enough of their meetings to know.
“Aye,” Bhar said. “Their blood shall water the Sycamores. We shall uproot the city as the trees swore so long ago.”
Something flared in her chest, sending a frisson of adrenaline through her veins.
“Crest,” Enoah said gently. “Years ago there were rumors of Outcasts who swore to come back. You muttered something like their slogan, when you were on the narcotics. About blood and water.”
“You do not know what you are speaking of, old man,” I said coldly. “It is wiser not to speak.”
“Trees have ears, the forest fears, the idle threats of fire,” Alahn sang softly. “Leaves tremble with ire, threats so dire, true or false they may be. Creatures will flee, you will plea, your own life to spare. They fear the flare, give a care, what you speak in the woods.”
“Where did you hear that song?” I demanded. “It’s an Outcast ballad.”
“Outcasts have been brought back to the city for execution,” Alahn said, running his fingers along pebbles at the bottom of the creek. “I used to speak with them. I… never thought I would be one.”
Then you shouldn’t have sired Yasri, I thought. As though she knew I was thinking of her, Yasri began to cough.
“The smoke is thicker,” Enoah noted. “We should move further away.”
I held out my hand. Enoah took it and stumbled to his feet. Alahn rose, and the three of us began to walk, all listening to Yasri coughing.
She can smell it, I thought. Not just the ash, but the fear.
* * * * *
Their days settled into a calming routine. I would awake before the sun rose, when the earth was still cold and the leaves chilled. I would stalk off in the darkness, troubled by thoughts of Rogues and Strongholds, and the more treacherous part of the trek to come. Then Iwould return and wake Enoah and Alahn as the sun flickered dimly in the far eastern leaves. They would eat what I had gathered and then begin walking.
Enoah and Alahn often spoke or sang softly. Sometimes they would ask me a question, perhaps about hunting or what plants were safe to eat and touch. Mostly, though, I listened to their memories of life inside the Walls. I came to realize that Alahn was not Yasri’s father, and in fact that none of them were related. I cursed herself for not realizing Yasri had most likely been Outcast for her arm, not her illegitimacy.
I attempted to teach them how to walk more quietly. The young man fared better than the older, and Enoah blamed this on his older legs. Should they manage to be quiet long enough, I might be able to hunt any beast they came across, but more often I would have to slink off on her own.
“Like a Tylwyth Teg,” I once caught Enoah saying. “She seems to become invisible between glances at her.” He then grew a teasing sort of tone. “I suppose you steal several of those.”
“Nay,” Alahn had replied. “My heart still lies with Gyffredin.”
“Unless she becomes Outcast,” Enoah said gently. “You will not see Gyffredin again.”
“Perhaps,” Alahn said idly.
That was one of the more confusing conversations I had overheard. And when I made my presence known by bringing in the small baedd I had shot. Enoah smiled, and Alahn’s face grew flushed.
After we ate at midday, we would continue walking west. Every day I noted what plants we passed, how close we drew to the road, the Heolig. It would be swarmed with guards on either sides, marching past in their clinking armor, armed with crossbows and pikes.
They had to guard the merchants that traveled to other cities from the Rogues, and protect the path from being used by any Outcasts hoping to reach other cities. The path was the only way through the Sycamores.
At the deepest parts of the forest, the Tylwyth Teg would be certain to slaughter you, or you would become horribly mixed by the magic of the forests. They called it the Tynged yr Sycamorwydd, or fate of the Sycamores. Outcasts rejected these claims. The most pious would claim that Sycamores were Tynged herself, bits and pieces of her very soul in each one. But few Outcasts believed this. To them, Sycamores were trees and no more.
But at times the forest felt alive. A being, twisting its roots into our lives and destinies.
And other times, it was laughable, what the claimed. The woods were treacherous, but they were merely trees. Any forest could be dangerous.
“The Tylwyth Teg the fair folk fine, not so fair when they stole mine, love away oh love away,” Alahn sang, his voice ringing so that the very leaves seemed to shudder. “They are called the folk of day, the folk of night do run away, when Tylwyth Teg do come their way.”
How the boy had learned so many songs in his short life I do not know. He knew every trill and twist of the tunes, every variation of the lyrics. When Yasri grew fussy, only his voice would still her. Alahn was large for his age, tall and strong. Yet his voice was as gentle as his hands grew when he cared for the infant.
But they had changed much, both of them. When I had first met them they were dark-skinned and panted after less than a mile. Now they easily strode through the days, and their skin was growing pale from the shade of leaves. Enoah was more filled out than when I had first seen him, but Alahn had thinned slightly. As was the custom of outcasting an infant, Yasri had been kept until she could be weaned off a woman’s milk. The superstitious High King Drim had feared Tynged’s wrath should he outcast the newly born. Still, she was so freshly weaned that at first she had struggled to eat the berries and fungus that Enoah crushed for her. Now she ate with ease, although she still gagged whenever we tried to feed her hynaf berries.
The days had melted into a fortnight when I saw the first guard.
We had been tramping through the woods. Or rather, Enoah and Alahn were tramping. I still glided as stealthily as one could while holding a growing child. Then I heard the dreaded clink of chainmail. My hand clamped on Enoah’s shoulder, and he in turn threw up a hand to stop Alahn. We grew silent.
Like a silver beast the guard clanked in front of us. Metal plates adorned his limbs and chest, interlocked rings of metal showing in the chinks. A bright yellow sash was the only soft thing to be seen besides the man’s beard, which grew in tufts from under the rim of his helmet. However clumsy the armor looked, it fitted well to the bones, jointed where the body was. Each bit of armor was adjustable to a various physique. And it left no vital patch of skin uncovered for an arrow to penetrate.
Nevertheless, I passed Yasri to Alahn. I slipped my bow from over my head, slowly drawing an arrow and nocking it.
He moved away, towards the South. With a jerk of my head, I moved forward. The other two followed very slowly, eyes trained on the ground for twigs or leaves.
When we had moved a distance away, I turned to the other two. Their faces were no longer pale, but they looked at me questioningly.
“I did not tell you of this portion,” I said carefully. “But we will not rest easy for several days. We will be on edge until we pass the Heolig.”
“Heolig?!” Alahn hissed. “You lead us to our deaths!”
“No Outcast can pierce the protection given to the Heolig,” Enoah put in.
“Hush! I have made this journey before,” I said in a placating tone. “The guards can be avoided. It is difficult, but it can be done.”
Alahn shook his head, his fair hair bouncing. “This is madness, Crest.”
“This is the only way,” I said more firmly. “Be silent. Go slowly if you must. We will avoid detection if we can. If we cannot…” I trailed off.
Alahn and Enoah looked at me more intensely than I had seen before.
“Run.” I finished.