Chapter 21

"It doesn't make any sense!" Ellerie exclaimed, shutting the ancient book and setting it to the side. "I have no idea if we're in the right place or not. It's just miles and miles of dead land!"

"Things change over time," Bobo said.

"Not this much! There aren't any landmarks left. I don't even know if the river we crossed yesterday is the right one. There was no bridge, and it was miles from where it should have been."

"Rivers can change course," Josip said. "I've seen it happen."

"I know, but that doesn't help! The river that the author crossed might not even exist anymore. Now we're supposed to head east through prairies and farmland until we reach a forest, and then we turn north. But there are no prairies and no farmland, and I doubt there's any forest. I knew this part would be difficult, but I thought there'd be something to go on."

"Should we just turn north now?" Bobo asked.

Ellerie rubbed her temples. "I don't know. Maybe we came the wrong way. Maybe there used to be two roads through the swamp. If we'd exited to the southeast, we'd have gone around the barrens entirely. There was definitely farmland to the south. We could have followed that, and maybe there's a forest on the other side."

"That's worth looking into if we don't find anything here, but it doesn't make sense to stop searching until we know there's nothing to find."

"Yes, I suppose," Ellerie said, sighing. "You're right. But where do we search? The barrens are huge, and there's nothing to go on." She opened up the well-worn map they'd found in Aencyr that showed the lands east of the Skotinos Mountains. Tapping her finger on their current location, she said, "I feel like I'm missing something."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, are we sure the map is accurate? It doesn't show the rivers. What else is missing?"

"I'm sorry about that," Josip said. "It was the only map I could find that showed the true shape of the barrens. The mapmaker insists he circled around the entire area, taking measurements the whole time."

"You said these were flood plains, right?" Ellerie asked, pointing just beyond the jagged eastern edge of the barrens.

"That's what the writing says."

"So it's like the flooding from the storm the other day, but wider? It's got to be from more than one river. Look at the pattern. There are four big wedges eating into the barrens, and then they all join together into the flood plains beyond that. Four rivers flowing east to the coast. And there's a smaller wedge south of us—that must be from the river we crossed yesterday."

"Sediment," Bobo said. "Even in the barrens, the rivers are transporting soil from one place to another. Better soil, it seems, if the flood plains aren't considered part of the barrens."

Ellerie nodded. "Exactly. And what if the flood plains weren't there?"

"What do you mean?"

"Ignore all the little irregularities around the border. Ignore the wedges, and extend the barrens about halfway into the flood plains." Ellerie traced a perfect circle on the map with her finger. "The barrens used to be larger ... and round."

Bobo furrowed his brow. "There's no way to know if that's true."

"Look at the borders. Before the flood plains existed, what would the barrens have looked like?"

The two men stared at the map.

"I suppose it could have been round once," Bobo said.

"Not just round. A circle." Ellerie traced her finger around the map again. "The borders have changed over time, maybe for different reasons in different spots, but the barrens were once a circle."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that the interesting part will be at the center." Ellerie pointed to a mark on the map that matched where she imagined the middle of the barrens had once been. "What's that? A mountain?"

"It's labeled Lone Peak," Josip said. "I think that's just a description, not an actual name."

"The book doesn't mention any mountains on the way to Tir Yadar," Bobo said.

"Are you sure?" Ellerie asked. "What about the hills you said were in the city itself?"

"They're not described in any detail. The author says he went up the hill to visit his cousin, or down the hill to watch the horse races. A few other spots like that; nothing useful."

Ellerie tapped the map again.

Bobo said, "You think the city was built on the side of the mountain?"

She shrugged. "What I think is that we should go there and see if we can find anything interesting. But first, let's head out of the barrens and resupply, so if we do find something, there'll be time to explore."

#

"You look lovely, my dear," Queen Merice said, brushing imaginary flecks of dust off of Yassi's wedding gown.

It was cut modestly, like a Zidari dress, but was bright red, befitting a wedding ceremony conducted by the Church of Pallisur. Yassi hated it. She stared at herself in the mirror, wishing the compulsion magic would allow her to cry. She'd tried to kill herself after Rusol had decided she was going to marry him, but he'd caught her at it and ordered her not to make another attempt.

"She'll do, I suppose," Sharra said. "Though she'd never have been allowed to graduate from the Three Orders with that posture. Stand up straight, girl!"

"I just wish Rikard could be here today," Merice said. "He'll be so surprised when he finds out his little brother got married before him." She whispered to Yassi conspiratorially, "He's stationed with the knights in Fort Hightower, you know."

Sharra rolled her eyes, and Yassi couldn't bring herself to remind the queen of the truth. The Hightower story was a new one Merice had come up with to explain her son's continued absence.

Everything seemed hopeless. Samir was dead, and it was all Yassi's fault. She'd tried and tried to get him to see what was happening, hoping that if he knew the truth, he'd somehow make it all go away. He and Rusol had been friends for years—surely he could have made the prince see reason. But once he did learn the truth, everything happened too quickly. Before Yassi had even realized what was going on, Samir was dead. She'd killed her brother just as surely as if she'd been the one to cast the spell that did it.

If only she could speak to King Marten about what Rusol had done, he would put a stop to it all, but Rusol's orders ensured she could never tell the king the truth. As far as Marten knew, Samir had gone mad and tried to kill both Rusol and Yassi when he discovered they were mages.

The story given out to the public was that Sam had died stopping a crazed intruder from killing Rusol. Marten hadn't been happy with that decision, not wanting the family to show weakness—even now, most people believed Rikard's death had been an accident. Rusol had prevailed, however, insisting that Samir be remembered as a hero. He'd told his father it was to help Yassi and her parents, and that they didn't deserve what people would think of them if the truth, as Marten knew it, came out.

Yassi despised the lie, but it gave her parents a small amount of comfort. Even if she'd been capable of telling them the truth, she couldn't take that away from them. Marten was the one who needed to hear the truth, but Rusol had made sure that would never happen. And then, after the month of mourning, he'd decided to carry the lie even further by insisting she marry him—announced publicly as a reward for her brother's heroism. Marten had thought it was an excellent idea, seemingly happy to see his son settle down, and now Yassi was being forced to wed the one person she hated more than any other. Her entire life was in ruins, and there was no possible way to escape.

Sharra snapped her fingers at one of the servants. "You! Take the queen and give her her medicine."

"But I wanted to go to the ceremony, Sharra!" Merice protested. "That medicine makes me so tired."

"It's my son's wedding, you old bat. I won't have you ruining it with one of your episodes."

The queen continued complaining as the servant led her out of the room. Before the door could close, Rusol strode through, wearing a dark suit.

"Hello, my dearest!" he said grandly, giving Yassi an elegant bow. Then he turned to Sharra. "And Mother, of course."

"Why are you here, Rusol?" the concubine asked. "Shouldn't you be with Cardinal Aldrich right now?"

"Soon. I just came to tell my bride that her parents have arrived." He faced Yassi. "They've taken their seats already, but they'll speak to you after the ceremony."

She nodded curtly, not meeting his eyes. How could he pretend nothing was wrong? How could he act like she wanted this?

Rusol sighed. "I'd like to speak to Yassi alone, Mother. Everyone, please leave us."

"Right now?" Sharra asked. "The wedding's about to start!"

"Please, Mother!"

"Fine, but you'd better not be long. It took me a great deal of effort to prepare this wedding in so short a time." Sharra led the remaining servants out of the room.

When they were alone, Rusol grasped Yassi by the arm. "What's wrong with you?" he hissed. "I've let you mope around this place for two months, but it has to stop! This is our wedding day. If you can't be happy, then at least pretend to be when others are around!"

Yassi grimaced. Now the compulsion would force her to act like she was enjoying herself.

"How can I be happy?" she said. "You killed my brother!" She wanted to complain about the wedding too, but after the third time she'd begged him not to go through with it, he'd ordered her to stop bringing it up.

"That wasn't my fault!" he said. "He attacked me—you saw it!"

"You could have talked to him! You didn't have to kill him!"

"It never would have happened if you hadn't let him see—" Rusol stopped short, growling deep in his throat and shaking his head angrily. He never spoke out loud about the things he'd done to her. "We're not going to discuss this again. From now on, you're never to talk about Samir's death to anyone, including me, other than to say how much you miss him or to confirm the story we told everyone."

Yassi drew in her breath, an icy feeling in her chest. Rusol had already been the only person with whom she could discuss Samir's death truthfully, and now he was taking away even that. Bit by bit, he was removing everything that made her who she was.

"Please..." she begged, unable to say any more.

"Enough," he said. "When you get out there, you'd better act like it's the happiest day of your life. Make everyone believe it." He headed for the door, but stopped and turned back. "I suppose I should tell you I've received a messenger from Leonis. Tomorrow, once this wedding is behind us, I'll be returning to Fort Northtower to deal with him. I'll take the others with me, but you can stay here. When I get back, I expect to see a better attitude out of you. You'll be queen one day. Learn to act like it."

#

Ellerie found it easier to navigate during their second trip into the barrens, after they'd stopped to resupply in a village by the name of Livadi. From there, they'd headed almost due north, hoping to catch sight of the mountain. On the fourth day, it had appeared on the horizon, and after that, all they had to do was aim in that direction.

It took three more days to reach it. By the third morning, they could see man-made structures near its base. Ellerie's hopes had risen, but had then been dashed a few hours later when she was close enough to get a better look. The collection of buildings had been a town, possibly even a large one, but it was no great city.

She walked through the ruins in silence, down a narrow street lined with walls of pale yellow sandstone blocks. The structures—or what was left of them—were more primitive than what they'd seen in Tir Navis.

Bobo and Boktar, who were closest to her, seemed to sense her mood. They didn't point out the obvious—that she'd brought them to the wrong place. She'd been so certain she'd finally figured it out, but this couldn't be what she was looking for. She ignored the quiet murmuring behind her as the others talked about what they were seeing.

She came to a stop in front of the remains of a tall building. The nearest wall had partly collapsed, odd lumps under the hard-packed dirt suggesting the old stonework still lay there buried. The remainder of the wall formed an almost perfect staircase, the stone blocks layered diagonally like a series of steps.

Ellerie climbed the blocks, reaching a ledge thirty feet up. Bobo followed her but everyone else stayed on the ground. The ledge only had enough room for two people.

From her perch, Ellerie could see half the town. The mountain loomed over them to the north. She sighed in disappointment. "What is this place?" she asked.

"It might still be Tir Yadar," Bobo replied.

She raised an eyebrow. "Really?" she asked, gesturing. "Look at it."

"I am. We're standing near the top of a building that was at least four stories tall. The flooring must have rotted away, but you can still see the braces and support pillars. There are a dozen other buildings that are even taller, and that's just the ones that haven't collapsed. You don't find this sort of stonework in a little farming town."

"Stone buildings or not, it's too small to be a Tir, and the stonework isn't all that great. Compare it to what we saw in Tir Navis!"

"You're looking at what's here. You need to look at what isn't."

"What?"

"When you build with stone, you work with what you've got. The stonework in Tir Navis was meant to be seen. This stuff ... I think it was painted, or maybe covered in wood paneling or brickwork. You're just seeing the raw building materials right now, but it would have looked a lot different back then."

"That doesn't explain why it's so small."

Bobo shrugged. "The book talks about huge forests nearby. Maybe the rest of the city was built from wood, and they just put all the stonework in the center of town. Tir Navis was missing a lot of wooden buildings too."

"And the stone walls of Tir Yadar? That came from your translation. Stone walls aren't going to rot away."

His face fell. "I'm not saying it is Tir Yadar, but let's not jump to conclusions. People may have hauled the stones away to build elsewhere."

Ellerie nodded. There was still a chance. "Well, Tir Yadar or not, I suppose we found something. We've got four days before we have to head back. We should explore. If there were once wooden buildings, there may still be artifacts left buried under the dirt. Or maybe there are underground caverns like the ones we found in Tir Navis."

As they climbed back down the wall of stairs, Ellerie was already planning how to organize the exploration.

#

"This looks odd," Corec said. He hefted his shovel and dug around the base of a pointed stone sticking up from the ground. "It's too even to be natural." He continued scraping away, exposing more of the surface. "Maybe someone took a wagonload of blocks away from what's left of the town, and this one fell out?"

"There's more over here," Treya said. "A lot of them."

Corec joined her. The two of them were exploring the western base of the mountain, over a mile away from where the group had made camp. Treya was standing at the edge of a rocky field, excavating another of the stone blocks with the small camp shovel she'd brought. Corec couldn't help but wince as he watched her working her way around the rocky ground, her feet bare like always. He didn't know how she could stand it, but she never complained.

"I think that's one of the big ones," he said. "Let me help."

The two worked quickly, unburying it enough to show that it was one of the larger blocks that had been used to form the supporting structure for most of the buildings. This one was shattered, leaving the top half intact and the rest broken into shards.

Corec exchanged glances with Treya, then gazed out across the wide field full of stone and rubble.

"Do you think it's all like this?" Treya asked.

"We should try a few more before going back."

They worked for an hour to uncover more of the pale yellow sandstone, weathered from age and darkened from the soil. Many of the pieces were irregular in shape, making it impossible to tell whether they'd ever been used as building material, but others matched the stone building blocks from the town.

"This is too much to have just been abandoned by someone hauling away the stones," Corec said. He'd dug two feet down around his nearest find only to discover another layer of the blocks below that. "I think this was part of the town."

"What would have done this, though?" Treya asked. "An earthquake?"

"I've never felt an earthquake strong enough to knock over heavy stone buildings, but I suppose it's possible."

"I've never been through an earthquake at all; I've just read stories about them."

"We had a few back in the Black Crow Mountains. But if this was from an earthquake, why didn't it take out the part of the town where we made camp?"

"A lot of the buildings have collapsed."

"Maybe, but things are still mostly intact over there. Here, we can hardly find two stones touching each other. We'd better show Ellerie."

They gathered their things and headed back to the boulder-strewn western side of the mountain, hiking up the first slope to return to the path they'd taken to get there. The path wasn't quite a trail, since there wasn't enough wildlife in the barrens to create a trail, but it was a flat surface between the first and second slopes that would give them an easy route back to camp.

"Wait, Corec, look at this," Treya said. She was staring back at the rocky field.

Corec stood next to her. "What is it?" he asked.

"Look at the pattern." She pointed to the rubble. "Does it get wider the farther out it goes?"

"Maybe," he said. "I should have brought Sarette's spyglass. I suppose if the town—the city—was built around the mountain, it makes sense there'd be more rock the farther away you go."

"But it almost looks like a cone. What if this was a separate town? And then the earthquake ... maybe there was an avalanche that destroyed everything?" She gazed at the fallen rocks and boulders that had filled in the dips between the eastern slopes.

"Maybe," Corec said. "It looks like most of the falling rocks got caught between the lower slopes, though, and all we saw down there was the sandstone." He stared at the massive rockfall. It continued at least a quarter of a mile up the western side of the mountain. Just on the other side, to the north, there was a glinting light, something shiny reflecting the afternoon sun. "Was anyone else going to be on this side of the mountain today?"

"I don't think so. Why?"

He pointed. "Do you see that? Let's check it out before we go back. Maybe the north-side group has made their way over here."

They carefully picked their way around the boulders trapped between the first and second slopes. Once they were past the rocks, they hiked up the second slope, heading in the direction the light had come from. When they crested the third rise, they stopped and stared in surprise.

Straight ahead of them was what could only be a walkway, bracketed by two parallel rows of statues mounted on stone pillars. Each statue represented a different animal, and they were all constructed of the unusual metal the Ancients used that didn't rust or tarnish. The left row had four pillars, while the right only had three. There was an empty spot at the end where it looked like another statue should stand, but there was nothing there. The pillars were weathered and pitted but the animal figures were in perfect condition, glinting in the sun.

"I saw statues just like these back in the museum in Snow Crown," Corec said as they walked between the two rows, staring up at the statues. The stone pillars were taller than the top of his head, and the statues themselves were almost as tall as the pillars. "The same animals too, I think."
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Pub: Dec 29 2020 11:19 UTC
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