To begin at the beginning, click on Prologue in the Table of Contents, then on Chapter One, etc.


Tressiter’s hooves struck sparks from the rock as the horse picked his way down the rough trail along the edge of the ravine. The saddle creaked as Taraval turned and looked back over his shoulder. Behind him loomed the mountains he had passed through, forbidding but at the same time comforting, for in their depths lay Ilahee and home, and all the things in life he knew.

Three hours ago he had passed the limits of the world he knew and since then he had not seen another living soul. From here on he had for direction only
Terwilliger’s roughly drawn maps, which were based not even on his uncle’s own experience, but on years of recollected tales told by occasional travelers, so that, as in a collection of half-remembered anecdotes, some parts were clear and precise, others vague and sketchy.

A week had passed since his fated meeting with Madame Aurora. Because of it, he was now off on a quest to retrace the route Orchis had taken in her retreat from Ilahee more than two hundred years before, in the hope that if he could find where she had gone, he would also find healthy ravenwood trees that could restore Ilahee’s devastated groves.

Orchis had come to Ilahee from the North and presumably had returned there, but where precisely, no one knew. The northernmost point in Terwilliger’s concept of the world was the city of Crenera, nearly two months’ journey on horseback; it was the city mentioned most often by northern traders who had sought out Ilahee during the glory of its tandaril years.

So Taraval was headed for Crenera, a mere dot on an almost bare scrap of paper, with a week’s supply of food and a handful of gold coins. When that was gone he would have to rely on his bow and arrow for food, and on his lute and his voice to earn anything beyond that.

Snug in the pouch now strapped securely across his hip lay a small ravenwood box that Terwilliger had given him, with three fan-shaped ravenwood leaves inside, wrapped in a square of creamy white linen, to show people what he was looking for. On an impulse, Taraval had slipped into Terwilliger’s storage room before he left Ilahee. From the carved leather chest he had taken a like number of tandaril leaves and a dried starflower cluster and placed them in the box with the ravenwood leaves. Armed with these few things, he was off to try to save his kingdom, on his way to a distant city about which he knew nothing but its name, traveling through a landscape that was foreign to him already.

He had ridden out of Ilahee at sunup, after a brief and emotional farewell from his family and friends. He had been touched and warmed by their gifts for him, especially those of his parents – from his father a sword with a starflower cluster engraved on the hilt, from his mother a new rabbit skin lining sewn into his old cloak, and from Alisoun a new shirt and green woolen tunic. Felicity the cook had given him a bag of nut pastries. Terwilliger, too, gave Taraval well-chosen parting gifts – a leather lute case and a generous supply of gutstring for his temperamental lute.

Even Segway, the new stable boy, had slipped up to him as he was leading Tressiter out of the courtyard and shyly held out two polished red apples.

“One of them is for Tressiter,” the boy had said, and though his voice was soft, Taraval had been startled by its intensity.

During the morning, Taraval had followed the river Swinnow for as long as its curling waters paralleled the winding trail, and like a blue ribbon it had linked him to Ilahee so that he still felt the security of the familiar. With that reassuring link to home in view, he had started his journey, full of anticipation and excitement. But by noon the river curved away to the east and the trail cut north through ragged black peaks dotted with clumps of scrub. Then it seemed as if the cord binding him to Ilehee had been slashed by a giant sword. Alone and uncertain, he suddenly felt the ominous weight and responsibility of his quest, and his high spirits sagged.

The trail he traveled had been used barely enough to keep it passable, and he did not know when it would lead him to a road, for Terwilliger’s map was very sketchy here, with only the notation “rocky and bare” and cross marking a watering place. He had passed no one all day, and by late afternoon he began to feel that he and the lone hawk that wheeled above him in a vast and empty sky were the only living beings in this part of the world.

Gradually stands of spruce and larch began to replace the scrub, though the trail was still rocky. Already Taraval was developing a habit that would become ingrained in him as his trip wore on – scanning every tree and grove he passed, looking for the tell-tale leaves and characteristic silhouette of the ravenwood. But the last ravenwood he had seen was a dead and withered one on the outermost fringe of Ilahee.

On a barren point overlooking an endless blue canyon, he dismounted at a spring that bubbled over the rocks – undoubtedly the one his uncle had marked – to refill his leather water bag and let Tressiter drink his fill. The horse lowered his head to drink, then stopped suddenly in mid-draught, his ears perked up and nostrils quivering. There was no sound except the gurgling of the spring water, the soft soughing of the breeze, and the cricking sound of earth and rock contracting as the sun lowered in the west. But Taraval felt something, too – a vague and somehow unsettling sense that they were no longer alone in this wilderness.

He had eaten nothing since breakfast except one of Felicity’s cinnamon and rosewater-scented nut tarts, and his stomach was beginning to cramp with hunger. He shook of his uneasy thoughts and reached for the pack of provisions strapped to Tressiter’s saddle, but the horse shied away when he touched it, tossing his head and whinnying. A second later, across the misty blue distance, there came a faint answering neigh.

Taraval’s pulse quickened. An echo, he reassured himself; it was only an echo. And if it wasn’t, why should he be alarmed that another traveler shared the trail with him? He should take comfort in the possibility that he wasn’t entirely alone. Instead, inexplicably, he was filled with a sense of urgency to move on. He hooked the water bag onto the saddle, mounted, and pressed Tressiter back onto the trail more vigorously than the horse was accustomed to.


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