THREE DAYS HAD PASSED SINCE THEY SET OUT from Dalstone. The slow, churning current at first lulled, then grated, and finally bubbled entirely out of conscious thought. In the afternoon, ripples shimmered in the sunlight, reflecting the heat onto the boat’s passengers. In a matter of hours, they each had sunburns more severe than any acquired through fieldwork or soldiering. Keeping covered as best they could, only a few areas—foreheads, noses, necks—were affected by the deepest burns. By the time the boat emerged from the protection of the trees, those foreheads, noses, and necks had all peeled, leaving them tender and pink.
On the first day out from Dalstone, the river ran quickly. Grafdrek it was called, Askon learned only a few hours after leaving John at the dock. Named to match the surrounding forest, Grafdrek—originally Grafdrekka—meant “the drink of the dead.” To Askon, the name hardly seemed fitting as the lively stream chuckled along, sending them onward to the South Kingdom. At the first afternoon’s rate, they would have been within Apopsé’s domain in no more than a day and a half, but the Grafdrek would not be so quickly passed over.
They woke on the second morning to sluggish slack-water thick with green tendrils of algae and slime. Thousands of frogs and millions of insects filled the air with their chatter. A lazy sun lingered behind the surrounding mountains while the boat slowed to a crawl. Its oars were replaced by long poles which Edward and Thomas used to drive the vessel through the currentless mire.
As he awaited his turn at the poles, Askon observed movement on the western bank. At first he had been wary, making quickly for one of the bows they had taken with them from Dalstone. But, after a moment’s consideration, he saw the brightly-colored feathers. All along the shore, Brâghda’s fighters had followed them; for what purpose, Askon was unsure. Thomas concluded that the Norill had come as a precaution, though Edward maintained that it was to watch the half-elf—whom they so revered—leave the forest. Personally, Askon preferred the former explanation and welcomed the chance to escape the strange elf-worship practiced in Grafmark’s heart.
The next two days had proceeded in similar fashion, though sometime in the middle of the second, the Grafmark Norill had gone. The first night was simple. They exchanged watches, drawing straws to see who would sit up first. Elise had drawn the shortest, but unsurprisingly, Thomas had volunteered to watch in her place as well as his own. She acknowledged his chivalry and planted herself at the prow of the boat upon the setting of the sun. She refused to move until Thomas fell asleep.
After that, they could no longer rest properly on the boat. They all found it terribly uncomfortable, but it was the work during the day which made it impossible to stay aboard. For hours they would push the poles through the slime and sludge, traversing hundreds of yards before the stream finally came free of the weedy shallows and ran more briskly. Then, sometimes after only a few minutes, the boat would slow and the slog would begin again. Doing so for only one day brought them all near to exhaustion. They tied the boat to the shore at the edge of one slow section and cast themselves heavily onto the beach. There, under long fingers of cypress, they fell into deep sleep. None could stay awake to sit watch.
When morning came, they awoke bug-eaten and tired. Onto the boat they climbed again to suffer another day filled with the swift stream, slow stream, push poles, rest a while monotony. Now—on the afternoon of the fourth day—Askon lay with his arms dangling limply into the clucking water. The burn in his muscles, which he had begun to feel even before they set out from Dalstone, thumped along numbly.
He drifted in and out of sleep while Edward manned the rudder. The last slack-water stretch had nearly broken them, taking most of the morning and early afternoon to traverse. But it was not the distance that brought the difficulty; it was the depth. In the last hour, the river had become so wide and so shallow that they were forced to maneuver the boat in a serpentine pattern, the hull all the while scraping against the bottom of the stream-bed. At the back of the boat, Elise lay wrapped in Thomas’s arms, both their mouths hanging open in the freedom from self-consciousness felt only by the very weary or the very old. Once again, Askon closed his eyes, shutting out the blinding reflection of sun on water.
“When are you going to get married?”
“Probably not for a long time. Not many girls want their husband off fighting wars most of the year. They want someone who can tend the fields or make things to provide for the family.”
“Well, then if you had to get married today, who would it be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do! Would it be Læna? Or maybe Irina?”
“They’re both nice girls. Yes, I supposed either would be fine.”
“That’s not very romantic.”
“No, I guess not.”
“Oh, come on! There has to be someone. Right?”
“I’ll know her when I see her.”
“Really. That’s a little better. How will you know?”
“I’ll just know. And she’ll know when she sees me. That’s how it works in all the stories, isn’t it? I’ll see her, and right then I’ll be ready to stop soldiering, build a house, and fill it with children.”
“See? I knew you could do it.”
”Oh, it’s alright for me to end up tending a farm but not for you to end up tending a house?”
”It was your answer. If I’m a soldier, I can just marry a soldier, and then there will be no reason for either of us to stop.”
“Right. Go to sleep.”
Askon opened his eyes, and the blinding sun had gone. It westered somewhere behind the steep slopes that fell, almost barren, down to the water’s edge. They had passed beyond the borders of Grafmark. In the glow to the east, the Vladvir plain stretched out for miles, broad and flat, until it vanished in the horizon’s haze. Somewhere over those distant miles, the Estelle pounded its way south, where the Grafdrek would eventually join with it. Beyond that was Codard’s city. Even now it was likely that the king had gathered his forces—and those of his Norill allies—readying for battle with Lord Apopsé.
The other, more threatening enemy, Lord Iramov, probably did not rally his men near Codard’s city. The forces wearing the crimson bull were likely somewhere west of the Estelle, probably reinforced by Norill warriors as well.
The best news was that the water had deepened. Here, the current was slower than it had been when they left Dalstone, but it was steady, and the water seemed free of the muck which had held them back for the last several days. Seated beside him, Edward knocked softly on the board where Askon’s head lay.
“Askon. Are you awake?”
“Shh. Thomas and Elise are still asleep. I don’t think they’ll be waking up any time soon. Would you mind steering for a bit while I get some rest?”
So they traded places: Edward asleep near the front of the boat, Askon at the rudder scanning the steep mountainsides to the west and the flat plains to the east. Before long, Askon began to wonder how they would locate Morrowmen once they arrived in the South Kingdom. Even before that, they would have to be allowed inside the walls. Morrowmen had seemed confident that they would indeed find him. In the back of his mind, Askon could not help thinking that they would encounter problems at the gates of the South Kingdom. After all, they had met difficulties at Austgæta, King’s City, and Dalstone. Even in Thomas’s own village they had been forced to sneak inside.
Each of these cases had something in common: Askon. His half-elf eyes and ears and angular features had caused trouble for him since the day he was born. And though he had devised a good many strategies to cope with being recognized as such, he sometimes wished that he had only the human bloodline in his veins. He shook off the feeling and instead tried to devise a way that they could enter the city without his race being noted.
In the west, the golden sun dimmed to silver then to gray. Stars blinked into the night sky and from around the straggling trees at the edge of Grafmark, a lurid, bulbous moon glowed, casting a sheen over the plains grasses. Askon pulled hard on the rudder. The boat swung lazily around, drifting on the steady current of the southern Grafdrek. As the nose poked the shore, grass and bulrushes hissed in protest. Gently, Askon guided the vessel to the bank, stepped out, and secured the boat—passengers and all.
When he awoke the next morning, the others were gathered around a small cooking fire. He rose from where he had clumsily tossed the bedroll in the dark and made his way toward them. A yawn pried his mouth open and mashed his eyes shut. Reaching out with both arms as if to embrace all three of them, he stretched wide. Instantly, he retracted his limbs, curling them to his chest like a dead spider. The soreness had not yet left them, though he felt more awake and alive than he had in many days.
“That swamp must have really taken it out of you yesterday,” said Edward cheerfully. Thomas, seated on the stump of an overturned tree, scooted closer to Elise, making room for Askon, who sat heavily, shaking the stump and jostling them.
“It did,” said Askon. “And unlike our friends here, I didn’t get the chance to sleep it off on the way to camp.”
Smiling, Thomas tended the small cooking fire. Edward sat on the opposite side of the ring. On a flat rock, a pair of filleted fish sizzled. Thomas poked at the pieces, flopping them over carefully.
“It’s a good thing we did sleep, sir. Otherwise there’d be no fish for your breakfast,” Thomas said.
“And no one to have kept the first watch,” added Elise.
“Hm,” Askon grunted. “If John were here, I’m sure he’d have a few words for my being the last awake.”
“He probably would,” said Edward.
For the next few minutes they did nothing more than gaze intently into the flames of the fire, listening to the hiss and pop of fish against hot stone. When Thomas flipped the meat again, one side thoroughly browned but not black, he quickly sliced the two fillets in half and placed them on another stone away from the heat. A few moments later, they ate greedily. Another ten minutes and the pieces of fish, along with some nuts and other provisions were gone. Thomas overturned the stones while Elise filled the waterskins. Edward and Askon carried the full bottles into the boat, discussing what their next move would be.
“As far as I know,” Edward said, “the worst part of the Grafdrek is behind us now. It never picks up again, like when we left Dalstone, but it stays wide and smooth until it meets the Estelle.”
Askon slid the bags farther to one side of the boat, making room for the waterskins. “Then we have a choice to make. We could stay on the water, which at the rate the Estelle runs, could be dangerous, or we could take to the main road and follow it until we reach the South Kingdom.”
“Either way we’ll enter the kingdom quite a number of miles before we reach the city,” said Edward. “On the river we’ll have to go west across country, while on the road we’d just follow it right to the gates.” Edward handed another bottle to Askon, who stuffed it under the plank where he was seated.
“We know that Iramov and Codard have men—and Norill—patrolling the northern parts of Vladvir,” Askon said without looking up. “How far south they’ve come is another question. If I’m right in my reckoning, we should be a little more than a day’s hard ride south of the Greyarc. So another small force, similar in size to the one John’s bowmen defeated on the bridge, could easily have made its way this far by now.”
Edward looked from his friend to the bank some yards away. Thomas knelt at the edge of the river, helping Elise with the last of the waterskins. She gazed up as though it was the first time she had laid eyes on him; a broad smile bloomed in the frame of her black hair.
“I think it best that we stay out of sight for as long as possible. Who knows? We could be carrying precious cargo,” Edward said with a small smile.
Askon laughed. “There hasn’t been time.”
“Oh, there’s always time,” said Edward.
“John would’ve said that better, I think.”
“Most certainly,” Edward agreed. He put on his best imitation of John’s gruff delivery. “Ain’t a day in a man’s life where he can’t make time for the like o’ that! I’ll tell ya, a day’s worth o’ fightin’ can’t hold a candle to a day’s worth o’ feastin’, and *that *can’t hold a candle to a day’s worth o’—”
“So when are we off?” Elise interrupted, stepping onto the boat. The men looked uncomfortably from one to the other; Thomas stepped in behind her.
“Oh we’ll be makin’—I mean—preparing to leave any minute now, my lady,” stammered Edward.
Elise seated herself at the boat’s prow, as did Thomas. Askon grinned, holding back laughter. Had the fragment’s power taken him at that moment, on her face he might have read, “I know exactly what you two were talking about.” Color filled Askon’s cheeks, and he looked away, but Elise’s eyes were clever and cold. She reached across the boat, wrapping Thomas’s hand in her own.