Tam liked walking. Ever since he and Jon had started spending their summers with the Blackfeathers they’d ridden on all sorts of contraptions from trains to carriages, pirate ships to outriggers. Travelling like that could be exciting, but when it came down to it Tam preferred a good, sensible horse or, better yet, his own two feet.
He hadn’t had much chance before now to travel in the mountains. Of course, living in Markerry he’d grown up in their shadow his whole life, or thought he had. The Heart rests between mountains and townlands, people said, and binds the two together. And the Heart, the castle of Shandor, was only an easy couple hours’ walk from Markerry. Tam and his family went there most weeks, for festivals and market days. And these days, well, Tam was there as often as not, with the Queen.
He’d thought the big green hills north of the Heart, with their wild trees, old weathered stone, and little trickling streams, were mountains for certain. But now, walking through real mountains, he saw that he’d been mistaken. Those were foothills. These, ice-crowned giants reaching so high that trees got scraggly and tiny and then vanished altogether, were real mountains, like the ones he’d seen on the train ride to Germhacht.
Tam wrinkled his nose. Was it wrong to compare Shandorian mountains to other ones out in the emptiness that was the rest of the world? It seemed odd, somehow, that the first mountains he’d ever seen had been so far from home.
The older man climbing the path ahead of Tam paused, shading his eyes and scanning out over the valley they were skirting. “We’ll be there before nightfall,” he said. “Shall we take a rest now, before the last leg of the journey?”
Tam nodded agreement and shrugged out of his pack. “I’d like a little lunch, Healer, sir.” It was getting a bit less odd when grownups treated him like one of them, asking permission or consulting him about things. But it was still odd when the Healer of Stone Guardians, one of the famous, wise Elders, asked him about stopping for rests. That sort of thing ought to be up to the older folks who got tired easiest.
Tava, the warrior who served as forward scout, appeared again out of wherever she’d vanished to, and the other two warriors and the Healer’s prentice Palma sat down as well and they all ate dried apples and cherries, jerky, and hardbread, and drank good cider.
As they rested, Palma got out her little journal book, the one she was always writing in. She pulled a pressed sprig of silver-green leaves out from between two pages, studied it for a moment, then laid it down carefully and began to write. No, Tam saw, watching the motion of her hand, she wasn’t writing, she was drawing. The feathery lines of the leaves appeared, clean and precise, under her pen, with little neat labels in a language Tam couldn’t read. It was probably Sarvarthi, since that was Palma’s native language.
“You do know it’s rude to look over people’s shoulders when they’re working, don’t you?” she said, without looking up.
“Ah, I’m sorry.” Of course he knew that, but he was used to Anna, who didn’t mind him watching her sketch. Palma’s drawings were very different from Anna’s, though he couldn’t put clear words to exactly how. Cramped-like, maybe? And Anna’s run wild, in the nooks and corners. “I’ve a friend who draws. She’s to join up with us at Council of Chieftains. Maybe you’d like to meet her.”
Palma pursed her lips, adding another label, this one a sort of grid with numbers. She looked Shandorian enough, in the one way, warm dark skin and thick black hair, like Southfolk. But her accent said she was a foreigner, as did the way she sounded, or rather didn’t sound, in Tam’s mind. He could hear the Healer and the three warriors all playing their notes, deep and higher up, right there beside him, and off behind the mountain he could hear the whole lively tussle that must be the camp they were headed to. But Palma was silent. He’d gotten used to foreigners being silent, when he was travelling in foreign parts. When he was home, though, in the endless comforting symphony that was Shandor, such a quiet presence seemed odd and out of place.
“Drawing isn’t the point,” Palma said. “I’m cataloguing the life cycles of various medicinal plants that grow in this climate, and accurate representations of their stages of development are vital. I’m going to test the chemical composition of younger and older leaves and record my findings, once we have access to proper equipment again.”
Tam sighed. He understood all of Palma’s words, separately, but when she strung them together she lost him, often as not. And unlike Djaren, she didn’t ever put things more simply for those that weren’t scholars. Palma might be the Healer’s prentice, and Tam allowed that she was probably brilliant when it came to medicines, but he wasn’t sure he’d want her looking after him if he was down with a fever.
“D’you think it might be something about the plants hereabouts that’s making folks sick?” Tam asked. That was their mission, the reason he and the Healer and Palma had taken a detour on their way up to the Summerlands for Council of Chieftains. The Color Finders clan had reported an outbreak of some strange illness that mostly targeted young children, and the Queen had thought it would be useful for Tam to go along and help investigate. He didn’t know anything about diseases, though, and both the Healer and Palma knew so much. He wasn’t sure how much help he was going to be.
“We can’t rule out anything until we visit the sick and diagnose their symptoms in person,” the Healer said, joining the conversation. “Though we are fairly certain it isn’t contagious. Color Finders’ travel routes often cross those of the Clan of the Passes and the Clan of the Winds, and no one from either of those clans has shown any sign of this illness.”
“If it were catching, you’d still go, wouldn’t you?” Tam asked the Healer.
The old man smiled, deepening the wrinkles around his eyes. “Of course I would. That’s what it means to be a healer. I started out sturdy, and I’ve only grown sturdier with age. Though if we believed this disease to be contagious, I doubt you would be travelling with us, Tam.” The Healer gave him a canny look and Palma, catching the look, frowned. Tam didn’t think she knew why he was along. All the Elders knew he was the Queen’s prentice, of course—the Elders, seemingly, knew everything. And most of the chieftains knew, and the High Council. But they weren’t announcing it publicly yet. Tam was grateful for that. He knew eventually he’d have to stand in front of people and make speeches and suchlike, but the idea took a lot of getting used to. The things the Queen was teaching him these days, about listening to people and feeling how they felt, well, that was hard too, but not as frightening.
If Palma had any guesses about why a farmer’s lad from Markerry was travelling with them, she kept them to herself. “I’m inclined toward the environmental factors hypothesis,” she said. “It explains the localization of the symptoms and also why the victims are mostly young. Any toxic substance has greater effect on a creature with less mass. That’s why canaries are used in mines, after all.”
“Palma thinks there might be poison in the food or the water here,” the Healer translated, helpfully.
“Or in the air,” Palma said.
Tam had heard Djaren explaining once how miners put caged birds down into dark holes under the earth to test for bad air. He didn’t think Shandorian miners did that. He hoped not. “Poor birds.”
Palma made a little noise in her throat, and even though Tam couldn’t hear what she was feeling he could guess well enough. The conversation flagged after that, and Tam ate in silence. He wanted to go over and sit with the warriors, who were evidently having a much cheerier conversation, since it lit them up like festival lanterns. But since he’d sat down with Palma that would be rude, so he didn’t.