When they started walking again, the Healer hung back from the others a bit and motioned Tam to join him. “I hope you won’t judge Palma’s sharp-edged manner too harshly,” the Healer said, quietly, just for Tam’s ears. “She doesn’t always mean things the way they sound.”
Tam nodded. “It’s because she’s clever, I reckon.”
“Not just that.” The Healer glanced at Palma, walking ahead of them. “She’s had bad news from home.”
“Did someone die?”
“Not that simple, I’m afraid. Do you know about the saltpeter caves in Sarvarthi?”
Tam shook his head. All he knew about Sarvarthi was that it was home to a legendary healer who had once saved the life of an Amryn, and also that the festival fireworks they lit off at the castle were of Sarvarthi make.
“Saltpeter is one of the country’s major exports,” the Healer said. “Along with silken textiles and, of course, medicines. Just this spring, the Vespiri trade company that the Sarvarthi sold most of their saltpeter to has made some sort of bid for control of the country, and their security forces have taken over for the Sarvarthi military and are controlling both who can come and go, and what news can get out.”
“So Palma hasn’t been able to get letters or anything,” Tam said, understanding now.
“Precisely. Her family have, in past, been outspoken critics of the Vespiri company, and now she doesn’t know if they’re arrested, or even alive.” The Healer glanced over at Palma again. “Don’t tell her I discussed this with you.”
“Course I won’t. But I do see now, sir, why she’s a bit prickly. I won’t mind it.”
The Healer smiled, and clapped a hand to Tam’s shoulder, and then strode up the line to walk near Palma.
Knowing that he hadn’t said anything wrong made Tam more cheerful. Walking in the fine weather cheered him up too—the sun was warm but not too hot, and a pleasant breeze cooled the back of his neck. They rounded the mountain’s edge in the midafternoon, winding through a tumbled rocky landscape with no trees at all, just brave little white flowers clinging in the cracks of the stones. It reminded Tam of the landscapes by that Shandorian painter lady Anna liked so much, only in one of those paintings there would be someone standing up on the rocks all heroic-like.
Tam looked up. He didn’t see anyone, but he had the sudden feeling of being watched. It was the sort of feeling that the Queen said he ought to pay attention to, so he did. “Just a moment, I’ve a thing I’ve got to follow,” he told the Healer, and stopped walking and closed his eyes so he could listen better.
It was like the usual background notes that meant home, only not in the background any longer. Wilder, too, all mountain flutes and drums, big, deep drums that shook your insides and made your heart beat along with their rhythm. It was too loud to be one person, but it couldn’t be more than one, because even mothers and their unborn babies didn’t match so well, all playing together in the same melodies. And whatever it was, it was definitely looking at him.
He opened his eyes and started to climb up the tumbled rocks. “Tam?” the Healer asked.
“Don’t worry, it’s . . .” He meant to say safe but stopped, because this huge strange thing didn’t precisely feel safe, any more than Doctor Blackfeather did. “It doesn’t mean me no harm.” And that was true enough. He could feel it was curious, considering, but not angry or ready to attack.
The Healer nodded and motioned to Tava, who came to climb beside Tam. Tam squinted up at the sun. He didn’t know precisely where to go. Normal folk were easy to find. You could hear where they were coming from, like turning toward a voice when someone called you. Even Doctor Blackfeather’s notes came from somewhere, when he wasn’t hiding. But this music came from everywhere. It rose out of the rocks and drummed from the mountains themselves. The best guess Tam had was higher up. So he climbed.
It was tricky work, and he didn’t have much breath left for shouting, but he tried anyway. “Hullo! Why don’t you come out? I know you’re there.” And even though he was sure the thing wasn’t at all scared of him, he tried, “I don’t mean you no harm, neither.”
He felt the thing laugh.
“It’s not so funny,” Tam grumbled, not bothering to shout any longer. “If you just want to talk I don’t see why you can’t say hullo like decent folk, instead of playing hide-and-go-seek.”
“I knew you would find me,” a voice said in his head. The thing’s voice, all drums. “Like I found you. And if you weren’t strong enough to find me, why would I bother speaking?”
“Well, that’s a backward way of thinking,” Tam said, out loud. He didn’t mind speaking silently, to people who properly introduced themselves, like the Queen, but this thing was downright rude. “Anyhow, I did find you, so come out already.”
Someone leapt suddenly down onto one of the rocks just above where Tam was standing. Tava drew her sword just as suddenly, moving to jump in front of Tam, but Tam waved his hands. “No, no, it’s all right, it’s, um, him.”
It was a him, in fact. Tam had almost been expecting a legend creature or a winged one, but this was a young man who couldn’t be much older than Tam himself, resting in an easy warrior’s crouch. He had a sword, a belt knife, and a rack of old-fashioned hunting spears, though he hadn’t drawn any of these weapons. All the rest of his gear looked old-fashioned too—leather instead of canvas for the straps, skin pouches instead of tin canteens. He even had a necklace of animal teeth and bones, like Tam had seen in the castle museum.
K’shay tanna, definitely. He had tanned skin and dark hair, like most of the northern clans. Like Anna. He wore it back in a forest of little braids, each tied with a colored thread. Tam ought to know what clan that meant—every clan had its special way of dressing and doing their hair, for ceremonial occasions, and Tam had been trying to learn all sixty before the Council of Chieftains. He’d recited them just fine before leaving, but now when he needed it all that learning went slipping right out of his head.
“I am Hashta dar Harrak dar Ghaer,” the warrior said, introducing himself formally by all his names. Luckily he used the normal K’shay tanna dialect, which Tam spoke easily, not Northspeak, which was still a struggle.
“I’m Tam Gardner,” he said.
“I know who you are.” Hashta stared at him intently. “You’re my King.”
“Um.” Tam looked sideways at Tava. She met his eyes, and shrugged. Of course she knew, since she was his bodyguard, and it wasn’t really a secret secret, just a not-telling-everybody-yet secret. Still, people you met by the side of the trail ought to fall into the “people who didn’t know yet” group. And besides, “I’m not really. Not yet anyway. Actually I’m the Queen’s prentice.” He frowned at Hashta. “How’d you know?”
Hashta gestured wide, as if he were stating something obvious. “How could I not know? I’m your Amryn.”
Tam was supposed to officially meet the Amryn at Council of Chieftains. He’d seen him before, of course, from a distance at festivals, standing up on the walls with the Queen and other important people. The Amryn’s name was Bren, and he was a big man with a full beard and a rolling voice, who laughed a lot. “You’re not the Amryn,” Tam said. “He’s taller. And older.”
Hashta made an irritated little snort. “Not him. I’m your Amryn.” His notes felt a little sad, now, though he didn’t look it on the outside. He just looked annoyed. “I thought you’d recognize me. You’re supposed to.”
“I’m sorry,” Tam said slowly, trying to think and listen at the same time, “but I’m new at this.” Was this what an Amryn sounded like, then, all big and old, coming out of the earth, everywhere and nowhere at once? Even with Hashta standing right there, his notes were hard to pin down, like it might not be a human speaking but the Land itself. And that seemed right, somehow. Wasn’t the Amryn supposed to be the voice of the Land? And talk to all the animals and even the stones? “I do believe you,” Tam said, finally. “And I think I’ll be able to find you better, from now on.”
With a firm nod, and a slightly more cheery trill of his breathy flutes, Hashta turned and jumped up onto a higher rock, then a higher one still.
“That’s it?” Tam said to his back as he leaped away. “Hullo, I’m the Amryn, goodbye? Can’t you set a spell and chat like normal folk?”
Hashta turned, looking down from a good stone’s throw away. “What else needed saying?” he said, in Tam’s head. “And we’re not normal folk, you and I.”
“It’s not polite to mind-talk in front of people what can’t,” Tam shouted up at him, even though he had the feeling Hashta didn’t care about politeness. “I just thought maybe you might want to come with us and see about the sick people.”
Hashta didn’t say anything, but he didn’t turn around or try to run off again. Tam figured that was probably the best show of interest he was likely to get, so he explained about the problem he and the Healer had been sent to investigate, using as few words as possible, since he could see Hashta wasn’t much of a talker. “So you could come along and investigate, too,” he finished. “I reckon you’d be a help to have about. I could sort the talking to people parts, and you could sort the other parts. The Queen did say it might not be natural. Maybe it’s a Land thing.”
Hashta thought a moment, then nodded. “Since you ask it, I will aid you. I will speak to the Land, and meet you at Color Finders.” He leaped up another few rocks.
“You’re going over the mountain instead of around it?”
“This is my path.” Hashta shrugged and, with a jerk of his chin, indicated Tava standing beside Tam. “I would not share steps with a banded warrior who carries firearms.”
Tava made a little sound in her throat, but she said nothing out loud, and Hashta didn’t say anything more either, just bounded off up the mountain. Tam half wanted to shout after him again, but he couldn’t think of anything he hadn’t already said, so he held his peace.