By now, the moon had come out, and as it shone down upon the stone circle, Arnai could see it picking out the inscribed symbols, scratched into the rock by ancient hands, and almost worn down into nothingness yet still active. To look at without the moon, they were invisible, but Arnai wondered how someone hadn’t strayed across them on a moonlit night. As if reading his mind, Haertov explained more about the stone circles. “The inscriptions are only visible to those with powerful magic during normal nights, and the wilderness is thought to twist the minds of many wandering men – their tales of glowing lights are usually put down to moonlight glancing off of a shiny object, so even when the moon is full and the power required to read them less, they often go undetected. Of course, a few of these shrines have been discovered and destroyed by the imperials, ever fearful of our return, or knocked down to make place for a new settlement, but we hid them well, and many remain active, although for how long it is hard to tell – once the inscriptions have completely worn away, the magic will dissipate. Now, time is growing short, and you have a long journey ahead of you.” Haertov smiled at Arnai with a look of ancient peace. “Finally, my task is complete, and I can rest. Good luck young kinsman, and don’t forget you magic, it will help you in many places, say, creating a fire in the dark…” And with these wise words, the old man disintegrated, scattering into the wind like dust. The glowing blue wall around the shrine gently dimmed at the old man’s passing, and no longer felt like solid stone, but more gel like, giving Arnai the impression that he could just walk through it. A thump sounded behind him, and he jumped around to see a thick leather book on the centre stone, a merry laugh floating on the air.
Upon examination, the thick leather book was found to be exactly that, wafer thin pieces of paper bound within. Yet despite the thinness of the pages, Arnai had a feeling that it would be hard to rip them, although he did not try. Scrawled upon the pages were a series of symbols and runes that Arnai found illegible. Some looked familiar however, and Arnai started to puzzle out the symbols, glancing at the rune that had glowed brightest while the cylindrical wall had been in existence, guessing it symbolised protection of some kind. Catching himself just before his mind consumed him into the job of deciphering the book, he slammed the ledger shut, dropping it into his backpack, and picked up his torch off the ground where he had dropped it. The old man’s words came back to his ears, and he remembered the fire song that had caused him to be outcast. Quickly sorting through the different words in his mind, he found the key phrase, one that was common in both his own and the original songs, and which sang in his mind as warmth and safety. Trying to reach the same mindset as when he had cast the spell in the forge, Arnai whispered the word. To his disappointment, nothing happened. He tried again, changing the inflections in his voice as he spoke “Fleiar” Once more, no light rose in the blackness, and he frowned, searching the other words, matching them into a pattern. He was loathe to try the entirety of his spell, given the consequences of what had happened in the forge, and it seemed wrong – the spell for the forge had been exactly that, designed for use in the melting of materials at exactly the right temperatures and with the smallest use of fuel that could be used. No, this spell required something else. The small use of fuel would be useful, but the forge spell was based upon a flame that was already lit, and Arnai sensed that the words were wrong for a spell that had to light the flame too.
Wracking his brain, Arnai tried to use his meagre knowledge to his advantage. To create a flame, you had to have two things – a source of ignition, usually a spark, and something for it to light. It helped if it was already warm too, or had previously been lit. He frowned. Paric had used coal cloth, but Arnai also remembered something else, the kindling had been very spread out, and he remembered how he had tried to push it closer, but Paric had stopped him. He had thought that putting the fuel all together would make it hotter, as that was what they did at night to keep it going for longer, but perhaps to make it light, something else was needed, something that it found hard to get at first, but easier when it was alight, with its flames licking the air. The AIR! Arnai beamed, and loosened the bundle. Next he laid it on the stone before him, and pulled out the flint and steel. Perhaps he could use the spark with the magic, and make the torch light, without the need for coal cloth. It took him several tries to get the timing right, striking the flint to cause a spark while finishing his incantation at the same time, and getting the right tones for it as well. Finally he managed it, and the torch burst into light. It was not the white hot flame that he had conjured in the forge, but rather a steady yellow flame that burnt slowly and gave a steady light, almost without flickering at all. Prize in hand, Arnai walked out of the stone circle and into the night, the protective magic diminishing entirely as he stepped beyond its borders. He found himself humming as he strolled through the forest, comforted by the glowing light on the end of the stick, and barely feeling the pull of the heavy tome in his pack. It was darker under the trees, but the creepy eyes that had followed him before had not returned, and he meandered the hill quite peacefully, as the wind rustled branches above him. It wasn’t that long before he stopped again however, a large boulder in his path. As he looked, a familiar feint blue glow was visible, depicting a double headed arrow, one fork pointing back to where he imagined camp must be, and one in almost the opposite direction.
With nowhere else to go, Arnai gave a half laugh, and set off in the direction the arrow pointed. As he dodged tree trunks that were twice his height in width, he wondered about this marker stone, and whether it too had been set up by the Tanoi. It was strange, he thought, that there were all these icons dotted around the place that he had lived, yet the hunters had never found them , after all they were not too difficult to see, with their definitive blue glow, and he doubted he was really as powerful as the old sorcerer had pointed implied – surely there must be others that were more powerful than him, and they would find the stones too? He interrupted his chain of thought for a second to jump over a root, noting how the tree density had begun to fall, and that the slope was now inclining downwards before retreating into his thoughts again, letting his body carry out thoughtless long strides. The imperials who hated the Tanoi so much would surely have destroyed anything that carried their insignia, and there were legends of mages that were so powerful that the laws of the world stood still for them. Indeed, the Janouri were a branch of the most powerful mages in all the empire, loyal to the imperial’s royal blood – the Massar. If they could not discover these stones, then no one should be able to. But perhaps, another part of his brain argued, perhaps he was simply lucky enough to have found these simple marks where mages did not roam. After all, the Janouri were supposed to stray very little from their towers, where their magic was strongest. They preferred to give out errands to any who wished their help, and often were among the richest in the area they had asked for their tower to be built. But even knowing this, Arnai found it hard to believe that the stones hadn’t been found – not every powerful mage was a Janouri, there were tales of an ancient hermit, who was friends with the animals and commanded a great deal of magical energy. This tales were unconfirmed however, and the imperials had found no such mage during their travels.
The Nocci, the outlaws, also harboured mages, those who disagreed with the imperial way of life. Phillip the prosperous was one of the most renowned and powerful mages that Arnai had heard of – rumoured to live high up in the mountains yet to also wander in the lowlands, causing havoc to simple folk and raiding villages to earn his name. He had never been caught, but surely he must have found the Tanoi marks? Arnai decided he would ask him if they ever met. A third thought wormed its way into Arnai’s mind – perhaps he had not heard tell of these markers simply because they were not worthwhile to note, unworthy of having a story told about them, to explain their existence, perhaps the imperials had found them, and left them there in order to ensnare any who dared use such a route. Arnai stopped, suddenly worried. What if he was walking into a trap? What if there was a legion of imperials waiting, and they realised he was a Tanoi? He glanced around him, but the undergrowth had thickened as he neared the edge of the forest, and there was now little option other than forwards – the sides barred by thick thorny bushes. He continued, but at a slower pace, once again using the hunter technique of rolling his foot. Feeling foolish, he stopped once clear of the trees, and found himself at the top of a shallow bank, looking down upon a meadow. Hidden in the last true undergrowth, a blue glow illuminated the underside of fern leaves, and Arnai once again noted its direction, this time choosing a mark in the distance to walk to – a tall tree at the far end of the grassland. The stars above glittered as he set out again, pushing his way through the half-dead grass, feet sloshing in mud below him.
It didn’t seem to take as long as he thought it would for him to reach the tree, but upon looking behind him, he was convinced – the distance was several miles, and the position of the moon in the sky and drop in temperature which he noticed now he had stopped moving, told him that his sense of time wasn’t quite right. He aligned himself with the direction that his muddy path through the grass took, and chose another point in the distance to walk to. Halfway there, he tripped over another rock, once again with a directional arrow on it, this time pointing slightly to the left of his bearing. Sighing, he pulled himself out of the mud, retrieving his torch as he did so, and looked for a mark in the new direction. Finding no obvious landmark, his eyes glanced up at the clear sky, and marked a single bright star that hung relatively on its own. He yawned and set off again, knowing that he would have to stop soon, and that he had not covered that great a distance – the meadow was one that he had heard about, and he passed the boredom of walking by remembering and imagining all the stories he had told, running forwards at times with his torch held before him, pretending to be a knight in shining armour, his horse’s hooves pounding the ground below him. He stopped this game as a disturbing memory emerged – a tale of the creatures that lived in a meadow suck as this – Larks, masters of disguise with hundreds of teeth that preyed on wandering travellers and hunters alike. As he scared himself with such stories, every sound around him became the hiss of a lark that had spotted its prey, or the scream of an animal that was killed and eaten. He whispered to his torch, dimming it, in the hopes that any such creature would leave him alone, or not notice him. Even so, he increased his pace and was relieved to find himself out of the grasslands in a relatively short time.
He emerged past a hedge into a clearer area, an obvious dirt track running through the middle. He was tempted by its familiar human workmanship, before remembering his status in the eyes of so many, and continuing onwards, across it and through a small gap in a hedge. The hedge was thicker than he had thought, and he became stuck in the middle of it. Too tired to do much else, and in a bad mood due to becoming stuck, he rammed the end of the torch into the ground and pulled his backpack off, using it as a pillow as he curled into a ball, protected by the wall of twigs and branches surrounding him. Even in such an uncomfortable position, he drifted into deep sleep instantly, exhausted.
If he had dreamt, he did not remember it as he awoke with a groan to the sound of a bird’s morning song. He wiped sleep out of his eyes with freezing cold hands, shivering. His torch had warmed the hollow in which he slept, and he was not too surprised to see the quickly retreating tails of mice and other small animals as he sat up and disturbed them from their warm spots. He crawled through the rest of the hedge, emerging on the other side, and stretched, trying to remove the aches that his body held. His arms were used to physical exercise, but his legs weren’t and ached slightly, and his feet were sodden and sore, as well as very wet. The weak sunlight illuminated the hill that rose up before him, frost covered green grass and frozen mud embanking its sides. It wasn’t steep, but seemed to carry on for miles, and Arnai could tell he had already started the climb up it. He jumped around a bit to warm himself up, and partially extinguished the torch’s flame, letting it smoulder so that he would have to feed it less fuel but it would be easy to light again come the evening. He crouched down on his haunches, and pulled some salted meat from the bottom of his pack, crunching it down as his stomach stopped it whining to gobble it up. Not wanting to waste time in his escape from the fort, Arnai picked his pack back up and began to walk . His view back to Toris hill was obscured by the hedge, and he wanted to get higher so that he could get an early warning of any pursuers.
The mud was firm at first, although frozen into spikes by the cold winter air and he could feel it beneath his feet as he walked, driving some feeling into feet numbed by cold. But as he got higher up the slope, and could begin to see over the hedge into the meadow, it got softer, and soon he was struggling to continue upwards, mud sticking to his leather boots and refusing to release them without effort and a sucking, squelching noise. He tried to walk on grassier parts of the hill instead, struggling sideways across the mud to where it was more solid, but it too had been churned into a slurry, what looked like a patch of grass was merely mud with a few tufts of green. It was slow going, and it was mid morning when he remembered the arrows, having progressed only about a mile in the space of several hours. He swore, and instantly felt homesick – his father would have frowned and told him not to use such foul language, despite using it himself whenever he burnt himself, or hit a piece of metal that had been almost finished in the wrong spot, causing him to start all over again. Arnai shivered in the weak sunlight as a sense of despair settled over him, and he wished that he hadn’t tried to make a more effective fire song. About to sit down and cry, he spotted something that gave him enough worry to simply set panic in his brain, pushing all other emotions aside, at least for the moment.
On the road, not so far below, there was a glittering dust cloud, like that which the imperial’s army made when it had marched up to the fort. Light flashed off of steel weaponry, and Arnai found himself hoping they wouldn’t look up and see the boy stranded halfway up the hill. He didn’t doubt that they would be able to catch up with him easily, despite the mud, and he broke into a run up the gentle slope, boots sliding on the mud. Luckily, no chase was given, and it wasn’t that long before the mud became less clingy, making it easier for Arnai to move at a normal pace. When his stomach grumbled, telling him that it was now lunch time, he stopped and tore a piece of bread from the loaf in his pack. He was glad that his stomach had chosen that long to decide it couldn’t go without food any longer, for looking around he spotted a rock that looked similar to the others which had directions on them, some two hundred metres away. He ambled over to the slab, only to find that it bore no mark, despite spending awhile searching for one. Disheartened, he looked back towards the bottom of the hill, his route clearly visible in the churned mud, and tried to determine a direction from the small pinprick that was the hole in the hedge he had slept in. Guessing a direction, he continued up the hill, eyes peeled for any sign of Tanoi marking, but spotting none. It got dark quickly, the little heat that the sun had given disappearing with the light. When he could barely see the ground in front of him, Arnai relit the torch, it’s golden light pooling at his feet, and continued on.
There was a small copse of trees at the very top of the long slope, and Arnai decided to rest there for the night, startling a group of wild horses who had a similar idea. The trees gave him a little shelter from the wind, and he had managed to find heather growing in cloves as he neared the group, which he had pulled up and now used as bedding, creating what could almost be called a nest, warming him up as he ate then lay within it, the softness enveloping him as his tired body fell asleep. It snowed during the night, and Arnai awoke to a blanket of cold whiteness that surrounded the copse. He woke up slightly warm due to the insulating plant material, or at least, not as cold as he had been the night before. He also felt a lot more rested, and his aching muscles from the day before didn’t take long to be warmed up. He scowled as he saw a grey smooth surface protruding from the snow, and brushed the soft flakes away to reveal a standing stone on which, rather predictably, an arrow was inscribed. With a grin, he followed the arrow out of the small wood, and gasped in surprise. The view before him was stunning; crisp white snow extended for as far as he could see, which was pretty far. Amongst the patches of white, scattered blossoms of smoke rose from what were obviously households, and here and there an icy blue lake could be seen, reflecting the low sun. Not too far in the distance a mountain range towered, its peaks shining whiter than any of the snow in front of him. In the direction the arrow pointed, a series of small grey dots could be made out, leading down into the valley and across a river in the bottom, before winding back upwards, dodging the only settlement that was visible, and disappearing into the mountains.
Arnai smiled, and set his foot down with a satisfying crunch as he headed forwards, towards his new home. The mountains would be his shelter, he knew it, and they did not look too far away. Perhaps he would be accepted into one of the settlements that were rumoured to be hidden away among the mountains. An old phrase came to mind, he could not remember where it had come from, the pure white of the snow before him spoke to him of a blank canvas, ready to paint with whatever he wished. He did not pause to eat as he set out north, and his long legs carried him quickly, ignoring the cold and the aches, guided by a deep warmth. He walked well into the night that day, pausing only when absolutely necessary, and sleeping only when he could keep his eyes open no longer. It was a week before he reached the foot of the mountains, catching small animals with his bow, cooking them on the fire, and gathering herbs such as Meme had taught him. In the mountains, he remembered the ancient man’s ledger, and stopped earlier at night to give his body a chance to rest, and began to decode it. He felt jubilant at being free from the laws of adults and clan, able to do what he want, when he wanted, but always sticking to the track that the stones marked, and never allowing his mind to wander to thoughts of his old home, preferring to keep it busy decoding.
He didn’t even realise as he started to struggle with the low altitudes, nor did he notice as he began to sleep for longer and find it hard to wake up. He did notice the cold however, that penetrated his bones, despite cold having become his norm. But it was hard to light a proper fire in the thick snow, which came up to his knees, and his torch had finally burnt out a day ago, where there was no fuel with which to replenish it. Food became scarce as he climbed ever higher. Barely two weeks after he had set out, he found himself shivering under a rock, surrounded by snow, and falling asleep only 10 minutes after he had woken up. Try as he might, he simply could not stay awake, instead he curled up in the snow, which was now warm to his touch, and let his mind start to slide into the blackness that had stalked him, like all other mortals, since birth.