The forest came to a stop at a clearing that rolled away from it in downward hills, opening to the valley ahead where the trees were once again more numerous, despite the rocky outcroppings.
On the opposite side of the valley, the hills rose higher upon cliffs of taupe colored rocks. The grass was thicker, and sported an immodest amount of wildflowers. And beyond those hills, the land ascended farther and the trees became more and more coniferous.
At that point, it became obvious that the dusky, brownish gray rock was veined with lines of white and, in scarce spots, deposits of a translucent, pale pink gemstone.
The sheer beauty of the land seemed to have drawn Williard's breath away as he gazed into the distance at the mountains beyond and above the rocky hills. It seemed to him as if the land was flexing all its strength towards the sky and into the wind.
"We are nearing Stonegard," said Bundle.
It was the first thing more significant than a grunt any of the men had uttered in the last two days of travelling off-road, an uneasy silence brought about by Noira's suggestion that they take her life.
Noira, though, was a bold exception. Though she could not manage make conversation with the others, she sang to herself; and when nature granted it, she accompanied the woodland birds. This distracted her enough, but its cheery and ironic nature seemed to juxtapose the gloomy thoughts the others were having, creating further unease.
A long moment and many footsteps had passed.
"Are we really?" Axbrand asked ponderously. "We seem so far flung from civilization. It is as if people do not walk between these boughs."
Bundle nodded. "We are in the Woods of the Oracle. Hunting is forbidden here. And were nature to be too greatly disturbed in this sacred place, my understanding is that it would cloud her prescience."
"Is it true what they say, that she can predict the future?" Axbrand asked.
Intrigued, Williard turned his head towards the conversation.
"Do you believe in free will?" asked Bundle.
"Yes," said Axbrand. "I have the will to choose how to live my life."
"How about fate?" asked Bundle.
"I think so," said the butcher.
"Me too," put in Will. "I believe in fate - especially when it comes to true love."
Bundle laughed. "The two cannot co-exist. Think about it. If all our futures are cast before we even begin to live our lives, rather than made in the moment as we make our chocies, then free will is but an illusion of the mind. In such a state, the future of the world would be as readable as a book for those that can see it."
Noira and Williard exchanged wide-eyed glances.
Axbrand grunted. "Which is it?"
"She sees probable futures. That which is likely to occur. None of it is fated, except what is happening in the present and what has already come to pass. Fate is something the future approaches asymptotically, like an increasing number trying to reach infinity. The closer the future comes to the present, the more its influences become refined, and the more accurate her predictions will be."
"So we should put more value in what she says about the next year than what she says about the next decade?" Williard asked.
"She won't see my fortune, will she..." muttered Noira.
"Wuzzat, darlin'?" asked Axbrand.
"She will see yours," said Bundle. "And also Wolfram's."
Silence followed them for many yards. Thick clouds hugged at the sun, hogging most of its light.
"Is that why you haven't killed me yet?" Noira asked.
"Don't be daft, lass," muttered Axbrand. Nobody seemed to hear him.
"You see it in your dreams, don't you?" Bundle finally spoke to her. "It eats at your thoughts, how invasive it is. It's always there and never goes away, that ethereal chain that binds you to him."
With a whimper, as if she had been struck, Noira nodded.
"Death will not free you from his power," Bundle proclaimed. "In the twain, that collar has ruled ghostly revenants of terrible power. The Collar is an evil and malicious tool, used to control. It is hard to believe that, centuries ago before it was altered, that collar was the Crown of Skathain."
The heir of Skathain stood speechless for several steps, and then ran to catch up, skipping over a small river.
"Bitter, bitter irony that it is 'round your neck now," Bundle winced.
And down the valley, Williard was pointing at something.
The order's operative smiled. "That's it."
Far in the misty distance, Stonegard Fortress clung to Mount Stonegard with intimidating stability. Its two highest towers rose as high as the mountain peek itself, and supported an arched bridge that connected both towers to the peak. And there, just below the peak, was a quiet sanctum of a temple flanked by runed obelisks and cold wind.