The mountains loomed before them after a night and a day of walking, much steeper than Aleda expected. The North River—more of a stream now—poured from a cliff hundreds of feet high and there was no way for the adults to climb it, much less the children. They would have to leave the river.
She linked her fingers through Carrick’s as he looked north to the great, broken hump of Mountain. He had been taller and sharper when she discovered she was pregnant with Alaric. Three summers ago she had been on her way to meet Carrick when the water began to ripple in a strange way, not pulling and pushing in its normal rhythm but hopping around the rocks and reefs as the ground began to shake. When Mountain exploded He sent up a fiery spray to burn the Sky, and the dark cloud of ash followed. The water receded, and the People of the Sea ran for the cliffs. Gaerlom was destroyed in the ash-colored waves that she thought would never stop coming, and the Children of Mountain were born in the moons of rebuilding. Only Aleda and Lisel had survived the birth of the broad-shouldered Changelings.
One of the children started to cry as the shadows of the trees darkened around them and it began to drizzle. Tears had become a constant in their journey, although they hopped from one child to the next like a flea. Only Alaric and Faye were quiet. They stayed near their parents and tried to distract the other children with games.
“Let’s stop for the night,” Carrick said and scooped the crying child up to rock on his hip until she quieted. “In the morning we’ll turn north and go to Mountain.”
“Why don’t we go south?” Aleda said as she tried to get damp tinder to catch a spark. “Perhaps the South River has a pass that will be easier to navigate.”
“We don’t know what is to the south.”
“We don’t know what is to the north, either. Except Mountain, and I’m weary of Him.” Even through the trees she could see the shadow of the broken mass. She feared Mountain more than she feared Coyle.
A deep frown cut across Carrick’s face as he looked north, and he didn’t speak right away. “The Gaerloms won’t follow if we go north.”
“I don’t think they’ll follow regardless. We’re moving painfully slow; they could have caught us by now. They know we went along the North River and won’t think to look south.”
Lisel nodded as she fed her baby. “They wanted the children gone, and now they are gone.”
“They wanted the children dead,” Carrick turned back to them. “They’re still a threat if they’re alive.”
“They are three summers old,” Aleda said. “That is no threat. They won’t even remember Gaerlom.” Her eyes plead with her husband to listen to reason. There was no point in going closer to Mountain. They would be safe as long as they stayed inland.
Carrick put the child down and turned north once more, to the dark hulk of Mountain. Then he turned south to the gentler curves of the mountains there. They were still large, still foreboding to people accustomed to the sea, but less angry somehow. He nodded. “Let’s go south then.”
Aleda sighed in relief and the tinder began to smoke. She cupped her hands over it to keep the rain off and Carrick got to work finding as much dry wood as he could. The entire mountainside was perpetually wet, and the rain had come in fits and spurts all day. He found a branch that had fallen into a shallow cave in the cliff and they were able to use it to light a small fire—the first for two days. If it started raining any harder the fire would go out, but it sizzled and burned in the mist and drizzle.
A stone cup in the bottom of Aleda’s bag was the one treasured thing that she brought with her, and she ran her fingers over its smooth surface as she got it out. She filled it with water from the river and put it next to the fire to boil. One of the little girls had developed a bad cough and it was the only vessel they had for tea. Aleda was just getting the herbs out of her bag when she heard the crack of a tree limb and looked up, expecting Coyle and his murderous friends.
Alaric had climbed half-way up a tree and was reaching for a limb above his head as the one his foot rested on cracked under his weight.
“Alaric! Get down from there!”
She abandoned the cup and grabbed Faye out of the tree as the little girl tried to climb after him. It was yet another example of how strange the Children of Mountain were. The People of the Sea climbed over the rocks and cliffs of the shoreline, but who had ever heard of climbing a tree? Only birds lived in trees.
“Now, young man.”
Aleda placed Faye safely on the ground before turning back to her son, who had inched out from the middle of the tree. He spread his wings—something she had never seen him do—and she didn’t realize his intentions until he jumped. She gasped as his feet left the limb and he glided on his wings for a moment, but they had never been used and they couldn’t support his weight. He screamed as he fell to the ground.