The going was easier once they hit the roads and weren’t trekking through the thick undergrowth of the forest, and Tythel found herself starting to relax with every step. To her confusion, Nicandros’ tension grew in proportion to her relaxation, and his responses became increasingly monosyllabic. She tried to keep conversation going, but it was a one sided affair, and that only got worse the next day, where he would barely speak at all.
She decided to fill the rest of the time with the rest of the tale of Ruth III, the last great Empress of Cardometh before it began to decline, and her war against the Kaocan League. The Kaocan League had been a loose alliance of small independent island states scattered throughout the Yabormah sea, and Cardometh’s greatest rival for trade along the straits that led to the Outsea Kingdoms on the other side of the continent.
During the first Yabormahi war, the Kaocan had won a decisive victory and managed to conquer the cities along the coast of the Straight of Val’narrah and the Straight of Urshabeth, giving them complete control of two of the three paths connecting the Yabormahi to the Outseas, and becoming far larger than Cardometh in the process.
Ruth III had, instead of taking her army directly into the heart of the Kaocan League, gone from city to city along the coast, promising them greater autonomy if they joined her in throwing off the yoke of Kaocan rule. She had to defeat the local garrisons, of course, but none of them were really prepared for the full might of Cardometh’s army.
By the time she was ready to strike at the heart of the Kaocan League, her army had tripled in size, and her navy quadrupled. This was especially important since the Kaocan’s had always had possessed naval superiority. Tythel started to get especially animated as she described some of the actual battles, such as when Ruth III’s top general and rumored lover Alessa for the first time in history enveloped a larger army with a smaller one by collapsing her line and –
“Okay, girl, alright, I get it. The Cardometh were the heroes who overthrow the evil flathing Kaocan’s, and that’s why they’re so flathing great! I get it.” Nicandros growled.
Tythel knew he wanted her to stop talking, but honestly an argument with him about it was preferable to babbling towards the stone faced man. “Oh, no, that’s not the lesson at all. See, once Ruth III took the capital island of the Kaocan League, because they refused to surrender, she put every soldier of fighting age – men and women – to the sword.”
Nicandros shot her a glare, but didn’t immediately interrupt and she continued, “The children were taken to be raised as Cardomethi slaves, except the especially rebellious ones. They were left on the island with the elderly who had started the conflict last generation. She then had her three wizards work with the god of the Yabormah, Marebellon. They caused the capital island to erupt in a great volcano at the same time it sank beneath the waves.”
“Light, that’s excessive,” Nicandros muttered, then reached his hand to up to rub his temple, as if he had suddenly realized he was engaging in the history lesson.
“Oh, absolutely. Later the survivors on the outlying islands captured the Cardometh capital and salted the land before flooding it and having their necromancers, including Gix who my father slew, curse the land for ten thousand years. You’ve heard of the Weeping Morass, where the Bleeding Jester holds his court?” Nicandros nodded. “Well, the Bleeding Jester was once the chief god of the Cardometh. The Weeping Morass was their capital.”
Nicandros, inspite of himself, chewed his cheek. This was a habit that Tythel had and she was glad to recognize it in another – he was thinking. “And you said you loved this story, girl? Why?”
“It was my father’s favorite. He thought that no other case better illustrated a fundamental difference between History and Legend.” Nicandros motioned for her to go on. “In history, there are almost never heroes and villains. Those only exist in legend and tale. In history, what you get are two people doing awful things to each other because they want something the other one has. No good guys, no bad guys. Just people with wants.”
Nicandros nodded thoughtfully. “You talk like someone that’s been to the Collegium already, yet you’re not young enough to enter it.”
Tythel’s eyes brightened. “Oh light, are they still open? I always wanted to, when I was ready to spend a bit more time away from the mountain. They have the largest library in the world, and…” she saw Nicandros shaking his head and winced. “Please tell me the Alohym at least left it intact?”
“A student rebellion broke out, about five years after the surrender. They levelled it all, same as they did to that forest.” Nicandros spat onto the road.
“Oh no. And the books?”
Nicandros gave her a narrow-eyed look, and Tythel was once again lost as to its meaning. “They did no better at running than the students did. The Alohym established a new school they control, the Stellar Lyceum.”
“Oh.” Tythel fell silent, and shivered at the thought. “All those lives, all that knowledge, just erased.”
Nicandros’ eyes returned to their normal size and he grunted.
“If you’re back to grunting, I can tell you the rest of the tale. And then of how the remnants of the Kaocan League managed to rebuild and a hundred years later turn Cardometh proper into the Weeping Morass. And then-”
“Light, girl, are you ever silent?”
Tythel shrugged. “Sure. I have to sleep sometimes.” Nicandros’ eyes widened, and he chuckled. “How much further are we?”
“We’ll be there soon, girl. Let me handle the talking at first, okay? If you start running your flathing mouth you’re likely to get us in trouble.”
Tythel chewed the inside of her cheek. “They aren’t expecting you. You said you got back into all of this a couple days before you found me. You didn’t…send them a song?”
Nicandros shook his head. “The notes I already knew were long defunct.”
“Then how do you even know they’ll be here?”
“Lathariel will never leave her forest for long. Once we enter it, they’ll find us. They always do. Now. I need to remember some things. Do you think you’ll die if you’re silent for an hour?”
Tythel shrugged again. “I guess we’ll find out.”
In spite of himself, Nicandros chuckled again. Tythel was determined to keep silent for the next hour. The sun began to get low on the horizon.
It occurred to her that, in spite of travelling along a road for a full day, they’d seen almost no other people. She expected to see at least some sign of life, other people walking like she and Nicandros were, or a cart pulled by horses, or another skittering carriage, or anything. For all she could tell, they might have been the only humans walking the world. Is that normal? Or is it just because of the route we’re taking? Or was the road once busy, but now that the Alohym rule, none dare travel it?
She wanted to ask, but didn’t want to give Nicandros the satisfaction of breaking her silence. It was just beginning to occur to her that she didn’t have any way of telling the time and that Nicandros had no incentive to tell her, when he held up a hand and brought her to a halt.
“We’re here.” He pointed at the edge of the forest.
In the waning light, it was hard to see, but a great tangle of vines rose up to the edge of the forest, each one ending in thorns as long as her fingers. They formed a near barrier as thick as a wall around the edge, and it stretched as far as her eyes could see in twilight. “It doesn’t look like we’re welcome,” she said to him.
He was frowning. “No, it does not. But they wouldn’t have known we were coming…something’s wrong.” He glanced at Tythel. “How thick is that hide of yours, girl?”
She looked at the thorns, and bit her cheek in thought. “I don’t know. Every time it’s been tested, it was unlight or high speed metal. Thorns are something else.”
Nicandros drew his unlight-edged sword. “If you can, push through. If not, burn us a path. We might already be too late.”
Tythel nodded and walked up, pushing against the thorns experimentally. One of them snapped under the pressure and she pushed through, clearing a path into the woods beyond.
She didn’t know if the idea they were too late or on time terrified her more.