Hem stopped for a moment to wipe a bead of sweat off his forehead, and took another gulp from his water bag.
I need to rest here, just for a moment, he said to Irc, the white crow, his dearest friend Lios Hlaf, who sat upon his shoulder.
Humans are so feeble, Irc replied. Not like me. Crows are strong and smart, and I, the King's Messenger, am the strongest and smartest of them all.
Then get off my shoulder and prove it, Hem said irritably.
Irc cawed in defiance, buffeting Hem's face with warm air as he flew off. Hem slumped to the ground. He watched the crow spiral into the heavy blue sky before he lowered his gaze to look at the landscape before him.
They were travelling through the eastern edges of the Osidh Am, in the area almost directly west of Turbansk. They had left Turbansk two weeks beforehand, riding along the road to Iledh for almost forty leagues. From there they took a road that led northwest, coming eventually to Timedh, a large town that surrounded a bridge crossing the Amon River. Timedh thrived on the trade coming out of the Osidh Am; after reaching the town, the goods either went south on the river or back along the road.
Hem had arrived there a few days ago, obtaining information before setting off through the ranges of the Osidh Am.
Hem sighed and pulled his thoughts back to the present. He shook his water bag, and it sloshed hollowly. He stood up, and started walking once more.
The land rose steeply, and the long grass parted before his strides. Imposing mountains surrounded him on three sides, the fourth leading down towards the Amon River that glittered like a silk ribbon far below. It was currently the dry season, and the afternoon sun beat down relentlessly on his broad shoulders; there were no trees to provide shelter here. Flaky grey rocks rose out of the grass, spotted with a yellowy-green lichen. Bird calls filled the air, and somewhere a cricket was chirping. This rugged, beautiful landscape was the area that grew the famous coffee beans of the Suderain.
Hem felt the deep peace of the earth fill him and his legs fell into a relaxed, steady lope. His thoughts wandered to his sister Maerad, somewhere in Zmarken. He smiled, thinking of her last letter. She had written to him of her work negotiating a peace between the Pilanel and the Jussacks, her words filled with a buoyant excitement. It was ten years since the Singing and much was changed. The great cities of the South were being rebuilt, and the Balance was slowly but surely being restored in places where it had dimmed. Hem himself had been involved in the rebuilding of Turbansk, although his work centred mostly around the healing houses. He had dedicated the last ten years to restoring the beautiful city. It was, and would always remain, his first love. This dedication had left little time for much else. Maybe that was why Hem had left this errand until now.
Hem felt his nervousness return. He had much apprehension about this meeting and he had gone over what he planned to say many times with Irc, who would often quip: Your head is full of feathers, and your mouth will be too when you try and speak to this girl. This is why crows are superior. We say what we want.
It had taken him almost half a year to locate Amira, and now he was almost there he felt all his excuses and apologies fleeing his mind. He feared the questions she was most likely to ask, like why it had taken him ten years to tell her of her father's death during the siege of Turbansk. At times like these, Hem would feel his resolve weaken, and all he wanted was to walk far away. But then he would remember the kind man who laughed as he made cups of rich, dark coffee and joked with his friends, and then his face would set in a determined line as he strode on.
Hem had firmly decided to find Amira whilst working in the healing houses. He was watching Oslar attempt to lift a serious illness from an afflicted man. Beside Hem stood the man's daughter, who was picking at her sleeve. She stared intently at Oslar, who was now glowing brilliant with silver magelight.
After what seemed an age, Oslar opened his eyes and smiled gently, releasing the man's hand and stepping back. Immediately, the girl rushed to her father's side and took both his hands in hers. The man's eyelids fluttered open, meeting the relieved, joyous gaze of his daughter. Hem started as he realised they were the same rich brown as Boran's. The father and daughter were now laughing together, sharing the simple pleasure of being able to remain in one another's company.
This was what Hem had denied Amira. He knew that he could not have saved Boran, but by not telling Amira of her father's dying words, he had kept from her the last gift her father had for her. His love.
The following day, Hem had told Oslar of his wish to find Amira. Oslar suggested he head for Car Amdridh. During the War of the Nameless One, Car Amdridh had been the final hope of the Suderain, and it was where all the evacuees of Turbansk had been sent. Saliman had recognised the look on Hem's face as he returned to the Bard house that night. He farewelled Hem the following morning as he left for Car Amdridh on Usha, knowing it was a journey he had to take alone.
Upon arriving at Car Amdridh, Hem was told that Amira had left when she came of age, almost seven years ago. The Bards told Hem he might find recent news of Amira in Iledh, where she was known to have family.
It had taken Hem and Irc nigh on two months to ride from Car Amdridh to Iledh, almost one hundred and forty leagues straight north along the Bard road. Hem hadn't lingered in Iledh, although he had been invited to stay as long as he pleased. The Bards had told him of Amira's decision to live in the ranges of the Osidh Am, and he was eager to be off as soon as possible. They said that Timedh, being the largest town in the region, would be the best place to look.
It was two nights since they had arrived in the town. The local innkeeper had said yes, he did know an Amira, and yes, he knew where she lived. He agreed to look after Usha, as she probably wouldn't be able to cope in the Osidh Am. So Hem began his journey through the mountains.
As Hem crested the next rise, he saw that the long grasses gave way to short trees planted in orderly rows. Beyond that was a small house, built of the same grey rock as the mountains. The fence surrounding the house contained only a few goats and chickens within it; he supposed that Amira got a lot of her supplies from Timedh.
Hem walked hesitantly through the neat rows. The trees grew close to the ground with small, crinkled green leaves and green berries that were slowly beginning to ripen in the unrelenting southern sun. The whole plantation smelled strongly of jasmine, reminding Hem of Saliman's garden in Turbansk. He smiled and felt himself relax as this small scent of home flew by softly on a wisp of a breeze. He ran his fingers idly through the leaves as he walked, letting his anxieties and worries abate.
Too soon, he arrived at the low wooden gate. He stopped, gathering himself as if for a giant leap. Before he could open the gate, a little boy opened the door of the house and stepped out. He stared at Hem in shock for a while, then made to go back inside.
"Hello," Hem said quickly in Suderain. "Does Amira live here?"
The boy nodded at Hem, and then backed through the plain wooden door.
Hem folded and unfolded his sleeve as he waited. After a short time, the door opened, and a young woman walked out. Hem immediately knew this was Boran's daughter. Her hair was tied up in a messy bun with a few stray wisps falling across her dark face. But it was her eyes that Hem recognised. They were the same rich, clear brown eyes that had pierced him with a pain no human being should be made to bear. The same eyes that had begged Hem to come here and explain to his daughter why he had died. Hem swallowed, his mouth dry.
"Can I help you?" Amira asked. She had a kind, open face that still held something of childhood within it.
"Yes, um, no. Well. No, I don't need help." Hem mentally kicked himself.
"Well, what can I do for you, then?" Her eyes glinted with amusement. Hem felt himself shrivel inside.
"I'm here to talk to you about your father," he said in a rush.
Amira's face went blank, her eyes looking beyond Hem. He turned, and saw Irc pecking at something in the ground.
"You're Lios Hlaf," she said quietly.
"I'm Hem." Her eyes snapped back to him.
"Well, Hem, I already know about my father's death. But thank you for coming." She slammed the door shut.
Hem stood stunned. He had to tell her; he had promised. Irc flew the short distance and landed on Hem's shoulder. He tugged on Hem's hair in encouragement but said nothing. Hem breathed in and walked the short distance to the gate. It creaked gently as he pushed it open, the wood warm and worn smooth under his hand. A chicken squawked and ran in front of him, Irc answering with a superior caw as he walked towards the door. Hem paused with his fist upraised to knock, then turned the metal latch and walked into the house.
He stood inside a small kitchen. Utensils hung on the whitewashed stone walls and wooden cabinets stood underneath. In the middle of the room was a worn table bearing the marks of heavy use. Amira stood at the table with her back to Hem, chopping vegetables.
"I don't seem to recall inviting you into my house," she said, her voice sharp.
Hem opened his mouth to reply, but before he could she sighed and said, "You must have travelled far, and it is an unkindness to treat you ill. I am sorry for my rudeness."
"I'm sorry too," Hem said, smiling crookedly. "Your father asked me to give you a message."
Amira emptied her hands and turned around, crossing her arms.
"Well. What was it, then?"
"He said that he loves you. He will see you at the Gates, and he was thinking of you when... when he died."
Amira swallowed. Her eyes were red, brimming with unshed tears. Hem wanted to go to her and comfort her somehow, but he didn't know how.
Amira's head turned as the little boy came into the room through another door. He glanced at Hem, then handed Amira some oranges.
"Thank you, Jia," she said gently. The boy looked at Hem once more, than ran out of the room. Hem smiled, trying not to laugh.
"He's my brother," Amira said, looking sideways at Hem. "Our mother died giving birth to him in Turbansk. He was only one when we fled to Car Amdridh." Her face clouded. "He grew up without parents to love him." She turned away again. "You were there when my father was in the greatest need. I was not."
She didn't speak any further, and Hem stood awkwardly, not knowing how to comfort this person he knew nothing of. He had delivered his message, fulfilled his promise to Boran. Now what should he do?
You're such a featherbrain, Irc said. Do something.
Hem walked forwards and put a tentative hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said. "I know you wanted to stay and fight for Turbansk. I really admire you for that. Not all have that courage." He was reminded suddenly of Zelika, whose love for her lost family had been that which had ultimately killed her. "Your father told me he was glad to send you away. I think it gave him hope."
Amira was now standing straighter. She turned around to face Hem, her face strong and defiant. She bowed in the traditional Bardic greeting.
"I thank you, Hem, for delivering my father's message. I apologise for my previous harsh words." She smiled openly at him, and Hem found himself smiling in return. "Would you like some coffee? I'm proud to say I make coffee as good as my father's."
"I'd like that," said Hem.