In a way, the next two days went very well. Ryel and Arkmar and their zebra passed the ruins of the pre-human city on the western shore of Yath in the midmorning, under tall clouds and ravines of sunlight. Then the weather lifted, and the road bent northwest around the lowest slopes of the vast mountain Ngranek. They began to meet villages again, after the barren patch around the ruins: farm villages, but also villages of crafts folk, who used in one way or another the lava that the mountain had spewed in aeons past. By evening the elf and the dwarf rode among cliffs of black stone and dark forests of pine, and then into towns carven of black stone amid little barren gardens. People sat on their front steps chipping and carving the lava into cups and chess pieces and censers and candle holders.
They stayed the night in an inn carved into a cliff, where an ancient lava flow had slowed to a stop and frozen, and then had been cut back straight and clean by an earthquake, the shards washing away and wearing down in the rains of centuries. They had stew and ale in the common room, then went up, locked up and dropped to sleep in cots on either side of the little bedroom.
The next morning dawned beautiful, and Arkmar woke up in the room they shared to see Ryel’s bed empty and disheveled. He swung out of bed, found his leather pants (he wore his boxers to bed, as well as a sturdy tunic) and stood up. Ryel was out on their second floor balcony doing her stretches. She was in fact dressed.
“Time to get some breakfast?” he asked.
“They brought it up,” she replied, finishing one last stretch and coming in. She crossed the small room to the next room, and he followed: in the wan light of the north-facing window, he joined her at a small table with two chairs. There were plates of cut-up apple, little pastries, cheese and something like bacon. There was also coffee and juice and goat’s milk.
“On the house? Or did you order it up?”
“I ordered it,” said Ryel.
“Because of the hike today,” said Arkmar. “Got to get plenty of grub. Anything to pack?”
“There are villages up the mountain,” she replied.
They sat and ate in silence for a little. Arkmar finally said, “Good coffee.”
“I would have to agree.”
“Ryel,” he said, “did something happen in the night I need to know about?”
“Would you want to know if I thought we were being followed?”
“Uh, yes, yeah.”
“Arkmar,” she said, “we’re being followed.”
“By whom? How do you know? Are you sure?”
“That will be seen,” said Ryel. She sipped her coffee. She picked up a hunk of bacon. “It’s too much to hope for that it won’t be seen.”
Arkmar got their packs into shape for carrying, while Ryel had a last chat with the zebra. Arkmar was sitting on a boulder next to the trailhead with the packs beside him, and the sun had cleared the mist, by the time Ryel and the zebra got done parlaying. Ryel came sauntering up toward Arkmar, while the zebra, with a last call of good luck in its horsy language, took off across the road and into the fields beyond.
“Well, that took longer than it should have,” said Ryel.
“You and animals,” said Arkmar. “You just can’t say goodbye.”
“She didn’t want to go with us, she just wanted us to go with her. Anyway, she knew we were on a mission, she knew we wouldn’t just wander the island with her. I told her where to look for us later.”
“The south side of the mountain?”
“Yeah. It’s a long way, but I put a blessing on her. She’ll be okay.”
“So we’re supposed to take her with us to sea and all? Does she swim good? Does she like boats?”
“No horse relative likes boats,” said Ryel. “We’re not taking her with us. She just wanted to, you know, maybe party with us later, okay? Is that fine with you?”
“Me? Sure,” said Arkmar, getting up and pulling on his pack. “I liked that zebra. She was, you know, a cool zebra.”
Ryel headed off up the trail. It ascended very quickly through the patchy pine forest above the village’s cliff, but every time Ryel stopped to wait for Arkmar, she would smile at him and start off again when he caught up. After more than half an hour of this, they came to the top of a slope surrounded by midget pines, and then they were out on a hump of open rock. They looked northward and in the misty distance lay the Northern Sea, but to the south, they raised their eyes and all they could see was more rock sloping up into the clouds.
“Wait, wait,” said Arkmar as he caught up again. “Breather.”
“Of course,” said Ryel. “I’m only elvish.”
They stood breathing and gazing off into the cubic miles of space below them. “So,” said Arkmar, “who’s following us, how close, and so on?”
“I don’t know, but someone was at the hotel last night: someone was in the room when we were eating dinner. And don’t you think that’s someone down there climbing?”
Arkmar looked down. “I make out two people,” he said. “Maybe a third—not sure. Well, they could be lava carvers or whatever. How do you know they’re after us?”
“Just guessing,” said Ryel. She held up a little bit of black ribbon. “I stuck this in the door when we went down to have stew last night.”
“Ah. It was on the floor when we came back. Any idea who—?”
“Nope,” said Ryel. “I’m afraid at that point I am all out of ideas. Shall we go?”