The path he chose was only crossable in the middle of the short summer season and even though it was nearly three moons since the last rush of spring flood, the steep pass was still a treacherous mixture of loose stones and turbulent streams. At its highest point there was still snow and ice underfoot and even leading the ponies, there was danger in every step on the slippery rock. But this was the land of his youth and Durban knew it well. He had grown up in the wild vastness of the Garia mountains and had sometimes managed to escape from the pressures of his intense and unusual upbringing by vanishing alone for days at a time into the natural wilderness around his childhood home.
He contemplated making a detour to the remains of that strange place, now demolished, where he had endured an upbringing unique on Temsevar, learning of things no other child on the planet was taught. But his work was urgent and he could not afford the delay. Besides his last encounter with the imperious guardian and mentor of his youth, by the temple of the gods in Alfor had left him with little appetite for another.
The choice was taken from him. He woke to find her ancient body warming itself beside his night fire. A skeleton pressed with flesh. The woman he knew only as Alize.
“Do not trouble yourself,” she said, as he got up quickly to build the fire, the voice was a wisp of frost. “This body is almost done.”
“And then?” he asked. He had to know.
And then you will have to bring me what I need.
The words formed in his mind even as the over-bright eyes gripped his gaze.
“I will if I can,” he said.
You can and you will. This has to be. More than you can begin to imagine rests on what you have to do.
“My imagination is very good, you could try me sometime.”
There was a sensation of contempt.
You had your chance to ask me and you refused it.
“I was a child,” Durban protested. “That is beyond unfair.”
You were a child then, yes, but you have not changed. I came to remind you of what you must do. That is all.
It dawned on Durban, belatedly, that there was no way the woman he had spoken to in Alfor could be sitting here in the mountains with him. He opened his mouth to say as much, but closed it again immediately. The space where Alize had been sitting wavered as if it were a reflection in a still pool and someone had dropped a small pebble in the middle. Then he was sitting alone by the fire.