Reyan had always been fascinated by the hardroad. It seemed almost alive. If you had a tool strong and sharp enough, you could cut into it and, if you came back the next morning you would find it healed. It was strong and smooth and direct as possible given the contours of the pass. Rolf had told her on several occasions that if she stuck to the hardroad, she would always end up some place she’d want to be.
The professors’ caravan seemed to be following Rolf’s advice. They stayed on the hardroad and their progress was swift. Soon Reyan began to sway and roll in time to the steady lurch and relax as the horses pulled their truck along. The horse’s iron shoes ticked and scraped, and the steel tyres on the wheels ground and rumbled against the rough surface. There were periodic pops and clicks as they ejected loose pebbles off into the undergrowth.
While the hardroad tried to keep straight, the river followed its own random winding course. It advanced and retreated in turns, the forest becoming thin or disappearing altogether then thickening again into an impassable screen of ancient trees. The quality of the light cycled in time with the waxing and waining of the interceding forest, from the piercing brilliance of the open sky at the river’s perigee, to the soft dull light at it’s apogee.
A few hours after she had watched the last white wall of the last familiar house in Orloton disappear into the trees, Reyan was already further from home than she had ever been.
She felt safe beneath the soggy moss-bearded pine boughs where everything smelled of wet and the musty tang of dry-rotted wood, which to her smelled like life itself. But everything was different here. The same sort of burley pine trees that crowded in on Orloton still lined the hardroad, but here they were thinner and less hearty. They gave each other space and whatever secrets they shared, were whispered below ground through their interlacing roots rather than tapped out on each other’s shoulders with their caressing needles and branches. Thin wedges of sunlight made their way to the ground. In those patches, other sorts of trees and bushes had taken root; their leaves flat and broad, their chaotic branching trunks erupting like forks of moss-covered lightning from the earth.
Back home, the ferns stretched out like an unending carpet beneath the thick canopy. But here they huddled in tight dessicated clumps, the copper underbellies of their fronds curling up to shield them from the light.
A passer-through like Kavi would simply see a forest. Even if he did note the differences in the trees or the shade of the green, he wouldn’t have found it remarkable. But to Reyan it seemed as though she’d entered an entirely new world.
They came to a place where the hardroad skirted a deep pool in the river. A furious waterfall poured in at one end, churning the pool to a boil. The froth and foam quickly settled into creamy lines of bubbles, and the water became the smooth ice blue common to the deepest parts of the river.
“Look,” Kavi said, pointing down to the pool.
There was a long thin boat in the middle of the river with its prow pointing upstream. The boat was held in place by two tethers lashed to anchor points driven into the steep-walled canyon on either side of the boat. Nets drooped into the water from poles that jutted out from the gunwales. They looked like the outstretched wings of an enormous insect newly-emerged from the river and poised for flight.
“What are they doing? Fishing?”
“Yes, but watch.”
An otter hopped onto the front of the boat and chirped excitedly. The fisherman retrieved a fish from a basket, held it against the deck with his boot, and cut off its head. He tossed the head in to the river and the otter slipped into the water and vanished. A few seconds later, a black head bobbed to the surface ten yards upstream. The otter held the fish head in its paws and happily munched at the skull.
“Why would he feed the otters? Won’t they stick around and eat all the fish?”
“That fish head was payment for the dozens of fish the otter’s chased into the nets. The otter’s his pet. It’s part of his team.”
About a mile past the pool with the otters, Parr’s truck began to slow in front of them. Kavi pulled up on the reigns and their horses slowed to a stop leaving just a few feet of space between their noses and the back of the truck ahead. Kavi opened his door and hopped down. Curious, Reyan followed him.
They walked to the front of the caravan, past the vacant cabs of the other trucks and found Parr squatting down in front of the caravan inspecting a crumbling section of the hardroad. Sevv stood next to him tapping the toe of his boot against the waist-high tree that had grown up through a crack. Nearby, there were also two large potholes and a bite-shaped section were the hill had slid down into the river taking a bit of hardroad with it.
When he saw Kavi and Reyan, Sevv came over. “Kavianhar, go fetch your tools,” he said and patted the boy on the shoulder.
Kavi made eye contact with Reyan and jerked his head toward their truck. She followed him back. There were all manner of things tethered to or tucked through the rack. A bucket, an ax, a spare wheel; anything useful or necessary that could weather the elements. Attached to the rack near the rear was a tall wooden box, open at the top, and bristling with long-handled tools. Kavi lifted out two of the tools. The first Reyan recognized as a spade, the other she had never seen. It’s long wooden handle was thicker and stouter than the spade’s. There was an iron mechanism at the bottom consisting of a thick cross bar, a couple of bolts, and a sliding piston ending in a claw. She couldn’t begin to guess it’s use. Kavi saw her staring at it. “The puller,” he explained, “one of my personal creations.” He grinned and handed her the spade. He kept the puller for himself.
By the time they returned to the front of the caravan, Parr was already transporting a bucket full of gravel from the side of the road. He emptied it into one of the holes, and Sevv began smashing it into place with a heavy-looking tool which was nothing more than a wooden pole attached to a broad flat cast-iron disk. Reyan whispered to Kavi, “What are we doing?”
“Repairing the hardroad.”
“Why would the hardroad need to be repaired?”
“Up around Orloton, the hardroad stays in pretty good shape. But out here, it’s not much better than a normal road or trail.”
“He’s exaggerating,” Sevv assured her then continued pounding down the gravel.
Kavi carried his puller over to the small tree that Sevv had been kicking at. “On stretches like this—where the surface is exposed to direct sun and the elements—the hardroad gets weak. It gets damaged more easily and heals more slowly. Roots buckle it, springs undermine it, little trees pop up through cracks.” He set the claw of the device around the base of the sapling, then rocked the handle away from the tree. The claw slid closed around the base of the young tree. When Kavi pulled the handle toward himself, the claw gripped the sapling so tightly that juices ran down the sides of the mechanism and dripped onto the hardroad. Kavi gave a final pull and the tree was free. “And if something larger than bird droppings or pine needles fall on the hardroad someone has to deal with it.” Kavi untangled the little tree from the puller and tossed it to the side of the road. “Go get some gravel to pack in there,” he said to Reyan.
She went to the side of the road, collected a spade full of gravel, and ported it to the crack. Kavi, apparently pleased with the performance of his invention, began scouting around for other plants that might pose a threat to the hardroad. Finding none in the hardroad itself, he satisfied himself by uprooting a sapling and a blackberry shoot near enough to the shoulder that they might someday become an issue.
Sevv brought his smasher over to Reyan’s small pile of gravel.
“But why do we have to repair it,” she asked the old professor. “Why not whoever made it in the first place?”
“It may not look it, but the hardroad is ancient,” Sevv explained. “It’s been generations upon generations since whatever machine or process laid it down. If any human ever understood its manufacture or maintenance, that knowledge was lost long ago.” Sevv pounded the mound flat, then continued. “Near the nodes, the locals do a pretty good job of keeping the hardroad clean and clear. It’s important to them. It carries all the inter-village trade, brings in emissaries for potlatch…”
“And professors,” Kavi chimed in from where he was now inspecting the bite the river had taken out of the side of the hardroad.
“And us of course. If we had to travel normal roads or trails, we wouldn’t get further than Rowe in a season. Without our annual visitations all knowledge and wisdom would disappear from the outer nodes and the world would revert to ignorant chaos. So, since we’re the ones out here using the hardroad, it falls on us to keep and maintain it.” He lightly tapped the edges of the hole they had just filled ensuring it was flush with the surface, then he wiped his hands on his dirt-brown robe.
They returned the tools to the racks on the sides of the trucks, and climbed into their cabs. Reyan heard the hollow clop of Sevv’s horses, and a few moments later Parr’s truck began to pull away from them. Kavi jiggled the reins and said “y-hup,” and his horses began to pull.
They stopped twice more that day to repair the hardroad. Once to pull another large sapling which they probably should have seen and removed the previous season, and once to repair a crack which Reyan thought could have waited until next year, given the cold soaking shower that started the moment they had begun the repairs, and let up the moment they climbed, dripping, back into their trucks.
Soon, the hardroad left the forest and the sharp dramatic walls of the pass began to spread out and mellow. They came to a steep hill and the horses strained to climb it. Once they had crested, they could see a few miles distant where the pass gave way to a broad valley. The valley floor was segmented into square farm plots periodically accented by rows of trees. Some of the squares were green, but most were the various khaki shades of the stubble left after harvest, or the black of dirt recently turned over for winter.
The truck rocked and swayed as the horses strained on the back side of the hill. Kavi worked a hand break to help lessen their effort. The boy grew quiet with concentration and stayed that way for the five minutes it took for the hill to level out. Once the road flattened, he loosened his grip on the break and the reins and stopped taking deep breaths through his nose.
They had come to a long straight stretch of hardroad flanked on either side by low swampy ground and dense patches of low trees. Hundreds of enormous white birds gathered into several patches, and periodically took flight swirling low like blowing snow only to land back in nearly the same spot they had just left.
Kavi began shifting on his bench and glancing around. Eventually, he broke the long silence. “You don’t need to answer this if you don’t want to.”
Reyan didn’t want to. Not that she knew what the boy was going to ask, but as a rule, she didn’t find answering questions ever did much to improve a situation.
Kavi took her silence as permission to ask, “What was going on between you and Lyssa?”
Now Reyan was confident she didn’t want to answer. She rested her forehead against the side window and watched a seemingly endless blackberry bramble scroll past.
“Lyssa’s not my mom. She’s just our leader. I was just her ward.”
“Sure. I know. But…” he trailed off.
“She doesn’t like me.”
Kavi didn’t say anything at first as though mulling something over and choosing is words. “Well I need to tell you, I’ve met a lot of people out on circuit, and that woman makes me more edgy then any of them. She sounds honeysuckle sweet but feels rattlesnake vicious.” Reyan felt heat spread from her cheeks past her ears and down her back. Lyssa was Orloton’s leader. Before that she’d been the wife of the most respected leader in generations. Reyan had never allowed herself to complete a single bad thought about Lyssa. That probably wasn’t entirely true, but she’d certainly never uttered a disrespectful word or expressed a disrespectful thought. To hear Kavi speak so openly was shocking and—now that she allowed herself to feel it—delightful. A tight little muscle behind her right ear relaxed and she realized that—until that very moment—she’d never known it was in knots.
“What about your real mom,” Kavi asked tentatively. “What was she like?”
Reyan’s mood soured again. She set each of her hands to picking at the other’s scars and scabs. “She didn’t like me either.”
Kavi sucked air through his teeth and made a sound like he had touched a finger to a hot pan. “I bet that’s not true.”
“It is true. No one likes me. Except for Tom. He likes me. But he’s the only one.”
“You seem likable enough.”
Reyan let this pass. It was just one of those things people say when they can’t think of anything true or useful. Not exactly nice, but not worth getting angry about either. “Some of them try not to show it, but I can always tell. It’s not their fault.”
“What about your dad?”
Reyan narrowed her eyes at him. “I don’t want to talk about dad.” She turned away from Kavi and faced the window again burying her mouth and chin in the crook of her elbow.
Kavi fell into a long wordless spell. He appeared to be looking toward some non-point out past his horses’ noses, past Sevv’s truck, past Parr’s, out where the hardroad disappeared over the crest of some distant hill. He bounced his wrists and sent a rolling wave down the long leather reins which landed softly on his horse’s backs.
“I’m a ward too, you know?” he finally offered. She turned away from the window and stared at him and found his eyes fixed forward. Now that he had her full attention, he didn’t seem interested in revealing anything else. She wondered if he’d even said it.
As a rule, all conversations made Reyan wary as a rabbit, and there was something particularly unnerving about this one. She was used to being lectured or yelled at. That just felt like being chased off. While she might be scared for a moment, it came with the reassuring understanding that her pursuer simply wanted her gone. But this sort of talking, with its open-ended questions and enticing morsels of information felt unfamiliar and dangerous. Still, she found she trusted Kavi—at least a little. She decided he wasn’t baiting some terrible snare. She decided to risk a simple, “Sorry.”
“Oh, it’s okay. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want me. They just couldn’t handle having a second. They tried to hold out for a couple years. I was pretty young but I still remember them crying when they handed me over. Every now and again, they still send a little money.”
“Well then it’s not the same.”
After several more miles of gradual but steady downhill progress, and of looking at nothing else but the back of Parr’s truck, the hardroad suddenly sloped up. The surrounding land fell away and Reyan realized they were going over a bridge.
Halfway up the bridge’s approach, the hardroad ended abruptly. Everything beyond that point had been repaired or replaced. The posts and struts were made of rough-hewn wood and the cross-bracing was lashed bamboo so that they seemed to be driving into a cage for a giant wild animal. Even the deck was made of wood, split logs lain sideways across the bridge smooth-side-up so that the clumping of the horses hooves and the thump of the wheels as they rolled from board to board to board set up a steady syncopated rhythm. The contrast between the hardroad’s precision and the bridge’s helter-skelter construction was so stark it was almost comical, like a child in her father’s jacket and boots with a chicken feather mustache held to her lip trying to sneak off to work with the lumbermen.
Once they were over the wooden section of the bridge, the hardroad began again. The caravan rounded a bramble-covered slope and the town of Rowe came into view.
She was surprised to find a town so suddenly near. Orloton was the only town she’d ever known. Whenever she had returned to it, she had traveled the same long straight stretch of hardroad. At first a few whitewashed homes appeared through the trees, small as baby’s teeth at first then growing steadily as she drew near. She assumed towns were all of a similar type of a thing—like dogs or fish or trees—which might be different in size or color but had roughly the same ways about them. She’d assumed that a town’s approach was one of those things that all towns had in common which helped make them a town.
As soon as she realized she’d believed such a foolish thing, she reminded herself how truly stupid she was and wondered what other ignorant ideas were hiding in her overcrowded head.
The first thing she noticed about this new town was a tall object like the trunk of a limbless tree rising up from its center. It was perfectly straight and round and taller than anything she’d ever seen aside from the mountains. The top ended in a jagged crumbly mess so it had to have been made of shapestone or maybe even stacked brick. It was weathered and stained and streaked with black. Around its base, a dozen or so feet above the tops of the surrounding buildings, the townspeople had painted a broad white stripe and written the word “Rowe” in tall blocky black letters.
“Your mouth is hanging open, Reyan,” Kavi laughed.
Though Kavi’s voice was barely a whisper, it was unexpected. She started, and felt angry at him for intruding in her thoughts, and then very quickly was mad at herself for feeling that way. He was just being friendly. She gathered herself, settled and explained, “I’ve never seen any town other than home. I didn’t know they could be so big. How does the butcher feed them all?”
Kavi snorted, and she knew it had been a dumb question, and she resolved to not ask any more. She was just deciding how to apologize when he smiled, “I assume they just have two butchers.”
Reyan’s head made a little jerk as this new possibility opened up for her. Seeing this reaction, Kavi laughed again. Kavi looked pleased with himself, worldly, like someone who knew of a hidden fishing hole, or were their parents stashed their liquor. “Just wait until you see the University. Wait till you see Seal Tooth. It’s like a hundred Rowes laid out side-by-side and stacked atop one another.”