Yet it was happy, despite continued difficulties
and periods of fear. And as they left the last fringes
of the area already devastated by Vilkata’s army,
their own foraging became correspondingly easier.
Farms and houses were even fewer now; this was a
region sparsely inhabited in the best of times.
Mark tried to count up the days of their journey.
Watching the phases of the Moon, he decided it was
now almost a month since he-had approached and
entered Vilkata’s camp.
At last there came the day when they rode into
sight of a banner of blue and green, raised on a tall
rustic pole. The Tasavaltan flagpole stood atop a
crag that overlooked the road, just where the road
entered the first pass of mountain foothills. Kristin
shed tears at sight of the flag; Mark had to look at
her closely to be sure that they were tears of joy.
She assured Mark that what he had been told of
Tasavalta was correct, that although it was not a
huge land it was certainly spectacular. In any event
he could now begin to see that for himself. Kristin
explained the topography in a general way: there
were two main mountain ranges, one right along
the coastline to the east, the other a few kilometers
inland, just inside the first long line of sheltered
valleys. Both these ranges were really southern
extensions of the Ludus Mountains, now many
kilometers to the north.
“I grew up in sight of the Ludus,” Mark said.
“We could see them on a clear day, anyway, from
Despite the southern latitude they had now
reached, here in late summer there were still traces
of ice and snow visible upon the highest Tasavaltan
peaks ahead. The coast was deeply cut with fjords
here, and cold ocean currents kept this almost
tropic land in a state of perpetual spring.
Mark and Kristin pushed on, urging their tired
riding beasts past that first frontier marking. Mark
kept glancing at his companion. She was more
often silent now, and looked more worried the far-
ther they went.
He asked Kristin suddenly, “Still worried about
what your teacher in the white arts is going to
“That’s not it. Or not altogether.”
Still the secrecy, and it annoyed him. “What,
But she would not give him what he considered a
straight answer, and his annoyance grew. Some-
thing about her family, he supposed. What they
were going to say when she brought home an
almost penniless foreign soldier as a prospective
husband. Mark was sure by now that Kristin’s fam-
ily were no peasants. Well, the two of them had
been traveling alone together for a month. If her
people were like most of the well-to-do families that
Mark had known, that would be a powerful induce-
ment for them to give their consent. In any case he
was going to marry her, he would entertain no
doubt of that, and he kept reassuring himself that
she showed no hesitation on that point either.
She might, he sometimes thought, be with-
holding information about some complication or
obstacle. If she feared he might be influenced by
anything like that-well, she didn’t yet know him
as well as she was going to.
Once they had passed that first flagpole marking
the frontier, the road immediately improved. It also
began a steeper climb, sometimes requiring long
winding switchbacks. For the first time on this
journey Mark could glimpse the sea, chewing at the
feet of the coastal mountains. It was deep blue in
the distance, then the color of Kristin’s eyes, then as
it met land frothed into white. Now, on either side
of the road, there were meadows, presently being
harvested of hay by industrious-looking peasants
who were not shy about exchanging waves at a dis-
tance with shabbily dressed wayfaring strangers.
The lifesaving cloak of Vilkata’s colors had long
since been rolled up into a tight black bundle and
lodged behind Mark’s saddle.
Now Kristin pointed ahead, to where the sun-
spark of a heliograph could be seen winking inter-
mittently from the top of a small mountain. “That
may be some message about us. In times like these,
the lookouts tend to take notice of every traveler.”
“Do you know the code?”
“Yes-but that’s not aimed in our direction. I
can’t see enough of it to read.”
Now-oddly as it appeared to Mark-Kristin’s
worry had been replaced by a kind of gaiety. As if
whatever had been worrying her had happened
now, and all that mattered after that was to make
the best of life, moment by moment. Now she was
able to relax and enjoy her homecoming, like any
other rescued prisoner.
He took what he saw as an opportunity to try to
talk seriously to her again. “You’re going to marry
me, and right away, no matter what you family or
anyone else says about it.” He stated it as firmly as
“Yes, oh darling, yes. I certainly am.” And
Kristin was every bit as positive as he was about it.
But he could see now that her sadness, though it
had been conquered, was not entirely gone.
Things of very great importance to her-what-
ever all the implications might be exactly-had
been set aside, because it was more important to
Kristin that she marry him. Mark made, not for the
first time on this journey, a silent vow to see that
she never regretted that decision.
He was cheered to see that happiness increas-
ingly dominated her mood as they went on. She was
coming home, she was going to see a family and
friends who must at the very least be badly worried
about her now, who might very possibly have given
her up for dead.
The road, now well paved, rounded a shoulder of
the same small mountain upon whose peak they
had seen the heliograph. Then it promptly turned
into a cobblestone street, as the travelers found
themselves entering the first village of Tasavalta. It
was, Mark decided, really a small town. He won-
dered what it was called. Not far ahead on the right
was a small, clean-looking inn, and he suggested
that they stop. He had a little money with him still,
carried in an inner pocket. “If they will let us in; we
do look somewhat ragged.” Their scavenging
through deserted houses had added to their ward-
robe, but only doubtfully improved its quality.
“All right. We can stop anywhere. It makes little
difference now.” Kristin looked him squarely in the
eye, and added warmly: “I love you.”
It was something they said to each other, in end-
less variations, a hundred times a day. Why should
the effect, this time, be almost chilling, as if she
were telling him goodbye
“And I love you,’,’ he answered softly.
She turned her head away from him, to look
toward the inn, and something in her aspect froze.
Mark followed her gaze. Now they were close
enough to the inn for him to see the white ribbon of
mourning that was stretched above the door. And
there was another white ribbon, now that he looked
for it, wrapped round the arch of the gate leading
into the inn’s courtyard from the street.
He said to Kristin: “Someone in the innkeeper’s
family. . .”
She had turned in her saddle again, and was look-
ing wordlessly up and down the street. Now that
they were closer to the other doors and gateways
they could see the white bands plainly, everywhere.
In this town the badge of mourning appeared to be
“What is it, then?” The words burst from
Kristin in a scream, a sound that Mark had never
heard from her before. He stared at her. They had
stopped, just outside the open gateway of the
courtyard of the inn.
In response to the outcry an old woman in an
apron, the innkeeper’s wife by the look of her,
appeared just inside the yard. In a cracked voice she
admonished, “Where’ve you been, young woman,
that you don’t know-”
At that point the old woman halted suddenly. Her
face paled as she stared at Kristin, and she seemed
to stumble, almost going down on one knee. But
Kristin, who had already dismounted, caught her
by the arms and held her up.
And shook her, fiercely. “Tell me, old one, tell me,
who is the mourning for?”
The eyes of the innkeeper’s wife were pale and
hopeless. “My lady, it’s for the Princess. . . Princess
Rimac . . . has been killed.”
Again Kristin let out a scream, this one short and
wordless. Mark had heard another woman scream
just that way as she fell in battle. Kristin swayed
but she did not fall.
He jumped off his own mount and went to her
and held her. “What is it?”
She clung to him as if an ocean wave were tug-
ging at her, sweeping her away: For just a moment