11.) Every morning and every night, Toug cooked for thirty-three people. Most of the food was scavenged along the way or hunted by Marston. Toug had a genius for discovering edible plants and animals, seasoned by herbs and spices he plucked from the side of the road.
As Sooma the slug munched happily on the remains of the pilgrim wagon, Toug marched to the rear of the creature with a cleaver and hacked off several feet of glistening meat. The creature barely seemed to notice.
“I’m not eating that glop,” Marston commented. He ridden up to see what the delay was about. He sat next to me in the applecart as we waited for the slug to finish feeding.
When every scrap of wood was slurped up, Sooma sloughed off the side of the road and disappeared into the woods. It took another couple hours to cut away the fallen trees blocking the road.
We traveled only a few more miles that day before turning off at a river crossing.
The slug meat served for dinner was as savory as a steak, a slightly fishy taste accented with dill. Marston looked at me from across the campfire and rolled his eyes, as if to admit that his earlier reluctance had been foolish.
A long moon shadow fell over me. I didn’t look up as Tomber sat next to me, his plate filled with Sooma steak. I’d never seen anyone eat as much as Tomber—none of which seemed to stick to his bones.
“By the Mirror God, Evard, even if you did not pay so generously, I would volunteer for your expeditions as long as Toug was cook.”
“You’re lucky I don’t send you back right now,” I answered.
“Sooma is harmless,” Tomber said. “It was just a joke.”
“Tell that to the pilgrim…and to Favory. I’d be watching your back if I were you.”
He grinned. “She’ll screw me over no matter what. By the end of the trip I’ll have done something to make her mad. I just decided to get it out of the way early.”
“You know what kind of woman she is,” I said. “Why do you keep coming back?”
He stopped chewing for a moment, his long Adam’s apple bobbing. He glanced down at me. “The question is…how did you manage to walk away?”
“It was that…or strangle her.”
The conversation around us got steadily louder. I’d allowed one of the barrels of spirits to be opened in hopes that everyone who was spooked by today’s incident would forget it all the sooner.
“Where did you find the slug?” I asked.
“Sooma? Oh, I discovered her many years ago when she was not much bigger than the piece of her I’m eating now. I was ambushed by some bandits while scouting the borders of the Seventh Principality in service to old Prince Stamberg. I dove into a tree well and there was Sooma. I probably would have squashed her under my boot if she hadn’t looked up at me with those cute little eyes.”
“Well, believe it or not, she was a lot more cuddly in those days. We were stuck together for several days. Somehow she always finds me when I’m traveling in these parts, and each time she’s a little larger. She seems to understand what I’m thinking, somehow. I asked her for a way across the Shield Mountains and damn if she didn’t lead me right to one.”
“What did you find?” I said, setting my plate aside reluctantly. I’d never imagined I’d eat a meal of slug--and that I’d like it.
“I traveled as far as the border of the Tenth Principality. It is possible, even likely, that there are more passes further on, but between here and there I found three possibilities. The passage Sooma showed me has the lowest elevation and appears to be the easiest. It is not far to the east from here, but of course we would still have a far distance to travel north on the other side of the mountains.”
“I’d like to avoid too much exposure to the outside world,” I said. “Go on…”
“The second pass is a sharp cut between high mountains on the other side of the Eighth Principality. It looks promisingly low, but I suspect that there are deep canyons and cliffs between the Prince’s Road and there.
“The third possibility is the highest, but the land around it appears gently sloping, and it is also the widest, which gives us some space to maneuver. It is also near the former southern border of Moregone.”
“How do you know this?”
“At the base of the pass is a small village called Inhat. The people there were far from friendly, but they found the little trinkets I brought irresistible. They remember Moregone, though I had the feeling that memory is rapidly fading. Even more interesting, they have stories of travelers from the other side of the mountains. There is even a legend of one of their own crossing over and returning.”
“I’d love to hear that tale.”
“So would I,” Tomber said sadly. “But I ran out of trinkets…and I had the feeling that it would have taken far more than I’d brought along for that story to be told.”
There was a rustle of sound in the tree behind us.
Tomber lowered his voice. “You realize that we have been followed ever since we left the Fifth Principality, don’t you?”
I nodded so slightly that only he could see it.
“You want to tell me who he is before I put an arrow through him?”
“I doubt very much you will see Seed if he doesn’t want you to,” I answered. “But for now, let’s just say that Moregone has more magic than I ever gave it credit for.”