In which Jägerson enters Autumn Glow and finds everyone’s words confusing.
Have you ever had the experience of noticing something you had never noticed before—maybe a four-leaf clover or a fossil or the like—and then within minutes noticing another, and an hour later realizing they were literally everywhere, hundreds of them all around? If not, you really should try to have it; it’s a marvelous thing to realize the world has always been full of these wonderful things and you just didn’t know how to spot them before.
After the jumping things had passed them by, Jägerson decided to follow the centaur as the latter walked north. About two hours into this walk Jägerson noticed a lone pixie flitting by. Thirty minutes later he noticed a satyr lounging at the base of an oak. Fifteen minutes after that he suddenly realized that there were fey creatures everywhere, all around him; nymphs dancing in glades and sprites dropping glitter on trees that looked remarkably like faces, mice holding serious conversation and gnomes laughing together. It was not that they had walked into an inhabited area of the forest; it was just that all the sights and sounds had previously blending with the forest colors and noises and he was only just now understanding how to pick them out.
The centaur walked in a determined straight course but changed directions every few miles—never big changes, just a slight turn to the left or the right, but noticeable to an experienced woodsman like Jägerson. None of the creatures seemed to pay Jägerson any mind, and none said a word he could understand.
He trailed the centaur for more than an hour after noticing the pixies and whatnot. Somehow in the past few hours he had also walked from summer into autumn, and a perfectly beautiful autumn it was too. He had now been walking for the better part of the part ten hours; his trail rations were keeping him going but he was conscious of a distinct weariness in his legs and feet. He was about to give it up and take a rest when he saw what could only be called a fortress.
We have seen this fortress before when Ghost approached it. Where Ghost saw it as a ring of majestic maples that also served as a wall, Jägerson saw it first and foremost as massive picket. He had visited capital cities of warrior nations surrounded by walls smaller and less daunting than this. True, the branches and leaves above the main wall would make scaling the wall easy, but they would also provide ample cover for any archers defending it.
To Jägerson’s surprise, the centaur did not join the stream of people entering by the vaulted gateway dead ahead as they sighted the city. Instead, it circled to the left, all the way around to gate on the far side of the fortress. The sun was setting as the centaur entered this northern gate, conversing with the centaur guards and gesturing Jägerson to follow.
The inside of the city was breathtaking, beautiful, celebratory, magical—in short, utterly terrifying. Beauty, in Jägerson’s experience, was always a front, a lure, a distraction, a disguise; and more often than not it was flat-out bait. This was a city where some person with unbelievable power had decided to apply the best makeup in the universe to cover every inch of every building and inhabitant in a lovely facade. If you are trying this hard to make beauty (and succeeding; he had to admit they really did succeed) then you must be hiding something truly awful underneath.
The centaur didn’t lead Jägerson very far into the city; maybe a hundred paces inside the wall it gestured for Jägerson to enter perhaps the least deceitful-looking building around and then it led the way inside.
Here, at last, was a sane looking environment! Solid walls, homely chairs, signs of wear, a bar. The occupants were—well, not normal, but at least not decorative. There was an ink-skinned white-haired man with bloodshot eyes, a lion-man with plenty of lion-sharp teeth, and a short bald lady with more muscle than the entire staff of bouncers at the Midnight Crow.
After exchanging words with the centaur, this peculiar trio each addressed Jägerson in a series of languages—must have been close to a dozen between them—but none were like anything he had ever heard. There were clear signs of frustration and some actual pantomime beginning when a nymph walked in the front door. She could only be a nymph; even in the city of magical beauty she stood out like a flame at night. Not that she seemed to care; she wore a simple peasant’s smock and kirtle and was otherwise unadorned.
“Oh, what have we here?” she asked in as unaccented and natural a voice as might be.