“Old man, what’s that up there?”
“You call it that? What is it?”
I frown. It’s a broad gateway high on Thumb Hill. It’s made of tan stone, carved with shapes as old as the Thumb itself, flanked with squared-off pillars and wrapped in cords as wide as I am tall. The binding cords reach up, twined together at the tip of the gateway, and then on beyond our sight into the sky. We can see it from anywhere in the valley, Thumb Hill and the Unfoundary.
“What is it?” the young stranger repeats.
“We call it the Unfoundary,” I reply. “You must not be from around here.”
He shakes his head, which is covered in wavy brown hair. “I’m from the east. Trinlos.”
“Ah, a city. I’ve been there before.”
“You have?” Surprise, perhaps respect. “You traveled a long way, old man.”
“Us both. I hope you didn’t come to see the Unfoundary only, but we don’t have much anything else to see in our valley.”
“You have forests, and snow,” he says, glancing around past the edge of the village. “I’m traveling further south, but I like your village.”
“Fortune to you, then,” I say with a slight bow.
“Tell me, though, what is this Unfoundary? It must be as wide as your whole town!”
I can’t tell whether he means to compliment our scenery or insult our size. “I’d stay off the hillside, if I were you. The Unfoundary is an evil place.”
“What’s evil about it?”
“It’s a place where the dead go–where people sometimes go to die.”
His face shows interest, curiosity. “Trinlos is superstitious, but I didn’t think you westerners were as well.”
I shrug my shoulders. “We stay alive this way. And safe.”
The young man’s intrigued expression fades as he shifts his haversack and stamps his feet for warmth. “I’m not sure how much I believe of your superstition, but it’s interesting, to say the least. Good day to you, old one.”
I grunt. “Safe travels.” What I wouldn’t give some days to travel again. It’s been fifteen years since I so much as climbed the side of the valley.
The day is calm and white–early snowfall from a blank sky. Most of the village stays inside their huts, pungent smoke filtering out through fire holes and the occasional opened door. I see my friend Onór at the side of her hut watching the traveler go.
“You talked to him?” she asks me.
“Yes. He’s from Trinlos–did you know I went there once?”
“Where haven’t you gone?” Onór asks with a faint smile. “I think you’ve had too many years with not enough work to do.”
Perhaps she’s right–I’m five years older than anyone else in the village–forty-five older than most. Some of them have never left the valley. Most have never left sight of it, never seen a city or a sheer mountain or the sea. It’s strange to be the old one.
“Where’s he headed to now?”
“South,” I reply. “Probably looking for money.”
“There’s no riches worth leaving a safe warm hearth for this time of year.”
Onór sees my eyes following the traveler onto the forested slope of the valley. “Oh, did you want to go with him?” she asks dryly. “Poor old dog. I think your travels are done now.”
“Maybe,” I say again, with an idea shaping in my mind.