Sunset blazed above Gold Ridge Valley in north Emelan, throwing shadows over a company of mounted riders.  At the head of their train a bannerman carried the personal flag of Duke Vedris IV, ruler of Emelan. The duke himself rode behind the flag, surrounded and followed by his staff, guards, and friends. Smoke drifted through the air in veils, stinging everyone’s eyes. They had been riding through it for two days, watching it stretch over pastures and fields. Now at last, as the company entered the forests that filled the northern half of the valley, they began to rise above the thick air.

At the very rear of their column rode three girls and a boy, all mounted on sturdy ponies. When one of the adults, a woman in a dark green habit, stopped and dismounted from her horse, they also drew their ponies to a halt and watched her. She climbed out of the sunken road and walked several yards under the ancient trees. A big dog with curly white fur who trotted beside the four detached himself from their group and followed.         

“Little Bear!” called Daja Kisubo, a tall, broad-shouldered black girl. “Let Rosenthorn alone. Come back here.”        

The dog Little Bear obeyed. When he reached the closest rider—Daja’s plump, redheaded friend Tris—he sat, stirring the road’s dust with his plumed tail.       

“Rosethorn?” asked Briar, the boy. “Is everything all right?”        

“Just stay put,” ordered Rosethorn. She picked up a sturdy brnch and began to dig in the heavy litter of tree leaves and decaying wood underfoot. “I’ll be there in a moment.”        

“That’s not what I asked,” Briar muttered to the girls out of the corner of his mouth. “I asked if everything was all right.”

Daja turned her mount. From this small rise she could look through a gap in the trees.         

“Daja? Are you all right.” The voice belonged to the third girl in their party, Sandry. Everything about her, from her pony to her clothes, spoke of wealth that the other three young people did not have. When she turned her mount to see what had caught Daja’s eye, Briar and Tris did the same.         

In the distance, where ridges of open pasture faded into the base of the southern and western mountains, long bands of sullen orange fire shone. Daja shook her head, making her eleven short braisds flap. “It’s like something from a nightmare,” she replied. “It looks like what the Traders call pijule fakol.”       

Sandry shivered and drew the gods-circle on her chest for protection. She knew Trader beliefs. “The afterlife for those who don’t pay their debts,” she muttered.