Fin left for home after bringing us as far as Desert Landing.We boarded another trade vessel the next day.
It seemed like it had rained every single day since we had left.
The passengers aboard commented how they had not seen storms like these in years.
For our first true voyage together, it had been an easy choice: the place of creation.If this was to be our last, or only trip, it was the only true destination that mattered.
We could not safely go through the barrens any longer, not with our tribes pitted against each other.Of the other ways into the mountains, this seemed the safest I could think of.Not that it would be easy, but then again, nothing ever was.
Bleak Port lived up to its namesake.Even with a break in the rain, it was gray and dismal.The harborage was haphazardly built out and among the rocks into the sea.The water churned against the stone relentlessly.Cool and dark, the rest of the village sat in the shadows of the sharp peak behind it.
We disembarked to a few cautious looks, hard stares, and turned backs.Not much had changed since the last time I had been here.These people were survivors and did not hold much stock in anything other than themselves.If you did not keep up, you perished.
As I had expected, there would be a group going inland to the oasis, also as I had expected, no one either cautioned us off or invited us along.
“Cheerful lot,” Leaf mumbled.
The only tavern was next to the dock, a concession to the traders.We fell asleep to the sounds of crashing waves.
The following morning, we woke, prepared, and went to wait near the edge of the village and trail inland.
The sky remained gray and cold.The sun existed, I knew it, but it was hard to imagine it ever shined down on this place.
Three, solid, old carts pulled by a few drooping horses started out and we followed slowly.Once away from the buildings, I felt better.The bare ground gave way to grass and a few stunted trees making things feel alive.I braced myself knowing it would not last.
As we went uphill and the sky became visible, unblocked by the rocky mount that kept the port in darkness.
Once the trail began to level out, it got easier to walk on.It slowly turned back to stone and rock and the grasses were silently left behind.The renewed grayness of the ground dulled the expanse in front of us.The desolation was not colored by the blue sky above.Even the bright sun could not change the appearance of this desert of rock.
“Who is that?”Leaf whispered in our language.
I looked and saw a man walking by himself.He did not speak, but none of us really were.Still, he looked isolated.He was by his complete self.A dark hood and cape hid him.His face was invisible in the folds. What I noticed quickly was he made no sound on the rock as he walked.
“Thief, assassin, rogue.Shunned.” I whispered back.“Stay close.”
“You think I can’t take care of myself?”
I smiled inwardly.Maybe he did, but I did not want to find out.
The man never approached anyone and kept himself separated.
There was nothing to look at and we trudged all day in near silence to a way-point where we would spent the night.It was merely a junction of roads, nothing else.The rocks made for an unpleasant bed.
The sun brought little relief from the grayness when we began again.I could not help but hope that the oasis would help break the depressing atmosphere as it had all those years ago.
When we saw the trees in the distance, my heart lightened a little.The color of green and life raised my spirit.We would make it well before the sun set.I turned to look at Leaf.He was smiling.
I caught movement nearby.The man’s hood had been brushed aside by the breeze.A gloved hand had pulled the cowl forward again before I could get a look at the man’s face.I instinctively changed my step to keep between the man and Leaf.
It seemed brighter under the trees than under the open sky.Our moods were lifted, our pace quickened.
The oasis was a mid-sized pond with trees and huts ringing it.Small rivulets drained in from all the stone surroundings.There was simply nowhere else for the water to go.No walls guarded this place.It was a place for anyone to gather.The wagons were greeted by the townspeople.We were left to ourselves.
My people, like many other races, had a small area set off to ourselves and we went there.I saw no other former-Bullmen like Leaf and the hostile stares at him began to bother me. I pulled him away and back toward the common areas.
He questioned me with his expression.
“Something to show you.”
I led him around the lake.Quietly, we made our way out toward a place I knew.We walked a long time before the trees parted and we came between two hills.One the far side, we stared down onto the boneyard.Patches of rock, bone, field, and beast were illuminated from the sun at our side.
“They come to die,” I whispered.
Indeed, there were bones here and there scattered before us in the prairie.A few of the beasts lingered grazing the grasses.
“When it is time.They die here.”
He shook his head.
“They come back.Honor the dead.”
I did not know what else to say and stayed silent.He scanned the scant fields.Indeed it was a rare, if not unique place.The beasts roamed freely among the bones of their ancestors.They knew they had a history and remembered it.This place was a source of life and death to them.
He was enthralled.He watched and studied everything.He was like a child learning something new or one seeing a great wonder.
Darkness was coming and we had more to do.I tapped his shoulder. He jumped and turned to me.I motioned for him to follow.Outcropping by outcropping, I traced my steps into the pasture to a place I had not been is years or maybe a decade.
“Watch for them,” I whispered to Leaf and pointed across the field to the beasts.
The place I had buried was roughly in the center of the space between a stone and a pile of bones.
I saw what I thought I remembered as the rock, but the bones were not as I remembered, then again they would not be I reasoned.
I pulled a short shovel and began to dig where I thought right.I heard Leaf fumble with his gear and saw him pull the necessities for a torch.
“Will the light be alright?Will the beasts get spooked?”
I shrugged.“Could use the light.”
I dug down.It seemed to be taking longer and I was getting deeper.
I shook my head.“Not sure anymore.”
He held the torch higher and turned to look back the way we had come from.When he did, he bumped and tripped on a flat stone.He stayed upright but the light fell to the ground illuminating the rocks.
It hit me.The other side of the stone, the one he had tripped on.I had buried in the morning, not at dusk.I was on the opposite side.
While he picked up the light, I changed sides.I tried to dig down faster to make up time for such a stupid mistake.
“Take it easy.We can stay here all night if you need,” he whispered.“I am not leaving you.”
I looked up to Leaf’s smiling face then jammed my shovel in again.Not even three more loads down, I hit the stash.Although the sack was no longer useable, the coins inside were fine.Leaf’s eyes widened.
“I know you have these… but how can you… how do you…?”
“Doing long time.Only what I need.”
He shook his head.“Let’s get back, I am getting cold.”
“All night ?”
He grinned and pulled me up by my arm.
We slept in the common area of the oasis.Far from either of own people.
The sense of heaviness had returned almost as soon as we had left the oasis and the long day slogging past rocks and barren landscape was spent in near silence.Two days until we would break off from the rest of the pack.Two days until we would be alone again.Not that it did not feel like that already.Occasional gusts of wind followed us and we made our way forward.
The day had not been uneventful.We had a few families with us this time.The children played with each other, chasing one another between the wagons.Only a few times were they reminded to stay quiet.I thought of the kids and their children back on the farm.I could not help but wonder what they would be like.I wondered if I would never know.
I glanced at Leaf.He scanned the horizon.I wondered why he had come.Sure he must know the odds of getting back safe and sound.I had thought it clear.He had a home; he had so much more to return to, someday.
We slowed and made preparations for the night.We were in a place of low hills now.The mountains were visible.
The men seemed unsettled. A single fire was lit.The children were quiet.The wagons sat close to one another.
Even late into the night, some of the men stayed awake and on watch.Leaf dozed, leaned back on a wagon wheel.
In the distance, there was a small flash of light in the hills.Nothing really, but odd.I watched and did not see it again.The sky was a solid cloud.The moon was dim behind it.No stars penetrated the darkness.
Without warning, the rogue came past me.Way too close for my liking.I moved to grab my short sword.Without even appearing to look at me, he held his hand down to tell me to stay mine.I could now tell from the position of his hood, he was not concerned with me.He was scanning the distance to the left of us.
I slowly stood and watched with him.Sure enough, there was a faint glint in the darkness.
I tapped Leaf on the shoulder.He woke startled, as if from a bad dream.
“Quiet.Warn the men.Danger coming.”
He nodded and slid silently under the wagon to get to the family on the other side.
“How many…”I began, but the man was no longer there.The only thing remaining was his dark cloak in a pile on the ground.I did not know what he intended to do.
I heard the talking behind the carriage and silently cursed them for being too loud.
“What next?”Leaf whispered, suddenly next to me.
“Don’t know.Can’t see.”
They had picked a good night with the moon mostly hidden behind the overcast sky.Still I could make out a half dozen at least just before they re-concealed themselves behind a mound.I pressed us back against the wagon while trying to figure out how they planned to attack.
I didn’t have to wonder long.
I heard a shout and a boy’s cry from the opposite side of the wagons.They had struck from two sides.
The sound of the first sword hit appeared to signal the men out by us to stand to come running in.The side of the hill they were coming from moved all on its own and collapsed on a few of them.Partially distracted, three or four blundered forward toward us and the sound of combat on the other side of the encampment.
The first one or two did not see us against the wagon.I ran one through and smashed the second in the face with an elbow.Families from the other side began pouring out and away from the chaos into our own battle.
Leaf fought one man, sword to sword, while I continued to dodge the violent slashing coming from another.A girl ran past me, was knocked on the side of the head, and fell to the ground.I whipped my blade into the face of my opponent and he grabbed at his eyes long enough for me to bring my weapon back down on his shoulder.
It seemed there were more enemies suddenly.The fleeing families had brought them to us.The brawl had spilled over.The travelers were fighting back but it was slow.
A young man, small sword in hand, ran through and into the chest of one of the raiders who raised his sword high.Suddenly there were bright flashes in the sides of the head and neck of the bandit and he staggered and fell forward.The young man ran as the raider came down with the rogue on his back.Once on the ground, the man stepped off the dead bandit and pulled a set of daggers from the sides of his vest and stalked towards his next victim.
I turned to face another one.At first, I thought it would be easy.He was rough around the edges, but his blows were strong and knocked me back.I thought my weapon might break.I looked for an advantage.
I let him chop with his sword until I was back up against the side of the carriage.The next blow, I ducked and let his weapon hit the unyielding wood.The shock of his arm being whipped back unbalanced him.I hooked my foot behind his leg and he fell back and gurgled.
“Bastard…”Leaf grunted and let him drop to the side.He huffed and puffed as he pulled his sword from the dead man’s back.
We prevailed that night once the shock had worn off.In the morning, those who were not hurt, were helping those who were.Leaf became the caring doctor once more.
As the sun rose, I walked around to search for survivors and drag them back to camp.The rogue walked among the bodies as well.He searched one and pocketed something.I found one frightened girl crouched behind a rock and pulled her up.She was still in shock and I pushed her into the arms of another man to bring her back to the group.
The rogue was once again at the side of a man on the ground.He pulled two daggers from each side of the man’s neck and sheathed them in his vest.
He looked up and saw me looking at him.He was fully bearded, hair all long and dark.Dark eyes set on a dark face.I saw rows of daggers lining him.He bent and pulled his cloak up.Without any hesitation, he concealed himself within the garment.His face disappeared into the folds of his cowl once more.
We finished getting what we could from the bloody night, mounted the wounded as best we were able in the wagons, and set off.No one wanted to be caught out for another night.The children did not play or laugh or have to be told to be quiet.
Leaf made himself useful among the carriages.I walked behind.The rogue walked directly behind me.
We did not stop at midday at all.
Before sunset, we came to the fork in the road, the one I had been dreading.The wagon train began to drift to the right-hand side.They were making their way to Eagle Point and safety.We were going to the mountain pass.Once again at my side, I prompted Leaf to stay with me and keep walking toward the less trod path gently curving to the left.Just when I thought we were going to go it alone, one wagon strayed away from the pack.A few little hands waved to and from it.
We kept going and followed the lone wagon into the foothills.
“At least we are not alone,” Leaf whispered and nodded forward.
I shrugged and glanced over my shoulder.The rogue was still following us.He was as silent as the stones.
We were deep in the pass when the wagon slowed to a stop.The driver jumped down and looked back at the three of us.He was an enemy of my tribe, I was an enemy of Leaf’s, he was an enemy of Leaf’s, and we were all enemies of the rogue.He shook his head and slowly approached us.
He put up his hands.“Evening…” he spoke common.“Don’t want no trouble.Hoping we could look after one another tonight.”He looked among us.
“Of course…”Leaf stepped forward.The man involuntarily stepped back.Leaf smiled to me.
Late in the night, I woke to Leaf’s light taps on my arm.I yawned and stretched.
“All quiet,” he whispered.
The man leaned on the wheel nearby, his family no doubt draped all over the wagon’s interior, he was nodding off.Across on a low rise, the rogue sat in an erect trance position I recognized.Kjartanei had said while not completely awake or asleep, he could still get rest and put off deep sleep a week at a time.
Leaf rolled under the cart and immediately nodded off.
In the light of morning, things changed as we crossed into the pass.The grays and blacks of stone transitioned to browns with patches of green.Although the slope was a little more than gradual, we made good time as far as my memories could recollect.
Mid-day the pass opened up with real soil and brush.The children talked in hushed tones.We kept close behind, not for any other reason but that we could.Without warning, trees appeared everywhere and we found ourselves winding through them.
At dusk, we saw the lights of torches.It was another caravan already stopped.I was not surprised, I knew there was a junction of trails this way.Soft music played.The man jumped down and walked the horses and wagon slowly ahead to greet them.We hung back a respectful distance to allow them to greet each other as ones of the same race would.I hoped at least to get a nod or two along with toleration for the night at least.
The man came back to us and relayed that although we were appreciated, we were not the most welcome.He blushed and looked away.
“Surely, we can stay nearby?”Leaf questioned us.
“Of course,” the man began, “… just not within the circle.”
I nodded, not too bad.
He handed me some rations.“Thank you for watching out for us.”He nodded and turned back to his own business.
I turned to the rogue and handed him some.His gloved hand extended and returned to the folds of his cloak with a portion.Nothing said.It was payment accepted.He backed a pace or two away and rounded the camp away from us.
Leaf and I walked over to a tree at the outside edge of the firelight and sat to eat.
“What do we do now?”
“Sleep.On our own tomorrow.”
We were alone.Throughout the morning, the forest was quiet but for the birds and the occasional wind through the trees.Throughout the afternoon, Leaf talked as if we were back on the farm.We moved off the path at night and into an open space behind the trees.With no visible animal tracks and not near the trail, the darkness was peaceful and undisturbed.
The slope had increased and our going was slow.I had hoped there would be some type of sign of which way to go.This was all new territory to my eyes, it all was since we had watched the caravan pull away.Around two days walk from that intersection, we had been told.I knew enough that by following the rising ridges to our sunrise side, we would be brought close, hopefully close enough to find the rest of the way, pick up a trail, or find an obvious landmark.
At the dawn of the third day, I could not help but to think we were lost.Leaf politely avoided discussion about where we were when he spoke.He walked with me with a loyalty I had rarely ever known.
About mid-day, it occurred to me to turn back.We were high up now and the walk back, going downhill, would be much faster.If we kept going ahead, who knew what we would run across?The rations were low, but manageable.We had not seen a lot of animals, but the odds were no longer in our favor.
Dusk began to fall.The trees opened to a small meadow.The sun showed very low in the sky over the trees.The moon, just rising, dimly appeared over the ridge on the opposite side.
“Wait,” Leaf said and touched my hand.It was the first he had spoken in what seemed like hours.
“A moment.”When he released my hand, I realized he had been holding it.
He simply faced the moon, knelt on the ground, and began to worship his patron.I looked around us while I waited.
The clearing was small, nothing unusual about it.I tried to look above the trees beyond to look for bearings, anything to tell us where to go.I scanned the surrounding canopy in a circle, starting with the moon above Leaf.It shown above the ridge behind, no sign of life on the peaks when we should have seen something of the place of creation.I turned and followed the sky and the leaves, nothing.The sun was indeed lower when I faced it, still high enough for time to make camp somewhere.
I returned my stance to Leaf.He was still on his knees with his arms up to the moon.His head was still bowed and even though his back was to me, I knew his eyes were closed.
Above and between his hands was the moon.Cold, distant, and freshly awakened from its daytime slumber.I could feel the sun on our backs.His hair moved with a breeze I felt a few seconds later.It rippled in the light and I felt another gentle wind.There was a stone visible past him.It was below the moon, above his head, and between his hands.It was square, unnatural.I walked past him and straight to it.
The stone was straight and taller than either of us.The faces were hand-worked and smooth, except one side.The graceful symbols of the sun, moon, and an arrow adorned it.The arrow pointed out of the clearing and towards the ridge at an angle.
I felt Leaf touch my shoulder.He had been answered once again.I smiled and nodded for us to follow the sign on the stone.