Book I of The Last Tale of Yajakali
by Charles Matthias
|This is the fifth installment of a MK (Metamor Keep) serial. Go here for info on the MK setting|
When Shadows Part
They granted themselves little time to rest now. After Charles explained who it was that pursued them, the whole party agreed that they could ill afford another confrontation. The Runecaster was too powerful to risk facing. Even Jessica was more than happy to hurry through the mountain passes. No one knew what the Nauh-kaee had in mind, but the consensus of opinion was that once they were reunited, they would no longer need to worry.
Fortunately, the moon was bright enough that it was reasonably safe to travel. Abafouq kept Kayla close in front, so that she might help him spot loose sections of stone. The Binoqs night vision was better than a mans, but the skunks was better still. Together they found all the safe places on which to walk, even during those tense moments when the moon disappeared behind the clouds or the mountain peaks.
Jessica spent most of her time in full hawk form perched atop Lindseys shoulder, ever watching the passes behind them. Ordinarily, her eyes were of little use at night, but a quick cantrip allowed her to see just as much as the skunk. When the path wound so that the mountains behind them were visible, she always tensed and told them that the mercenaries were quickly following their trail. Clearly, Charless avalanche had done no more than delay their enemies, if even that much. For a time, the rat wished hed never done it, but he felt better after Lindsey reminded him that hed weakened their enemys forces.
As Abafouq had promised, the trail led down to a ravine between high cliffs. The sides of the ravine were worn smooth from snowmelt, so they had to don their iron shoes again to keep their footing. The ravine was only twenty feet across at its entrance, and it widened very slowly, never spanning more than fifty feet across at any time. Only an hour inside, and the Keepers began to hear the trickling of water. An hour later and they could see thin rivulets of water draining down the centre of the gully. By the end of the day they were cut off from the southern bank by a steady stream.
The water was ice cold, but it was a relief to have something fresh to drink. Lindsey even went so far as to wash his hair in one of the small waterfalls while they took a short rest. The others thought him crazy for wanting to be in such frigid water, but to the Northerner it was refreshing.
On the partys second day in the ravine, Abafouq explained that they had reached the westernmost tributaries of the Marchbourne river. The sun shone, making the walls glisten with melted snow; the water trailed down the sides of the ravine to join the stream. Though they wore their iron shoes, the Metamorians still had difficulty maintaining their balance at times. If they followed the stream and the ravine downwards, it would eventually open out into the Lanton Falls. When Abafouq and Guernef had come this way during the Spring there had been rather less water flowing in the stream. As they noted the smoothness of the valley walls, they each began to wonder whether they would have to swim.
We cannot swim in this water, Abafouq pointed out as they walked.
Jessica could use a spell of warmth now that were out of the snow and ice, Kayla suggested as she stepped around a small pool of water eddying against the current. That would help.
That is not the point, Abafouq countered. The stream looks calm here, but it will become more violent the further downstream we go.
Kayla grunted. But its not violent now. Maybe theres some way we can ride down the river? It would be faster than walking.
Right up until we went over a waterfall and crashed, Charles said without much delight. The stone had changed when theyd entered the ravine from a granite to a slate. He could see stack upon stack of thin slate sheets in the walls. Passing between each layer tickled him, but he knew better than to risk merging with the mountain again. That knowledge depressed him in a way he could not describe.
And there was something else bothering him. The thought of getting wet was distinctly unpleasant. There was a palpable unhappiness amongst the rocks of this ravine. They were being washed away, slowly but as certain as tomorrows sunrise.
Nobody could argue with the rat, and for several more minutes, he was alone with his unpleasant musings. But the weariness of travelling for nearly twenty hours of every day for the last four was showing on them all. They needed something to distract them.
It looks like the ravine walls break just ahead, James said, his eyes staring hopefully. Though what he might be hopeful for, not even the donkey could say.
Yes, the Binoq agreed distractedly, there is a defile there that feeds the stream.
A defile? Lindsey asked. Jessicas talons clutched tightly into his shoulder, though there was no sign of their pursuers. Could we find trees there?
There is a small grove, Abafouq replied as he slipped around a large stone that had not yet succumbed to the waters aging touch. They will be the last we see for a few days. We wont even be able to see much of the sky after that, I fear. We shall need to use the torches to keep moving at night.
Maybe we could make some more when we get to the grove, James suggested.
I have a better idea, the Northerner said. We can cut the bark from the trees and fashion skis to ride upon the river. They wont keep us dry, but they will keep us afloat as long as the current is not too fierce.
Abafouq shook his head angrily. We do not have time to stop and make canoes! That mage is only a few hours behind us!
I didnt say canoes, I said skis. We might even be able to make one wide enough to support you, Charles. Lindsey drew a little closer to the rest of the group, one hand gripping the handle of his axe. I am a timbersman. Ive ridden down more violent rivers than this on less. We can do this, and be on our way in half an hour. If the river cooperates, we can more than make up for the time lost.
It was obvious that the Binoq did not like the idea, nor was Charles any too keen on it, either. He couldnt imagine how a flimsy bit of wood would keep him afloat. I think if the trees are solid enough, we should take the chance, Habakkuk suggested mildly.
Are you saying that because you have had some vision? Charles snapped.
No, the kangaroo replied. I am saying it because I believe Lindsey is right: If we can use this river to our advantage, then we should do so.
Abafouq nodded his head slowly. I see the wisdom in it now. If Jessica can keep us warm, and Lindsey can help us to fashion these skis, then let us delay no longer. Charles had no desire to object any further. He could shrink down into a smaller form; if he did that while they rode the river, with luck that might be all it took.
The grove proved to be a stand of several large pine tucked at the base of the defile. Grasses grew along the slope, and they could barely see past it to a larger snow-capped peak in the distance. Charles could feel its presence looming over them, as if staring down scornfully from the clouds.
Lindsey quickly showed the rest how to score large-enough sections of bark from the tree trunks. The wood was already curved, which made it ideal for floating in the water. The only thing left was to strengthen the bark to keep it from breaking when they struck rock. Jessica was glad to provide some spells for this purpose, while Lindsey framed each wooden ski with crossbeams he fitted into the inside of the bark. Fortune was indeed with them; the only untoward event occured when Kayla accidentally cracked her ski while trying to carve notches for the crossbeams with the tip of her wakizashi, and mending this error took but a minute or so.
Ill have to take the lead, Lindsey pointed out. I assume this ravine will not be branching?
We will want to head upstream eventually, but not for some time yet, Abafouq replied as he hefted his ski uncertainly. Each ski was taller than the person it was meant for, with bracings at front, middle and back.
And well want to keep the rope tied around our waists, Lindsey added, gesturing to the coils that were pilled on the rats back. As for you, Charles, I think youll be better off shrunk to rat size and riding in my knapsack. Itll be easier that way. We can redistribute the packs quickly.
That is fine with me. I dont like the idea of getting wet anyway. Charles wasted no time in removing the travelling packs hed been carting along like a mule. James and Habakkuk were at his side in moments to help.
Soon they were all ready to ride the river. Charles poked his short snout out of Lindseys pack so that he could see; the woodsman clutched a tree branch hed chopped down. It branched at the end, and over the shorn branches hed wrapped a bit of cloth to create a paddle. He set his ski into the edge of a small pool off the stream and smiled as it remained afloat. He deposited several of the packs in the center, where his legs would frame them, before climbing in.
Charles clutched his small paws tightly against the sack and looked backwards. He was still stone in this form, but he now weighed only a few pounds. Habakkuk was in the rear with a second makeshift oar in his paws, while Jessica clutched his shoulder tightly in her talons. If the kangaroo were to tip over, she could easily jump into the air and land safely. The roo did not like that thought, but he faced it with the same certainty hed applied to everything else since they set out from Metamor: If it had to be, he would do it.
James and Kayla were less certain on their skis. The donkey kept his hooves tucked up under the forward brace, but he stared at the walls of the ravine in both awe and trepidation the entire time. The skunk drew her tail tight around her middle to keep it from being soaked in the icy water. Although Jessicas spells shielded them all from cold, no one wanted to see just how effective that magic truly was.
I think we are ready now, Abafouq announced as he settled down on his raft. He was framed on every side by their packs, and he pressed them down so tight that his knuckles were white.
Lindsey nodded and dipped his oar into the water. Charles felt the world shift; slowly, the group began to slide into the current. It was gentle enough at first that Lindsey had to row several times to keep them moving. After a few minutes, he was able to leave the oar draped across his lap as they began to glide through the ravine.
I cannot believe it, Abafouq whispered, his voice full of awe. It is actually working!
Lindsey laughed warmly. Ive done this many times with the timber crews back at Metamor. The river isnt as rocky as this, but we shouldnt have to worry about that too much. If I see a drop, Ill warn everyone.
Well probably want to pick up the skis and go around there, Kayla suggested. She let out a chirp of dismay as a bit of the cold water splashed against her paw. Her fur clung to her toes instantly.
Good idea. No point risking the skis.
Charles found himself nodding in fervent agreement.
The stream remained gentle for several hours. The Keepers began to relax, letting the weariness of the past few days ebb. James even snored at one point. Habakkuk, Kayla and Abafouq talked quietly as they slipped past the cliff faces on either side. The sky grew more and more distant for a time, and then the ridges would drop until they could see the mountain peaks on either side. Bushes and grasses dotted the ridges, and a few even managed to grow in hollows lodged in either escarpment.
A cleft in the southern face opened up to reveal another tributary to the Marchbourne. This new stream joined theirs in a steep incline. The rush of falling water woke James, who in his surprise nearly upended his ski. Habakkuk put a steadying paw on the donkeys back to keep him upright and then patted him on the shoulder.
It looks like well have to go around here, Lindsey said. Dipping his oar into the water, he rowed quickly. Everybody pull the rope taut! Zhypar, you especially. If not, you could be swept over the waterfall.
After so many weeks working together to scale ice and rock, all of them obeyed the Northerners instructions without hesitation. Soon, the skis were all drawn together close behind Lindsey. Charles pulled himself tighter within the folds of the sack as water-spray filled the air. He listened to the cascading water with interest. At Metamor, the gardens had little falls that trickled with exquisite gentleness. And he had seen in the Southlands a waterfall whose roar was load enough to deafen a man. This stream was far closer to Metamors gardens than the Darkundlicht falls.
The ski shuddered when Lindsey brought it against the bank. Charles clutched at the fabric firmly with his rock paws as Lindsey lifted it out and set it ashore. Let us move quickly. We do not know how far behind they are, Abafouq recommended. The Binoq practically leaped from his raft.
Charles climbed out of the pack and grew into his centaur-like form. As soon as his paws touched the slate stone of the ravine, he felt the interminable misery that permeated the rock. He shuddered and turned his attention to helping his friends move their packs. The path wound around the falls to a lower landing. The falls were only ten feet high, but that was more than enough to break the bark skis.
How are you doing, Jessica? Kayla asked the hawk. She was still perched on the kangaroos shoulder, her golden eyes watching the ravine. Jessica lifted her wings in a shrug and cawed once. Kayla smiled and nodded. Me too.
It looks like the river is gentle enough still, Lindsey called up from the lower bank. We can continue on the skis for a while longer.
There is not much time left to the day, Abafouq pointed out. We will not be able to ride the river after it grows dark.
Agreed, Lindsey nodded and deposited his ski into the pool. The current began to draw it towards the falls, but he stopped it with his boot. I figure weve gained at least an hour, maybe two. We can put them half a day behind us if were lucky.
Unless theyre riding the river too, James added under his breath.
It was only a few minutes more before Charles was snuggled into Lindseys sack and they were on the river again. Beyond the falls it had widened considerably; the stream was nearly twenty paces across in the wider stretches of the ravine. When it narrowed again, they were swept along faster, gliding downwards. Several times Lindsey and Habakkuk were forced to use their oars to steer the rafts around rapids that churned against stubborn rocks that protruded from the middle of the river. Charles could only feel sympathy for those doomed bits of stone.
I fear the river is growing too treacherous, Lindsey said after they navigated a particularly devious set of rapids. He wiped the spray from his forehead and breathed heavily. Tomorrow well have to walk along the banks again.
That is fine, Abafouq replied, his voice a bit shaken. The river, it will only grow more dangerous the further east we travel.
And it did. They left the river shortly before dusk and took the skis with them down the northern bank. By the time night fell, the water glowed with the warm illumination of their torches, and churned against fallen rocks and down the steep slope of the ravine. For several hours they walked with only the sound of the river to accompany them. The ravine grew deep and the walls above so close together that for several hours they merged together to form a tunnel for the river.
The Keepers settled in for a few hours sleep in a crevice of one such tunnel before continuing along the frigid river the next day. The slope levelled out some, but the water was still too treacherous for them to attempt. The brief respite from river-riding left them all sore by midday from walking over the uneven terrain. But with Jessica always watching to see if the Runecaster or her mercenaries might appear, no one was inclined to stop except to take their meals, and then only for a few minutes.
In the afternoon, the ravine descended rapidly. The waters course shifted as it wound amongst the rocks. The southern bank disappeared under the rushing waters, and Charles could feel the agony of the slate as it was slowly scraped away. The northern bank sometimes grew so narrow that they were forced to walk single file with their left shoulders brushing against the cliff wall. Abafouq had to shout to tell them that the river had been much smaller when hed come this way before.
By eventide, the ravine floor was leveling out again. Another tributary from the south merged with the mountain river, but for a time the current was calm and did not threaten to smash them against the rocks. There was a broad, and mostly dry, plateau; the Binoq suggested they sleep there for a short time while they waited for the moon to rise. Charles kept watch, but saw nothing in those few short hours. When he perceived the first traces of silver light brightening the valley walls, he woke his friends so that they could continue.
By midnight, the ravine was shallow enough that they could see the waning gibbous moon over the mountain peaks. There was nothing behind them, not even a suggestion of pursuit. Lindsey quietly suggested that they had outrun them on the river, but still they were wary.
When the sun rose Abafouq smiled and told them news that gladdened their hearts.
Today? Kayla asked again, to make sure shed heard the Binoq correctly.
Yes, today! Tonight, most likely, Abafouq repeated. I know this place. In another three hours, the river will meet a westward flowing tributary and will then turn south. We shall follow that tributary upstream. An hour beyond that junction, there will be a bridge that we will cross to reach the southern bank. By the time the sun is setting, we should be leaving the ravine. It will not be long after that we shall find Guernef.
Good, Lindsey muttered over the river. Id like to know why he left anyway.
Probably because he couldnt fit through here, James noted. One hand rested on the pommel of his sword, though Charles thought it more from practice than from uneasiness.
Abafouq shrugged. He said he had some way to help us escape pursuit. He did not say what.
Well, I am glad to hear that well be out of this place soon, Charles said, striding with renewed vigor. The thought of leaving this tortured ravine pleased him. Nor was the stone rat the only one whose spirits were raised by this pleasant news! As they continued on their way, they found themselves talking more than they had in weeks. Charles even regaled them with one of the tales he had scribed for the Writers Guild a few years ago. By the end of the story, he and his friends were laughing, navigating the fissure with only the hope of leaving the frigid water behind.
They grew quiet as the river picked up its pace. The ravine floor was dropping steadily, and the rapids grew pervasive. There was not even an eddy of calm water in the river now. The froth was brushing across their legs as they huddled against the ravine wall. Just a few more hours, they consoled themselves. That was all that they needed.
Charles heard Jessicas cry only a moment before something bounced off the top of his head. It struck hard, and he felt sure that it nicked his stone skin. Before his eyes danced a shaft of wood, spinning wildly in the air as it clattered against the ravine wall and fell to his forepaws. He turned his head and stared in horrorthere, at the top of the ridge, knelt the mercenaries, bows in handand behind them was an all-too-familiar woman dressed in purple robes!
The rat could only shout: Great Eli, run!