A perilous Journey

 Chapter thirteen: a perilous journey

 At the edge of the clearing below the hill, from his spot high in a shousu tree, Chimley watched the others in their sleep.

Nolleban had taken over watching Osarius for Belladia, but he was asleep now too, the chest wrapped in his arms. Osarius awoke once, his eyes still a little fuzzy, and when he saw everyone else fast asleep he closed his eyes again. Squinting at Osarius’ leg, Chimley tried to tell if it was swollen at all. He was too high and too far away to make out this detail. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the leg were now twice its normal size, as the welts raised in Chimley’s side by the bear had swollen to nearly an inch.

Even though the lacerations had stopped bleeding, they were obviously infected. Maybe Osarius wasn’t swollen at all, because of the salve his sister had applied; he almost wished now that he had let her put it on him as well. The four longest cuts were sore to the touch, and Chimley was wary that they hadn’t healed yet. The first (and ultimately the last) blue had shaken him to the core. What animal was telepathic? What animal could use telekinesis?

What animal could be competent enough to defeat him?

It was this arrogance that had caused the injury in the first place, Chimley knew. He had thought himself better and faster than the blue, and hadn’t been concerned when he saw the huge paw swinging down toward him. He had moved too late, to his surprise, and had ended up getting nicked. He had never fought a creature so great and intelligent and had overestimated himself. Or rather, he had underestimated the blue. Chimley was aware of exactly what he could do. It just hadn’t been enough.

And also, he should have stabbed the bear with a longer knife. Maybe given it a little twist to make sure it had done the job. The reason he had chosen to sleep in a high tree was to keep watch for the one that got away.

And if it did come, he would be safe, two hundred and fifty feet up. He hoped.

Like a barb caught in his head, the thought that Xarthanias killed his bear. What’s the matter with you? was stuck fast.

Chimley tried to tell himself that Xarthanias hadn’t been fighting a telekinetic blue with graphite running through its veins, but he knew it didn’t matter. He had offered to kill the blue and said it was dead even though some small sense told him otherwise. He had thought that even if it wasn’t dead, it would be in a few minutes. How wrong he had turned out to be.

Chimley scornfully supposed that Xarthanias probably thought he was better, now. Though the young heir always thought he was better, now he had solid, evidential reason to.

Oh, how he loathed Xarthanias.

He knew that of the five of the people down there, he should be trying to fall into the good graces of Xarthanias the most. No matter how he tried to censor himself, he couldn’t contain his distaste for the heir. If he had been more like his twin, kind and humble (if not a little frazzled and sickly) Chimley could have liked him more. Chimley wanted to scream that he was the tenth, not Xarthanias! However, it came to Chimley’s mind that if Xarthanias had been gentler like Nolle it would have been harder to kill him, when the time came. He realized that Nolle would most likely have to die anyway, but maybe not.

No, it would make it easier that Xarthanias was such a priggish mule. Much, much easier.

And he remembered his plan in the first place. He was supposed to gain their trust, infiltrate them, manipulate them and then take them down. He sighed in frustration. Whether he liked it or not (and he hated it as much as one could hate a concept such as this) he would have to at least pretend to like Xarthanias. He would have to act as though he respected him, so that Xarthanias would like and trust him. It was unbelievable good fortune that he had been asked to join the Escort, and he couldn’t let the free luck go unused. Not only had he been drafted into the Island Escort, they would be going through the Volcanic Belt where he could find some Ologan spiders to eat.

Also…they would be going to Adlin. Chimley pulled the sword he had taken from the Capraiwan. “Pukwoai near Adlin.” For some reason, Chimley felt like he needed to go to Pukwoai. He didn’t know why his father had never told him about “the deal”, or what connection he had with Siyemeir, but it felt as though something essential was missing. He didn’t know where the village was, but something screamed at him to find it.

He had to take advantage of this, because who knew when his job would be done for him again? How naïve they were, he thought with a grin. How naïve. He had no practice with acting, but he was sure he could make Xarthanias believe Chimley liked him. Even if the fire of his hatred burned just below the surface.

Chimley liked the others, as much as he could like anyone besides Pgeden. They were unlike Chimley in almost every way, yet he didn’t feel his usual contempt. After their initial encounter in the woods, Belladia was proving to be different from the women his father portrayed, not stupid or useless at all. Fredric seemed like an agreeable fellow also, along with Nolle. Osarius was like Belladia in his quiet, un-self-celebrating manner. They were different from him, different from each other, and different from the people he had met in the city. Although it was only the first day – somehow – he saw no problems getting along with them. At least one thing could go without problems.

As the fire slowly died, Chimley felt his eyes grow heavier, which surprised him; he had thought he would be able to stay up for most of the night, considering he didn’t need much sleep lately. The welts had started to tingle painfully, and the leroa smoke was starting to make his head fuzzy. With leaden limbs Chimley sat back against the wide, thick trunk of the shousu tree. He couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, and he drifted off into sleep.

* * *

Fredric was the first to wake. The fire had died, and the world was lightening all around him. Osarius, three feet away on the Indian blanket they had shared, slept on, Xarthanias sprawled on the ground beside him. Upon a cursory glance in the half-light, Osarius and Xarthanias didn’t seem to have gotten any worse during the night.

Fredric scratched a persistent itch under the arm of his shirt and yawned. It was time to wake the others, but he was enjoying the quiet solitude of the early morning. They had camped on a hill in the Ologan foothills, and below shone a little stream. In the tall trees the birds beckoned the dawn with their songs, coyotes howling their final howls. The peace made the hardships of the day before melt away, and he felt like he was floating on a cloud of bliss as the sun poked out and coated everything with gentle gold dust…

Except for that awful itch!

It was everywhere, his ears, under his clothes on his legs, arms and stomach. With a soundless snarl Fredric dug his fingers under his shirt to scratch his shoulder, and stopped himself from yelling out only by a hair’s breadth.

He had touched something slimy and squishy, and it had moved.

Cautiously, he pushed himself into a sitting position and slowly peeled off his athimus shirt and the white shirt underneath. He looked down at himself, and by the light of the rousing sun he saw the Csilean red onion worms, steadily eating away at his skin.

“Disgusting!” he exclaimed to himself, wrinkling his nose, when at once he was hit with the significance of their presence.

Distant descendants of Csilean snow worms, red onion worms were thus named for their appearance to strips of red onions: unsegmented, white on their bottoms and deep purple-red on top. Long ago, centuries before Despartus was colonized, the regions of Pessola, Csilead, and northern Wespiser, where the snow worms lived, became too cold even for them. They gradually made their way south to Geneya, Valota, Despartus, and Rena. Some settled in the Volcano Belt where coralite erupted, and they adapted their colour to hide them from predators among the wine-coloured volcanic rocks. The snow worms that adapted this way became known as red onion worms.

Through his mild repulsion, Fredric didn’t understand what they could possibly be doing here, hundreds of miles from the Volcano Belt.

Red onion worms aren’t as dangerous as their descendants, the parasite-like snow worms that bore through the skin and lived inside the body; red onion worms simply eat away at top layers of skin and hair. Fredric nonetheless didn’t want them dining on him. After picking off as many as he could, he woke Belladia, Xarthanias, and Nolle. They yelled and danced around, looking like fools until they saw Fredric hysterical with laughter. He assured them that the worms weren’t deadly, though they were skeptical and Belladia asked Xarthanias to pick them off of her so she wouldn’t have to touch them. Fredric couldn’t decide if Belladia’s look of horror and disgust was funny, since she was such a fair and gentle girl. 

They helped each other pick the worms from their backs. Fortunately, the globs of salve on Osarius’s leg and Xarthanias’s back seemed to have repelled them, and his wounds had been left alone. Having improved during the night, his only side effect was a little fatigue. He looked even more nauseous than his sister as he pinched the worms between his fingers and threw them, wriggling, off the hill. Fredric laughed at their squeamishness, even as he worried over their presence. First the Pessolanian blues, and now the red onion worms. Both were species that were never found farther than a kilometre from the Volcanic Belt, and they had so far seen two blues and over a hundred of the worms. It didn’t make any sense.

After the worms were gone, Fredric and Belladia fussed over Xarthanias, then Osarius.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,”they both insisted, waving them away. With Xarthanias, it was an obvious lie. He could barely stand up, and when he did, he had to sit down again after five minutes, glaring spitefully at everyone. But Osarius seemed to be doing better. As well, Fredric could barely feel the swelling on his friend’s head. His leg was well on the mend, and Fredric admired his stitching. The skin was only a little pink and shining with salve. Osarius stood up and hobbled around to show them that he was all but healed. “Thanks, you two, but I think I can look after myself now. This is hardly the worst injury I’ve had.”

“Remember when you fell on your own knife during training?”Fredric recalled with a grin.

Osarius thumped him on the side of the head. “You pushed me!”

Nolle gazed at the smooth palette of the sunrise, and then to the north, wondering what everyone at the palace was doing. Mara and Spar would have left Thalys at Mara’s parents’ house a little while ago, and Mara was probably helping Toora with breakfast. Spar would begin watering the potted plants in the south garden, and work his way clockwise to the rest of the eight gardens.

His father and mother would soon be up to get on with their daily governing business. If Nolle had still been at home, he might have worked on the painting he was making for Belladia, hidden under his bed. He would never give it to her, of course.

Though he had brought along his journal, sketchbook and pencils, he was beginning to doubt the journey would allow him any time for indulgence.  Unlike trips with his parents, now he could not drift off into his world of images and words. Sighing, Nolle turned from his home to help his friends.

“Too bad we didn’t save them,” Fredric said. “They make excellent salad toppings. Look just like red onions.”

Belladia shuddered and glared at him. Her hand was much better, and she brushed back a wayward wisp of hair. “Don’t be so vulgar, Fredric, because we would make you eat it all. Speaking of which, let’s have a quick breakfast before we head off. Could someone go and get Chimley?”

Fredric volunteered. He wanted to see what else was going on with the forest, and he wasn’t quite sure which tree Chimley had climbed up anyway.

Descending their hill and crossing the swollen stream that wrapped around it, where the horses rested, Fredric entered the forest. Even from up on the hill, the tops of the trees were hard to see unless you lied down and looked straight up. Knowing they had to hurry but wanting to make a few observations, Fredric examined the perimeter of the woods as he walked, using the tracking skills he had learned in Pilgrimage training to scan for small animals and scrutinize them. He found nothing out of the ordinary. Satisfied but still puzzled, he abandoned the inspection and called out for Chimley, walking slowly forward. Water rolled off of leaves every minute to drop down on him. The clean aroma of the woods brought life to his senses, clearing any early morning drowsiness. He searched for Chimley with his mind and continued to call his name.

A mumbled answer came from behind a bush a few feet away.

Fredric peered around the bush and was startled to see Chimley, sprawled in the thicket, with a white face and unfocused eyes. Fredric remembered the strange fact that Chimley had no essence. Chimley’s white shirt was stained with blood from the day before, and his cloak hung in a branch just above them. Broken twigs lay around him like sentries.

“What happened to you?”Fredric shook Chimley’s shoulder when his eyes fluttered shut again. Jolting awake, Chimley tried to spring to his feet, but only managed to jerk upright. He squinted at Fredric, fingers splayed over the bloody rip in his shirt. Fredric repeated the question.

“I guess I fell out of the tree,” Chimley replied, mind groggy and heavy with sleep. Fredric realized that he had never heard the boy’s voice before. It was soft and quiet, and reminded him of someone. Slowly, Chimley stood, clutching his side, and almost spilled to the ground again. Like he had done with Osarius, Fredric pulled Chimley’s arm around his shoulders and propped him up.

“Must have been some tree,” he said with a grin, though goading the young warrior was ordinarily ill-advised. Surprisingly, Chimley tried to return the smile even if it looked more like a grimace. “Belladia will have to fix that,” Fredric continued, indicating Chimley’s side where he knew the bear claw cuts were. “They were infected after all, weren’t they?” Chimley nodded weakly.

Belladia’s eyes widened when she saw Fredric, hobbling toward the camp with the sick boy almost passed out, slumped over to accommodate Chimley’s lack of height. The first thing she thought was that he presented another delay in the journey, but she quickly pushed away the callous thought and sent Osarius to help them up the large hill.

“It’s those cuts, isn’t it,” she accused. Chimley could not even nod, for he was half-unconscious again. “Here, lay him down. Take off his shirt. Nolle held Chimley up while Fredric removed the bloody shirt. Belladia sucked in a breath when she saw the welts, inch-wide and inch-thick, four of them that ran from his chest to the top of his right hip. They were a toxic green colour, and the tightened skin looked as though it would burst. She shook her head grimly and asked for a sharp knife.

Chimley opened his eyes as Belladia positioned the knife near the welt over his heart.

No!” he yelled, backing laboriously away on his elbows. His eyes were wild as he took in the knife. You can’t kill me! There has got to be something you can do about the cuts!

Belladia stared at him for a moment, and then laughed softly despite herself.  “No, Chimley, I was not going to kill you. Your cuts are full of infection that needs to be drained, or else you will die. Come back over here, silly.”

Fredric chuckled, eyes dancing, even though it really wasn’t something to laugh about. For a moment, Chimley’s face flashed such searing anger that the laughter died instantly, those dark eyes sucking him down into an endless burning pit. It was only for a moment, but when Chimley recomposed himself, Fredric felt faint. Chimley smiled as though sheepish, and wiggled back to Belladia. His eyes were half-closed, shy, though only moments ago they had been tunnels of death.

“This is going to hurt,” Belladia informed him, but did not give Chimley a chance to take a breath before she made a quick slice with the knife, following the ridge of the infected cut perfectly. A scent like rotting carcasses exploded into the air as the cut burst, spewing green puss and little trails of blood. The skin seemed to deflate, relieved of the pressure; it looked as though a discoloured furrow had opened up in Chimley’s side. Belladia poured water from a flask over the cut and then wiped away the runny infection with a cloth from her bag. She then applied dijadui leaves into the cut to draw out more of the infection. The cut wasn’t very deep and didn’t need stitches, only a thin coating of salve. Belladia repeated the process with the other three cuts, and as she worked, Chimley came to, becoming more alert. He did not seem to be in pain from the slashes Belladia was making, he only looked silently on. The first three cuts were all but perfectly healed by the time she finished dressing the fourth, and they all stared at his almost flawless new skin.

My father has been feeding me special herbs since I was a child, he offered by way of explanation, back to using telepathy again. No one commented on this.

“I am glad that you are feeling better. Do you think you can walk?”asked Fredric, leaning back on his heels.

Of course, said Chimley, jumping to his feet and performing three cartwheels, followed by a series of backflips. “I feel as good as new! Belladia, you are a miracle worker.” She gazed at him in astonishment, smiling slightly.

“We really have to go,”Fredric prodded. “Xarthanias, how are you feeling?”

They had all but forgotten about him, watching them from a few yards away. He looked a little pale. One hand rested on the rockwood chest. “I can walk too,” he replied, waving off their dubious looks, “and definitely ride.

Good, good, so everyone is feeling better, quipped Chimley irritably. Can we go now? The day’s almost over.

Belladia sighed, and Nolle rolled his eyes. It was true, though. There was no more time to waste. It was day two, and they were nearly a day behind already. They downed a few slices of bread and a handful of berries each with a swallow of shagar, refilled their water flasks and rounded up the horses. After filling Belladia’s bag with potentially medical spoils from the forest and gathering the remainder of their things, they mounted. Fredric helped Osarius onto Covah. Belladia’s eyebrows drew together at the look of pain her brother tried to hide.

Getting Xarthanias onto Shimmer was considerably less of a picnic. He had troubles even putting one foot in front of the other or raising his arms. They could not support him by pushing on his back. After nearly half an hour, Fredric made Fang lay down so Xarthanias could get on. It was still painful to watch his face as he tried not to scream with every motion. Fredric mounted in front of him, and Fang struggled on her slender legs.

No one was willing to trust the packhorse after yesterday, and so Nolle strapped the chest securely behind him to Ribbon’s back. Though she was irritated at the extra weight, too much was at stake to make any accommodations for any but the direst reasons.

Fredric led the way, down the hill and into the forest. He kept his eyes open for anything strange in the woods, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. It was as if the bears and the worms had been a fluke. They rode on at a steady trot for hours, and as they went along the ground began to slant upwards grow less soggy. Shimmer, riderless, followed happily, tossing her head and kicking up her legs.

After almost two weeks, the trees became farther and farther apart. Chimley slowed down in his swift swinging. Soon he had to run behind them. Bright flowers decorated the new underbrush, catching the sunrays and throwing them back in dazzling colours. Osarius also caught sight of a flock of beautiful red birds, though no one else looked in time to see for themselves. There were other birds, too, blues and yellows and startling green, and butterflies in unlimited rainbow colours. Seeing this, the uniformly green forest they had left behind seemed flat and stifling in its homogeneousness. The air grew cooler and more humid, prompting the riders to remove their capes. Their athimus clothing was meant to be heat resistant, but the humidity crept along their skin and under the clothing, making it seem like an inferno; most took off their outer shirts as well.

“We will be coming to the Larentac Falls in a couple of days,” Fredric told them,“or the Ologo Falls as some people call it. All of the falls feed the South Ologo River.”The watery roar of the distant falls grew. “The crossing will be difficult.”He showed them the path over the rocks from which the falls fell that they would have to take, single file. “And then, the Arid Grasslands.”

At the same time, Xarthanias and Osarius grew stronger. Xarthanias was able to ride on his own, even though it still took him nearly ten minutes to get on. Osarius could almost walk normally. The travelling grew steadily steeper, and the trees in their path lessened in number. Beside them to the right they grew taller than they had ever seen, and so thick they couldn’t see three rows in. It became evident that they were following a path, obscure though it was at the moment. The easiest way through the trees curved and twisted, and soon they found that the ground had turned to sandy-red stone. The gentle thump of the horse’s hooves was like drumbeats to the active tune of the forest life. The air was sweet with promise as they continued forth, even as the forest seemed to melt away. All was going well thus far.

Coming to a single line of closely packed trees that blocked the view of the roaring falls, they passed through one by one, disappearing to the other side. Chimley, the last to go through on foot, emerged into the blinding sun to find that everyone else had stopped cold.

At the horror that lay in front of him, even invincible Chimley shuddered in fear.

They had emerged near the top of towering Larentac Falls, the all-consuming mouth of the Ologo River laid out below like a shining gift that no one wanted. To the right was a sheer cliff drop bordered by impossibly tall trees reaching for the sky from the ground that seemed miles away, and to the left was a sheer rock face punctuated by springs and minor falls. A narrow, dizzying ridge path started a few feet in front of them, hugging the rock face and disappearing around a sharp curve. Over the edge of the ridge was the drop into the rushing river, too wide, too deep and too fast to cross. The ridge path was divided by a series of water paths coming from large tunnels cut into the rock that were too depthless and dark to see into. Where the water poured over the side, the edges of the ridge were rounded to slopes angled toward oblivion. The spray that spumed into their eyes stung like pepper juice. From above them at the top of the rock face stretched the main falls, succeeding in covering every inch of the ridge path with slippery mist. The impenetrable curtain of water shaded the ridge path, making it perilously dark.

All of this would have been fine if not for the fact that there was no way around or over, no way to go except forward and on.

“This is nothing like what you showed us!” Osarius accused of Fredric, whose shock was double that of the others. Fredric had traversed this path across the Larentac Falls several times with his father throughout his life, and never had the rock face been so close to the edge of the ridge; the ledge that had been three feet across the last time he had seen it was now little more than a foot and a half wide, and the water was flowing faster than ever from the tunnels. Even if it had been four years, he couldn’t perceive such a drastic change. He looked forward and saw all of their deaths; he looked backward and saw at least nine days delay to climb back down and find a safe way to cross the Ologo River. The river flowed even faster at the top of the falls, and he couldn’t remember if there was a way to get back down again, since it led away into the mountains.

He shook his head, feeling small and lost. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he replied.

…if only for the sake of staying above the depths of despair…

The deleterious drop was certainly the ultimate depth of despair. What goodness could be found here? What advantage could be taken? Fredric turned from helpless to calculating in less than a second as he tried to see past his blinding dread to the heart of the matter. Forward was the only way, so how could they cross?

Was there even a way?

“Of course there’s a way,” he snapped quietly. “Goodness to be found in everything.” His sudden blind faith in his mother’s wisdom was all he had to hold on to in that moment. The fact of the matter was that they could get across, in theory, if they used the utmost extreme caution. The slightest fearful misstep would plummet them to their demise, if they didn’t smack their heads on rock ridges on the way down to the un-crossable river.

One step at a time; that was the only way.

“That doesn’t change anything,” Fredric said to Osarius, and then to all of them: “We are still going to have to cross. You see that box?”He pointed at the rockwood chest. “That box means that we have to cross, because going around would mean never getting to Aghyml in time. It would mean war and destruction. Our country Despartus is counting on us to get that box to Queen Avalinia! Fear has its place, but not amongst these dire circumstances! There’s no point in going back; either we try or we all die, there’s no way around it. No way around it at all.” The double meaning of the words rang like bells in his head, dizzying and resonant as the truth became clear.

Though there was undeniable reality in Fredric’s speech, the possibility that they would not make it to the other side of the falls pulled them down already. The drop to the river was such that even Chimley wouldn’t survive if there were rocks at the bottom. He didn’t know how his father would continue on the mission without him with his frazzled and nearly useless mind. Chimley despaired that he would not get to be a real prince after all. Silently, Chimley bid his father goodbye, along with the mission, because now that he and the heirs to the throne would be dead in minutes there was no point in the crusade anymore.

Osarius and Belladia thought of their parents but mostly little Daymial, who would be eleven in four months; before leaving, they promised her they would be back long before her birthday celebration, and Belladia cared not about her death but about a broken promise to her morose little sister. Osarius and Belladia both said goodbye to her in their hearts.

Nolle and Xarthanias glanced grimly at each other, exchanging rueful thoughts: It’s been good with you, Brother.

And finally, Fredric, shaking despite his brave words, said farewell to his father, and smiled because shortly, he would be joining his dear, dear mother.

And so it happened that each of the five riders dismounted from their horses and clutched the reigns tightly in quivering hands. They donned again their shirts and capes and Chimley flipped up the hood of his cloak. With a final glance at the sun showering them with golden light, the waterfall mist stinging their eyes, they stepped one at a time into the gloomy passageway.

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