Here is Chapter 10, I hope you all enjoy! Due to all of my travel concerns over the next two weeks (East Coast Law School Road Trip!), the next chapter will be in two weeks instead of one. As always, any questions, comments, or critiques are welcomed.
The Hidden Valley
Syd was true to her word, and it was another grueling ten-day before they reached their destination. For most of the journey, they kept the purple-hued solidity of the Cnoic Iaranna on their left, but in the last several days they had turned and headed directly towards them. The mountains grew in Roshan’s vision until they seemed to fill the whole world. Their slopes were covered in hard-edged conifers, and he could see more craggy peaks and ravines than he could count. However, he still saw no sign of their destination.
The party was in good spirits when Syd called a halt on their tenth night of traveling since the bandits. Since that battle, Rika and Simon had ridden on either side of Isa, ready to catch her if she fell. Her burns were such that she could not grip the reins of her camel, and she had, with much protestation, agreed to being strapped into the saddle. Her arms were covered in bandages, which Simon changed several times a day, applying a salve of his own invention, while Rika used up several crystals in an effort to speed the healing process along. However, in spite of what must be a grueling and painful ordeal, Isa put on a good front. She remarked several times that she was “sorry to have missed Roshan’s moment of triumph,” and talked animatedly with him and Rika about Fòrsic theory, especially interested in the topic of how her staff had failed, and what could be done to prevent it from happening again.
Depressingly, it looked to Roshan like the channeling crystal had failed, not through any flaw in the matrix of the crystal, but rather because it had simply ceased to be animated with Fòrsa. Even in Roshan’s and Aki’s worst-case scenarios, they had predicted a gradual decline in crystal’s effectiveness. This sudden cessation of Fòrsic ability in a crystal held sobering implications for the future of their world.
None of them had much time to dwell on it, however, as Syd set them a hard, driving pace. They travelled from before dusk until well past dawn, stopping to rest only during the hottest parts of the day. Despite the improvements in her arms, Isa was pale and wan at the end of each hard ride. Roshan felt similarly beaten down, and the whole party was on the ragged edge of exhaustion as they rode into one of the craggy defiles that led up to into heart of the mountains.
The trail climbed steeply and steadily. Hidden birds trilled amongst the thick-bowed pine trees covering the slopes, welcoming the sun. As the dawn light poured down the sides of the gorge, it revealed that they were climbing up the side of dry streambed. “This route must be impassable during the rainy season,” Roshan said, looking with interest at the tumbled rocks and boulders surrounding them.
“More passable than you might think,” Simon laughed. “The winter rains, if you can call them that, fall rarely here. These channels are carved from snow melt from higher up.
“That much snow falls?” Roshan asked.
“You Thesians are all the same,” Rika complained. “Not every part of the country has the same weather as your Alos-cursed jungle.”
“Just because Hascillis is always miserable and grey…” Isa said, joining in.
“Hascillis is not miserable,” Rika retorted, but Trentor cut in before she could say anything else.
“Ladies, ladies,” he said, condescendingly. “As accurate as your observations are, everyone knows the worst city in Dak is Crystalis.” He cast a sideways glance at Simon, “it’s why so many of them turn to soldiering: they’re all desperate to get away!”
Simon shook his head, smiling. “At least I have a city, wild-man.”
Trentor put a hand over his chest in feigned outrage. “I’ll have you know that my family carries Demardian blood back seven generations!”
“Seven generations of pig farming, maybe. Weren’t you born in a sty?”
“Be that as it may…” Trentor said pompously, and they all laughed.
Further up the slope, Syd pulled them to a halt in front of a steep section of scree. Behind them, they could see for miles over striking, rugged steppes. “We will have to dismount, and lead the camels from here,” she said, seemingly uninterested in the view.
Roshan looked around. The gully had narrowed precipitously by this point, and was nothing more than a washed through track in the rubble and stones of the mountainside. At the base of the scree slope and stretching out to either side was a large boulder field, studded with grey granite stones of all shapes and sizes. The slope itself looked impassible, a jumbled pile of loose rocks and stones. He could tell from experience, having climbed similar slopes in his youth at his uncle’s country estate at the far end of this same mountain range, before he had joined the university. The scree was steep enough that climbing it would require scrambling up on all fours, preferably in a spread out group, to prevent dislodged stones and gravel from harming the next person down the slope or starting a slide. It would be a struggle even without Isa’s arms, but the group would be able to make it to the top eventually. Maybe. However… “There’s no way we bring camels up that,” he said, jerking his head at the slope above them. “Maybe if they were mountain goats, or if we kept some of the raider’s ponies instead of turning them loose….”
Syd raised an eyebrow at him, and Trentor laughed. “Done some climbing before, have you?” He asked, jovially.
“A bit. Enough to know that if we want to keep our equipment, we had better find another route.”
“Lucky for us then,” Syd interjected, “that we are not going that way. Our way lies through there,” and she pointed at the boulder field.
Roshan peered at the field, but could discern no passage through except for scrambling up and over the boulders. “That’s even worse!”
“Trust,” Syd ordered. “There is a way through, but it is hidden. You will see,” she turned to others, “we will rest here for a bit. Eat some food and catch your breath. This will be harder than the climb. Camels, you will find, do not like enclosed spaces.”
“Great,” Isa said, grimly. “Sounds like buckets and buckets of fun.”
It wasn’t. By the time they entered the boulder field, the sun was high in the sky and beating down mercilessly. Rika considered herself to be physically fit, but pushing and shoving camels along the narrow trail, around, through, and occasionally over tightly packed boulders required a different sort of strength. The camels protested every step of the way, and, by the end, Rika thoroughly hated the shaggy brutes. She had been stepped on, nearly sat on, and crushed against the side of too many rocks to count. The latest indignity was slowly dripping down her face as she glared back at her recalcitrant charge. She’d always been told that camels spit, but she’d been unprepared for the smelly mix of bile and juices that was now saturating the top of her tunic. “I have no qualms about leaving you here to rot,” she said to the camel through clenched teeth. It was an empty threat, as she was the middle of the line. They were passing through a narrow passage between two enormous boulders, their tops coming together to block out any view of the sky. It was so dark, in fact, that Syd had ordered several of their Fòrsic lamps to be lit so that they could see where they were going. Despite the light, Rika was still surprised when the trail had abruptly turned to the right, forcing them to shepherd the understandably reluctant camels around the hairpin bend.
Trentor’s swarthy face appeared over the back of the camel whose reins Rika had been futilely tugging. He grinned at her stormy expression. “Is that this season’s new perfume, Rika? I hear that it’s all the rage in Hascillis.”
Rika made a rude gesture. “Shut your mouth and keep pushing,” she ordered, and Trentor’s face disappeared back down off of the camel with a wink. “How much longer is this going to take?” She asked herself out loud.
“This is the last troublesome section, I can the tunnel widening up ahead,” Isa answered, her muffled voice drifting back from further up the trail.
“Great,” Rika muttered grumpily. The group was strung out in single file along the narrow channel, moving the camels in a stutter-stop motion, pushing the camel in front of them or yanking on the reins of the camel behind them as necessary. All except for Isa, who was in front, and thus was only doing half the work in deference to her weakened condition. Syd was next in line, and then Rika, Trentor, and Roshan, with Simon bringing up the rear. To add insult to the whole injurious process, they’d had to shoulder most of their own packs in order to fit the camels through some of the narrower spots, and Rika’s shoulders and legs burned with exertion.
“Rika!” Syd called, “We are nearing the end. Just a few more paces. On three! One, two, three!” Syd counted, and Rika leaned her weight wearily into the backside of the camel blocking the passageway in front of her. It stank, but she sank her hands into its matted hair and shoved with all her might on the on the three count. With a grumpy, grumbling noise, the camel trotted several steps further down the passageway, the walls scraping its sides, before halting again in stubborn obstinacy. A wet smacking sound and a muffled curse from Syd made Rika smile. ‘Misery, and sogginess, love company,’ she thought.
They repeated their push-pull progress along the tunnel for several more minutes, before suddenly Rika saw space on either side of the camel in front of her. The channel was widening! She gave a crow of delight, and redoubled her efforts to drive the camel forward. The space on either side of the camel grew and grew, until she could walk abreast with it. The camel now walked forward with only Syd’s hands on the reins. Rika returned to pull her own camel forward, with Trentor pushing. As they made their way through the wider tunnel section, she heard a shout from up ahead.
“Daylight!” Isa called, and Rika heard answering crys of joy from Trentor and Roshan behind her. She herself could see the channel growing brighter, until suddenly she was out in open air with the hot sun burning down. She stood on the lip of a cliff, overlooking a small valley completely contained by the forbidding mountains surrounding it. The valley was large enough for human habitation, and she could see a patchwork mosaic of fields surrounding a central lake. She spied a town, as well -- one she recognized with delight. Turning to look behind her, she realized that the boulder cleft had segued seamlessly into a tunnel through the mountain, and she hadn’t even noticed. She turned to stare accusingly at Syd. “You could have told us we were this close!” She said reproachfully.
Syd gave a small smile, “and ruin the surprise?” She replied, lifting an eyebrow.
“A warning might have been nice, Syd,” Trentor chimed in as he joined them. “We could have taken it a little easier.” He looked meaningfully at Isa, who was slumped against the cliff face, looking wan.
She fluttered a hand at him, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said, her eyes closed. “Just resting for a bit.”
Rika frowned in concern. Even after a day as difficult as the one they had just experienced, she had never known Isa to run out of energy. “Let’s see to your bandages,” she said, trying to sound unconcerned.
“It’s not necessary,” Isa protested, but she didn’t resist as Rika knelt down next to her to unwrap her arms. The bandages came away damp with fluid. Not soaked, but enough so she could hardly mistake it. The burns themselves were like nothing Rika had seen before. She marveled every time she looked at them: three burns on each arm each about an inch across, starting on the outer edges of Isa’s palms and spiraling up to her shoulders. They were quite impressive, but very difficult to treat. Rika and Simon had settled for wrapping both arms entirely in linen gauze, which had worked thus far, but heavily impacted their amount of medical supplies.
“You’re lucky we’re almost there,” Rika chided as she applied some of Simon’s burn ointment and rewrapped Isa’s arms. “Another day or two and we’d have had to start cutting up your clothes.”
Isa opened one eye to look at her. “You’ve already reduced several of my shirts to vests. I say do your worst.”
“On your own garb be it, then,” Rika said, tying off the last of bandages around Isa’s shoulder. She made sure to include some Fòrsic crystals etched with runes that encouraged healing inside the folds of the wrapping. Rika was heartened by the fact the Isa still had use of her arms, even if it appeared to pain her at times. However, even if she made a full recovery, she would have a truly impressive set of scars.
“Are we all ready?” Syd asked. Roshan and Simon had emerged from the tunnel while Rika was tending to Isa.
“A few moments longer, I think,” Simon responded, looking at Roshan, who had slumped down next to Isa. “Not everyone is as hardy as you are.”
“Syd thought for a moment, and then nodded. She looked at the sun, judging the time with an experienced eye, and said “we will wait for a few moments more and then descend. We should still have enough light to reach the village.”
“Excuse me,” Roshan spoke up. He was looking out at the valley with interest, despite his physical weariness. “Where are we? I’ve never heard of a village in a valley like this.”
“It would be an enormous waste of our considerable time and efforts in hiding it if you’d simply heard about it in a geography lesson,” Trentor said, smiling.
“What?” Roshan sounded confused.
“Well, we didn’t personally participate, but you get the gist.”
Roshan continued to stare blankly at him.
“C’mon boy, are you thick? This is where we’ve been heading!” Trentor flung out a hand encompassing the valley and the village near its center. “Welcome to Glenn Rhúnda, the hidden valley, and the heart of the resistance!”
Rika snorted disparagingly. “Stop being so overdramatic, Trentor”. Turning to Roshan, she smiled and said, “leaving the rest of that aside, this is our home, for all we rarely see it. Your home too, if you like.”
“Thank you, Rika,” Roshan replied gravely. Rika extended a hand. He took it, and she pulled him to his feet.
“Where’s my hand?” Isa asked, and Rika laughed and helped her up as well.
They all looked to Syd, who shook her head in bemusement. “Well, if you have finished, let us go home.”
Chapter 11 can be found here.