Pathfinder's Way(8)

By: T.A. White

People’s sense of direction tended to go screwy and the distances played mean mind games. Sometimes you traveled further than you intended, and other times it was as if you’d barely moved.

There was a crash, and Dane rocketed past Shea’s narrow perch. He grunted as he caught himself on a particularly hard boulder.

“Is there no other way besides falling down these infernal hills?” he growled. “No, you can’t even call them that since they’re nearly as steep as the cliffs.”

“Going down a cliff would be easier,” Witt said as he slid past, snagging an exposed tree root before he could careen out of control. “At least then, we could simply secure a rope to something and slide down.”

Shea stepped off her perch to slide to her next target.

“This is the path we’re taking,” she informed them once she had stopped.

“Even uphill would be better,” Dane muttered. With a vexed groan, he leapt, then slid, to his next tree. He crashed into it and nearly bounced off before grabbing hold.

“If you have time to gripe, you have time to move faster,” Shea returned.

Internally, she echoed their frustration and agreed, the only thing worse than having to climb up a mountain was having to find the way down it.

It would be all too easy to break something tumbling down the steep terrain, and none of them needed the added challenge of an injured companion.

She just hoped the mist held off until they were safely back in Birdon Leaf.

The mist was a bedtime story parents told their children to discourage them from wandering off into the untamed expanse. Only, as any person who’d spent time outside the well-crafted towns could tell you, it wasn’t a story. It was real and very dangerous.

Even Shea’s parents had told her stories when she was young, though for her, they’d been less of a tale and more of a cautionary warning of what waited for her out here. Her parents had told her of brave pathfinders and their charges who were swallowed by the mist, never to be seen again. No one knew where they went or how it happened. One moment it would be the sunniest of days and the next, the mist would have swept every living thing from the area, wiping it clean.

Oh, the villagers dismissed such stories as superstition or a gambit to squeeze more money out of them. They’d only ever felt the very edge of its power. You could only experience the true horror of it in the depths of the wilds.

Shea felt a slight shiver, thinking of the mist she’d experienced only a handful of times. That had been more than enough.

The other danger they faced were beasts, which were thick on the ground up here. The Highlanders originally used the term to describe predatory animals, but over time it had come to mean anything that didn’t fit with society’s notion of natural.

There were many types, so many that it would be impossible to list them all. The secondary part of Shea’s position was to catalogue beast habits, territory and hunting patterns and give settlers advice on the safest ways to deal with them.

Too often people didn’t listen.

That’s when they died.

Shea looked at the sun, judging it to be near midafternoon. Time to call a halt. She’d timed it so their journey put them next to a small mountain spring. Since they weren’t carrying a lot of water, they needed to replenish at every opportunity. And, they could use a short break.

Witt nodded willingly enough and dropped his pack. Dane looked like he might argue, but in the end kept his opinion to himself. He must have been more ready for a break than she’d thought.

As the others caught their breath and refilled their canteens, she pulled out her map, comparing the scribbles on it to the surrounding land.

She gazed out at the landscape sprawled below her. No matter how many times she saw it, the lonely beauty of the wild back-country always managed to rip her breath away. It made her pause for a moment, secure in the knowledge that she was just a tiny piece of a greater whole.

It was the sort of view that gripped the soul and said ‘see? This is what it’s all about.’ Moments like these made dealing with the land’s hardheaded inhabitants bearable. Most of the time.

“We’re making good time.”

They were, in fact. Much better than she had anticipated. For all that Dane was a peacock, he had stamina. Though the question remained: could the group hold this pace? Should she start looking for a place to make camp or push on and see if they could make it to Bearan’s Fault by nightfall?

Continuing after dark increased the chance of someone falling and breaking something, further slowing them down, or they could disturb one of the red backs. Shea wouldn’t be able to see well enough to know if they were straying too close to their den.