Chapter 11 One man’s offal is another man’s harvest.
–Icari Jundin, mushroom farmer * * * Benjin woke them early. When he checked on
the health of the unconscious soldier, he seemed almost relieved the man had died in
the night. He and Chase dragged the dead man from the cavern and hid the body with the
other. When they returned, Benjin examined the pile
of armor and weapons the soldiers had carried. He took a short sword, belt sheath, and bracers
for himself. The sword had a black leather handle and a decent edge–not a fine blade
but good to have. He motioned the others over and began to distribute the dead soldiers’
belongings to the rest of them. He gave Chase the other short sword, belt sheath, and bracers.
The boots went to Strom and Osbourne to replace their lighter shoes.
Catrin asked for one of the belt knives left in the pile, and Benjin handed her one still
in the sheath. She was hesitant to discard her old knife and decided to wear both, not
wanting to abandon the old one with the broken tip.
Osbourne pulled the other soldier’s knife from its sheath; Catrin expected some sort
of noise when he unsheathed it, but it slid free without a sound. The wicked-looking blade
curved slightly before the tip. Its upper edge was serrated, and it had a straight edge
on the bottom. He pronounced it perfect for him.
“The plan is simple,” Benjin said. “We travel north and go straight at the approaching army,
but we stay high in the mountains. Once we sneak past them, we will turn east, toward
the desert. Perhaps we’ll get lucky and have foul weather to hide us, perhaps not; either
way, we’ll need to be ready to take cover at all times. Keep your eyes open for places
to hide as you may only get a moment’s notice. We could go due east from here, but I fear
those passes are heavily guarded. As outrageous as it may sound, sneaking past the army is
probably our safest choice. “I doubt the patrols will be this far out
by first light. We need to get to the next plateau soon if we are to avoid them,” Benjin
said, and he set out at a breakneck pace. When they crested a rise, Benjin paused and
strained to see into the distance. “We should be able to see the falls from here, but I
can’t make them out,” he said. Catrin and the others squinted in the predawn light,
but visibility was low. “I think they are still a long way off,” Chase
said. Benjin nodded. “Let’s go. We’ve no time to
waste,” he said, heading off at a brisk walk. As they drew closer, Catrin saw the falls.
They did not seem as grand as Benjin had described them, barely visible in the distance. Perhaps
they had been larger when Benjin last saw them, but she wondered how that could be possible
when this was the rainiest spring any of them had ever seen.
They froze when Benjin hunched down and signaled them to do the same. “I thought I saw something
moving in the trees,” he said after a few moments. “I think it’s clear, so let’s move.”
As they neared the base of the falls, the banks of the river came into view. “Above
the falls there is no eastern shore. The river runs along the rock face. We’ll need to stay
on the west side for now,” Benjin said. As they came closer to the river, they were
surprised by what they saw: the water level was extremely low, the flow muddy and sluggish.
The water was well below the normal watermarks, and they estimated it was less than half what
it should be. By the time they reached the base of the falls,
the sun was high in the sky, and Benjin said he planned to use the sun for cover. They
would climb the jagged cliff wall while the sun was high, which would make it harder for
soldiers to spot them with the sunlight in their eyes. He found a place far enough away
from the falls for them to remain dry, and there were many irregularities in the rock
face, which would make for an easier climb. Their ascent was slow and tenuous, irregular
rocks providing some handholds and footholds, but in many places they were widely spaced.
In some instances they had to scale the nearly sheer face with little, if anything, to grab
onto. When they finally reached the plateau, they did not find the river they had been
expecting and instead saw a muddy lake that covered almost the entire plateau. Chase spotted
the cause of the flooding near the top of the falls. The recent storms had downed a
large number of trees. At least a dozen had been swept away by the river and were creating
a dam just before the falls, where the river narrowed. Only a fraction of the water flowed
past the debris; the rest continued to flood the plateau.
A narrow ribbon of land separated the newly formed lake from the cliff, but it was clearly
saturated. The valley beyond the plateau was completely swamped by the backed-up river,
effectively cutting off their escape. “Cripes,” Benjin said, “we’re going to need
to find a way around this. Stay alert.” An enormous rock finger jutted into the air above
the valley. Skirting the lake, they plodded through the mud, which threatened to remove
their boots with every step. At times they walked through ankle-deep water. Around the
rock finger, the soil border was less than a pace wide. The promontory was slender and
appeared fragile, warped and twisted by eons of windborne sand.
“Stay back. I’m going out for a look,” Benjin said.
“You aren’t really thinking of walking out on that rock, are you?” Strom asked, incredulous.
“That thing looks like it could fall at any moment, even without your weight on it.”
“It’s been here for thousands of years, and I’m betting it’ll be here for thousands more;
its frailty is only an illusion.” Benjin crept onto the rock; the winds whipped
around him, and he was nearly blown off. He caught himself, but the movement sent rocks
bouncing into the valley below. “I think we’ve been spotted,” he said. “There
are soldiers below, and they are climbing toward us. We need to retreat as fast as we
can; we must go back the way we came. I don’t think we’ll be able to get through the flooded
valley without ruining our food supply or drowning.”
Catrin sat to one side, absorbed in her thoughts, and with every moment her anger grew. The
Zjhon threatened everything she held dear. Struggling to think of a way to stop the approaching
army, or at least hamper its progress, she stewed, biting her lip. Benjin interrupted
her thoughts. “C’mon, li’l miss, we need to get out of here.”
Catrin wondered if she was making a mistake; then she recalled the words Nat had written:
“Embrace your role as the Herald. I implore you to use the divine gift you have been given.”
She considered those words, and they urged her to act.
“No,” she said in a firm voice. “I will not run from this challenge, and I will no longer
tolerate these invaders of my homeland.” “What would you have us do, Catrin? I am yours
to command,” Benjin said, shocking everyone. He knelt in the sodden soil and bowed to her.
Chase, Strom, and Osbourne stood silently. Catrin considered her next words carefully,
not knowing what she was going to say or do. She looked around her, and the muddy water
brought back a part of Nat’s message, one line in particular, and she said, “The water
shapes the land.” “I want you to dig. From here,” she said,
pointing to the soil around the base of the finger of rock, “to here. We need a trough
from the dry to the wet, and it should be as deep as possible.”
“What are you talking about, Cat? We don’t have time for this; we need to get out of
here,” Chase said. “We cannot run anymore, Chase; there is nowhere
safe to hide. I choose to fight,” she said, and she began to dig with her bare hands as
Benjin loosened the soil with his sword. All but Chase began to dig, but he soon crouched
down along with the rest. The trench grew quickly, the sodden soil making their work
easier. “Stay on the north side of the trench,” Catrin
warned. “But we need to go south to escape,” Chase
argued, looking at a massive fist of rock that blocked their path and would not budge.
“Just dig around it,” Catrin said, following Chase’s gaze. “The trench need not be straight.”
As they dug their way closer to the water, the ditch began to flood, and they continued
to dig from higher ground. As water began pouring over the cliff’s edge, Catrin and
Benjin looked over to see what was happening below.
A few soldiers watched from the valley floor, but most were scaling the cliff face in an
effort to reach them. Catrin and the others watched the water move through the ditch,
eroding the soil around it. Deeper and wider the trough grew, gradually sending larger
amounts of water into the valley, but it was not enough; it was happening far too slowly
to make any difference. It mocked their meager effort, and helplessness washed over Catrin.
She watched the flow intently, seeing tremendous potential energy latent in the calm water,
and she knew there must be a way to unleash it. Without realizing it, she opened her mind
to Istra’s energy and attempted to ply it with her will. She started by trying to push
the water over the edge, hoping to make it go faster, but the water repelled her.
Any force she exerted on the water became fragmented, scattered in a hundred directions,
and her efforts had no visible effect. Her frustration flared into anger, and she turned
to the rest of the group. “Go north. I’ll catch up with you soon.”
“But, Cat–” Chase began, but she cut him short.
“If you value your lives, go north. Now!” she said in a commanding voice, despite her
fear. Her legs trembled; her face flushed and nostrils flared; her heart pounded in
her ears. Chase and the others headed north, frequently looking over their shoulders. A
strange feeling came over her as she watched Chase walk away. So many times she had followed
him on his adventures, but now she knew she must stand alone. As she embraced the energy
around her, she prayed she would not unwittingly create another disaster. The lives of her
friends now rested in her hands, and she was determined to save them.
With confidence born of every lesson her father and Benjin and Chase had ever taught her,
Catrin moved to the finger of rock. Its base had been exposed by the modest flow of water
that rushed by, but she strode to the end of the finger, seemingly oblivious to the
winds tearing at her. Doing her best to keep from trembling, she spoke in a voice that
carried across the Pinook Valley. “Armies of the Zjhon! You are not welcome
here,” she began. In the next moment, though, she panicked. No more words would come; her
throat was closing. She was no hero; she felt like just a little girl. Old fears constricted
her heart, and she nearly fled, but then, in her mind, she saw the faces of Benjin and
Chase and her friends. With a fire burning in her belly, she renewed her commitment and
tried to find words befitting a great hero. “I am the keeper of this land, and I forbid
you passage. Retreat now, or feel the weight of my wrath!” she said, and her statement
carried on the air to the soldiers below. They laughed at such threats coming from a
girl, and Catrin turned without another word. She strode back to the edge of the widening
trough, gazing at it a moment more before moving north. Some fifty paces away, she stopped,
hoping Chase wasn’t right. Maybe she had lost her senses, but it was far too late to turn
back. She would have to endure the consequences of her decisions and actions.
Facing the cliff, she felt the heat of her anger toward the invaders, and it purged her
fears. Her body quivered with energy as she gathered it and pulled it to her, reveling
in its glory. She could smell its fragrance and taste its sweetness, but a searing pain
in her left thigh distracted her for a moment, feeling as if her limb were on fire. She ignored
it and drew in a deep breath, letting the soldiers’ laughter feed her rage.
“You bear witness to the Call of the Herald,” she announced. “I have warned you, and you
have mocked me, and you will suffer for that.” She clasped her hands high above her head,
energy swirling through her fingers and dancing over her palms. It pulsed around her. She
brought her hands down in a powerful arc as she shouted, “You will not pass!”
When her fists struck the soil, a huge shockwave sent ripples of power through the plateau
with a massive, echoing boom, and the land pulsed as if it were liquid. Waves of energy
rolled away from her. The floodwaters transferred the energy as waves crashed against the irregularity
of the far cliffs and returned to punish the saturated shoreline. Unable to withstand the
power of the water, large sections of rock and soil were dislodged and pushed into the
Pinook Valley. As tremors shook the ground beneath her feet,
Catrin ran toward her companions. The massive chain reaction gained momentum, and the thunderous
roar became nearly unbearable, but even in her retreat, Catrin was compelled to witness
what she had wrought. Water crashed around the finger of rock, carrying gobbets of dirt
and rock away with it, and with an ear-shattering crack, the rock slumped forward and leaned
into the valley. Water rushed in eagerly to fill the gap, and a tremendous roar reverberated
through the valley; Catrin watched in disbelief as the finger of rock tumbled away in the
deluge. In a massive release of potential energy,
water assailed rock and soil, and the cliffs parted. Gravity pulled the water into the
valley, and the din of a massive rockslide accompanied the rush of the fall.
Rock and debris clogged the valley, and a towering wall of water rushed to greet the
main body of the advancing army. Cries of man and horse rose above the din, but Catrin
had no time to consider what her senses told her as more of the plateau began to collapse.
She fled the devastation and tried to catch up to the rest of the group, already moving
swiftly north. The Upper Chinawpa Valley, which lay ahead, drained quickly, and muddy
shores rose from the depths; there Catrin’s friends stopped to wait for her.
Unsure of what to say, she approached them tentatively, half expecting them to tell her
she was crazy or leave her behind, but they welcomed her silently.
Chase grabbed her in a bear hug. “I’m sorry I doubted you,” he whispered.
Benjin held up his hand to speak. “You have followed me, but I can no longer lead you,”
he said. “I’ve heard the Call of the Herald, and I will go wherever she leads me, I will
do what she asks of me, and I will lay down my life to save hers,” he finished, bowing
to Catrin. The others made similar vows, and Catrin was
left to stand in wonder. She’d had no preparation for this, and she did not know what was expected
of her. She knew that she was leaving one reality and stepping into a new existence,
and she was unsure of the consequences of this new power.
Finally, Strom broke the uncomfortable silence. “I’m just glad Catrin’s on our side.” * * * Sweat dripped into Nat’s eyes as he scrambled
down a craggy face. He climbed with a mixture of haste and care. His experience urged him
to exercise caution, but his instincts told him he must flee. The Zjhon were close–closer
than ever before. Already he had been near enough to see their eyes. Using his staff
to steady himself, he climbed past an awkward outcropping.
When he reached the narrow band of greenery that stood between the base of the mountain
and the sand, Nat cursed. He was starving and exhausted. After giving up on finding
Catrin, all he had wanted was to get back to town, to find some way to get to Miss Mariss
and food. The need for food and water was sapping his strength and his sanity. Several
times he had found himself wandering without any idea of where he was going or where he
had been; all he could remember was that he needed to keep moving.
Suddenly stopping, he realized he’d done it again. Ankle deep in sand, he turned and only
the mountains behind him gave him a sense of where he was. What he saw when he lowered
his gaze made his location seem irrelevant: half a dozen mounted men were heading straight
for him, and there was little Nat could do but wait for them to arrive. Maybe they would
give him food, he thought, but what was left of his reason suggested it was unlikely. Turning
away from the Zjhon, back the way his subconscious had been leading him, he walked. When he raised
his eyes again, certain the Zjhon would overtake him at any moment, he was confused to find
that he must have gotten turned around again, for before him came riders in a cloud of dust.