RAZE - a weekly fantasy web serial

RAZE – 027 – The Forest of Haruk-Wei

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My guide turned without waiting for a response and started away. I stood for a breath, watching after him, and then called “Do you think to test me in some way?”

He looked over his shoulder without slowing, with a finger to his lips. “I said it’s alright to speak here, but let’s have less shouting, perhaps.” He jerked his head toward the top of the cliff. I glanced up, then to my stick, then back to him. He had moved further off. Trees and ferns had already stolen all sound of him and his Sunshadow warriors. I opened my mouth, shut it, threw up my hands. “Something dangerous is up there?” Again, he looked back at me and put a finger to his lips, and then he was gone.

For that day I was alone. Even when the sun was high, I found myself slapping my arms for warmth. I found a nice place against the base of the cliff and moved away the branches and rocks. I took cedar boughs and mounded needles and made a bed and a shelter of deadfall and spreading black boughs. It was like my time in Kalughnor. Laying boughs across the frame of my little lean-to, I remembered the snowy land I had called home for so long. I remembered my castle there, the one I defended from Vasily Avosha Brobov. The one I promised, and never delivered, to Ivanyaska. As I placed the boughs, I remembered Estevo, as he was, and how we had laughed and drank our last together in Kalughnor.

I cleared a space and dug a small pit for a fire, knowing I’d need it. I spent some time finding three smooth stones, about heart-sized. I took my time in choosing, for there is peace in such an act. I found many candidate stones and discarded them one after the other. Some had sharp corners. Others were porous, volcanic or perhaps oceanic, and would not do. Others, well, I simply did not like their color. One, which I remember, was deep gray at a glance, but on inspection was blue and turquoise, like deep water, with strands of white too fine to notice coursing between the grains. It was smooth, egg-shaped. In the right light, held just so, sparks flashed within it, flakes of quartz that sang for an instant in the sun.

Gray.

Around that time, three of Askuwheteau’s people came through the forest. The two women and the man arrived in silence, but not so quiet I didn’t hear them coming. They brought an elk skin, a few items of food, a stoppered skin of water, and a smaller one of wine. They peered at me, pretending not to. They stared and when I noticed they flushed and looked away, their mouths thin lines, their eyes black. They nodded in half-bows.

“Good afternoon,” I said, in the custom of Ulara. They responded in their own tongue, and so I didn’t know what they said. A middle aged woman, handsome, with many braids and a scar on her nose and cheek, spoke for the three. She used a hushed voice and said something of the food and skins and repeated herself a few times. She patted the wineskin and tapped her own body, at the top of the belly just below the ribs, then grinned. She seemed proud. I nodded and tried to give the impression that I understood.

I raised a hand and then indicated the top of the cliff. I tried Ularan, then Narsal, without success. “What is up there? Why don’t you speak in the southern forest?” Again I pointed to the top, and this chilled their moods. The curiosity that had become amusement returned to tight-lipped seriousness. The woman lowered her voice further. She pointed, seemed to remember herself, and made a sign over her middle, a sign the other two repeated. She spoke again, no longer pointing, voice grave. She said what sounded like “Haruk-wei,” said it again, and again the three made the same sign over their middles.

“Yes, up there. Haruk-wei.” I pointed to the top of the cliff. “Haruk-wei, what is in Haruk-wei?”

“Haruk-wei,” she repeated. Once more, the three made their sign of observance or homage over their middles. She cautioned me. I understood so much. They left.

I sat down for a time and contemplated their sacred forest above me. I had been in many places of silence before. Monasteries. Palace halls. Back home in Serehvan, no one speaks in the room set aside for a dead person, and there is a vigil for one day without speech. This is so that no spirits are confused when they come to take the dead to the Docks, to set off down the Last River. Speech might distract the guiding spirits and strand the dead as a ghost. Had they held such a vigil for me, along with Punam, when first the Lonireilans took me?

So they didn’t want shouting near their forest of Haruk-wei, I thought. Fair enough. The signs they had made over their bellies made me fairly certain I was near a place of religious import.

I made a small fire, they way I had been taught in Toji: with a string to make a sort of bow, with which to spin a  stick, within a mound of pine needles. I placed my three smooth stones near the fire and drank most of the water and ate. Flat, nutty bread. Mushrooms, soaked and cooked already in some kind of rich, mouth-watering fat. Salty ocean fish on skewers, and a yellow lump of rock-sugar I am certain was brought from Ulara.

I tried the wine. It was clear, a little bitter, with a taste of juniper, but sweet on the back of the tongue and in memory. The cold wine cleansed my throat and sang in my stomach, a little fire of my own inside.

When it was dark, I stared up at stars that I knew, but not from this place. My childhood constellations were so far south I couldn’t see all of them. I remembered so much. I remembered Green Skive. Sitting alone, with nothing, what else can one do but travel within?

Weariness came to me and when I tried, and failed, to stand, I recalled that I had been shipwrecked that morning and chuckled to myself. So much for a rest after Red Kharcos, as I had promised myself. So much for plans. My bones would appreciate the sleep.

I retreated to my lean-to with my stones and covered myself with the elk skin. One stone I tucked beside my feet. Another by my ribs. The third, the blue and turquoise with the white webs, I held wrapped in a bit of my ragged blue cloth in my hands. I gave mental thanks to Prella for her teachings, imagined her sarcastic response, smiled, and I slept, and I was very warm indeed.

*   *   *

 

My eyes opened. I could see everything despite the moon-dappled dark, but more importantly, I could hear nothing.

The ashes of my fire were dead out. My stones had cooled, and so I knew it had been some hours. The wind was dead. No night creatures stirred.

I slipped from my lean-to, despite the chill I would be taking on, and crept a few paces from the cliff. Even using all my craft, the sound of my feet on cedar needles and soft earth was deafening, and so I went still. In that silence, my heartbeat became thunder, my breath rushing waves.

It was in the silence that I felt, more than anything, a greater quiet. It was not silence. It was an emptiness of sound, a taking in of it. It was silence made elemental. This void was above and behind, and so I turned and looked to the rim of the cliff and, for the first time, looked upon Haruk-wei.


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