There was no up. There was no forward, no direction at all. Only the white. Only the expanse… and the pain.
A strong pulsing recovered Eddun to his senses and accompanied the fade of nothingness back into the here and now. The taste of copper, the smell of iron. He rolled onto his stomach, still regaining his vision, and planted his hands in the same congealed stickiness that caked to his face as he pushed himself up to sit. The throb in his head became unbearable at once, and he toppled over onto his back, the disappearing specks above finally materializing fully in front of him. Was he covered in blood? He must be he reckoned, and glanced down only for an instant to survey his body for the source before realizing he hadn’t taken note of his surroundings. A quick nod up to each side and back, all he could muster in his aching state, showed no signs of activity, so he settled back to check for damage. After some gentle poking and prodding, it appeared that the only tender area was his head, perhaps a blow from a thief who managed to stumble upon their tiny encampment, and that wasn’t even bleeding. He stopped then.
Where is Arkir? The thought made him cringe as the answer came quick and unfiltered. Dead. He shook his head and looked around again. Nobody. Just blood and the fading of darkness that signaled daylight. So much blood.
He must be dead.
Eddun exhaled hard to ward off the building panic and patted his chest for signs of the wooden pipe he had whittled for the trip ten days earlier. With the bowl already packed and scattering crumbs of dry herbs, he haphazardly brought the gnarled little sculpture up to his mouth, crunched the thin igniter rods on his leash of stones, and puffed greedily until a deep cherry formed. He made use of his time smoking by coaxing his head up several times and rescanning the scenery. It seemed as though all his assets and the majority of his companion’s were still in their place or tossed out of camp nearby. A struggle but no signs of theft. He didn’t relish pondering those options. A couple of separatist groups in the tribes, the return of the Svitiu clans from their long isolation in the East…
He shuddered as the morning sun at last peeked over the tops of the Eastern flats and stole the chill from his body. There was no sense in waiting about for the assailant’s return at any rate, he figured. Eddun stood slowly, making sure to keep his legs under him, and began to gather his belongings and considering what he could carry of Arkir’s. It wasn’t much more than a mirror of what he carried and a few personal items. No cloak. No Alwa. No companion. He shook the thought, stifled the realization that it would be him deciding the next move and not his veteran brother and refocused on his current task.
The sore and encumbered Da’Ir resurveyed the ground in front of him for the telltale scuffings and bent grass of past presence, and followed them back several hundred paces into the rockline. A dead end. He knocked loose several pebbles in his sandals with the butt of his long, curled pipe and dumped the smoldering ashes on top of them. “The first notion is not always the best bladesman, but it is usually the quickest” came Arkir’s words.
He reached into his cloak lining and pulled forth another clump of herbs to stuff into the still-hot bowl, renewing it’s glow with a few quick puffs. He would continue forward for now at least. There would be time to reconsider the way west as he searched for further signs of the trail. There were allies and amenities just a few days into the mountains, and a trip back after such a long venture out seemed a doubly-wasted endeavor if he was to report back with the news of a Keeper’s disappearance. But he couldn’t just leave a brother to whatever had left his head throbbing. A mounted messenger could perhaps be dispatched from his destination that could make far better time than he anyways – a day to find Arkir would not cost them the outcome of a simple scouting assignment.
He split off from the last signs of passage, circling out in a radial sweep but also wanting to distance himself from the potential of any afternoon activity. The path had wound its way into and around small valleys for nearly the entire morning, their greens and yellows and reds a lost beauty to the forest dweller, who only saw the treeless nuisances for what poor covering they were, then began an abrupt switch to patches of lifeless rock outcroppings before finally turning to a constant of sparse trees and shallow-rooted woody shrubs. He was being drawn further west, and while that meant the journey to the mountains was inadvertently underway, it also meant he would be facing whatever he was chasing on foreign ground.
Furthermore, he was famished. Keepers were outfitted to travel lightly, and being a rather lean member of his already rather lean people… and with a second satchel on his back, extra stones on his waist, and two bow-laden quivers across his chest… he would be hard-pressed to continue at pace without fainting from exhaustion. He placed a final scattering of the missing Keeper’s belongings inside an elegantly-stamped pouch that already held several small coins and polished gems of his former company and seriously considered his need to find food, to find meat, before the day’s end.
As this new revelation restruck a chord in his gullet, the amount of conflicting issues seemed to come to a head. He decided this, at least, was a problem he could solve. Marking his trail with a bent sapling, the Keeper paced off towards where he thought the main road might be and found instead a spring, it’s trickling stream disappearing inside a deep overhanging of mossy granite. The entire landscape was rock and boulder by now, and he didn’t like thinking about sleeping in the spindly, whippy little trees that checkered the dugout either. Reckoning it the wiser choice in precaution anyways, he crawled in as the light began to fade and settled his and Arkir’s wares about the angular walls of the dark, musky crevice. Then he found a dry spot, placed beneath his cord of stones a collection of dry kindling he’d been picking lazily during his walk, and stretched out the cloak of his caste slightly above the ground, wedging its edges into several nooks of the wall. One never knew what might crawl into the Westland caves seeking shelter from the sheer night winds.
With his camp assembled for return, Eddun re-emerged cleaned and with bow and a few arrows in one hand. The buckskin, large-stitched robes that covered the lower half of most Southern men were unfurled from their usual place above the knee down to the ankles for added protection in these heavily-stemmed thickets of underbrush. With the other hand caked in a muddy rosin of dirt, mineral, and moss, he scrubbed himself lightly, fixed a short dagger onto his waist, then set off to enjoy the last moments of twilight devoted to the hunt. If there was anything worth eating in this humid pit of pebbles it would be out now. Best not to miss out.
His people were celebrated woodsman and respected warriors, but their revered hunting prowess had found its way into the songs and stories of all the races. Often hired as trackers and wilderness guides, there was something that appealed to the basic, primitive side of their species when listening to the riveting tales of Hamon and his years wrestling the waterborne behemoths of the lowlands. Children shook with anticipation at the verse-by-verse accounts of the battle between Alahn and the grizzled, wall-crawling rochbeor. Indeed, whether due to generations of lore or centuries of living alongside nature and its whims, the people of the South were fabled for their adaptability in the most uncivilized of regions.
He set out away and upstream from his small cave until he spied a nice climb to a perch, a small grove trailing from the banks with an overhang to the opposite side, and gave it an extra-wide berth. Crossing back over downstream and hopping into the lower limbs of the strangled patch of life, he picked his way back and up towards his perch. His tree was too small, the bark too greasy. It’s moss hung too low. There was little surrounding him for added cover. The wind was fierce, but he could hardly smoke so close to his hunting hole. The silted water below him did little to show signs of life, but it didn’t reek of stangnance or death so he assumed there’d be one parched patron or another visiting soon, and before long a few small birds, ground runners it seemed, popped out of the underbrush for a drink.
For a slow few moments he sat, his breathing practiced, his stillness at one with the clumps of branches and greenery surrounding him, waiting for the big one that must be waiting behind cover for some assurance of safety – that caution was often how such animals became so big and therefore much more desirable a kill. His thoughts wandered back to the path he was trailing, to the fortune of a man who encounters such a mishap on his debut venture into the Keep’s far-reaching and clandestine world, and he felt himself becoming groggy. A snap from behind, from too close behind, sent a surge of energy through his body that put Eddun’s heart in his long, wiry throat. He crouched low, as low as he could, conforming to the branch opposite the side of the now-steady rustling, his chin scraping the puzzled together bark of the squat river tree as he breathed.
Slowly he poked his head from underneath to view his quarry. Nothing. The sounds had stopped. He waited for what was most likely an eternity, and when nothing surfaced, he slowly rolled back around and began the rather arduous contorting between branchwork to return to his original position. The face he saw then, furry and wide-eyed, and most disturbingly a hair’s breadth away, sent him into a less-than-graceful dive down into the less-than-substantial stream below.
That landing, he thought begrudgingly, looking up for his attacker while his hands unsuccessfully searched for any of the misplaced arrows, would surely leave a reminder for him to appreciate the rest of his walk West. Thwosh! He spat as the rather large canine… feline… rodent? He couldn’t decide, he supposed, rinsing his mouth with a small splash from the stream NOT dusted to the surface by their fall.
Was it dangerous? Was it edible? It certainly wasn’t acting very hostile as it clawed its way rather excitedly over his thighs when he’d settled in beside the water’s edge. Perhaps it was someone’s pet, though he had never seen anything like it before. The long face and wide maw of a wolf with pronounced, drooping canines, the bushy and overactive tail of a tree rodent, and the body and feet of the giant mountain cats that prowled the highest peaks of these regions.
And the attitude of a spoiled child, he thought, watching it sniff and nudge for affection. There’ll be no eating you, I suppose. At least one of us is up on their luck.
“Go,” he said in rough Chevalian, a word from one of the few phrases he knew, and gestured leave again in the signs of his people. No success. Not even a hint of understanding. He sighed deeply. This oversized thing, as long as his leg and as skinny on top of it, had likely ruined any chances of a hot meal for him tonight. He put his hand up in front of the big, fanged face in a fist and let it sniff. It did so for an instant before pushing past and planting into his chest to spring backwards. “What are you, ugly one” he remarked in his own tongue, sitting up and seeing now the over-exposed ribs shaking and the weariness return to the beast as its fit of excitement on seeing him began to fade. Anything he could have shot was now long gone, but perhaps whatever was chasing this poor creature had yet to appear.
As if on cue, a rustling began to grow louder from behind him, and so Eddun snatched up the fallen bow and a scattering of arrows and hopped straight up as hard as he could, hearing the footfalls close in behind him as he wound up and onto the lowest branch. He was feeling relieved in a way at the prospect of some company for the night in this unfamiliar stretch of plains and rock-choked woods. And the blessing of live bait, he thought with a cold grin, watching a large boar reveal herself and being to circle in on his exposed companion. It must have run upon her piglets in the open for her to be so bold in the face of such a foul-looking tree canine, and as such his time would be cut short. He slung his bow over a branch and tossed the arrows off to one side.
As they clattered, the sow jumped and looked over, giving his animal acquaintance the chance it needed to rush up a nearby tree, and as the big pig doubled back to charge after its prey Eddun dropped straight onto its back and plunged his long dagger deep between its shoulders. It squealed and scrambled, and Eddun rolled away, leaving the knife behind. After a few more shrill cries and a weak stagger, it collapsed in front of him to reveal the glittering eyes of his new cat-dog, the mouth below drooling greedily.
After a field strip, the walk back, and a thorough boiling and re-grilling in case of parasites, he settled into his cloak and blew on the dully smoldering coals to bring a flame from the fresh kindling he’d piled on top. Tonight they both would dine well, and tomorrow he would see if the little rodent was up to and worthy of following along; his path West would regain its momentum, and he would be at the raised beds of Ridgewood soon if he simply kept pace. Then he could be bothered with his still-pulsing head and still-missing keeper, Arkir.