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2. Stoney Creek
JERRICK WOKE JUST PRIOR TO dawn. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he found himself alone. The fire, its surviving wood charred and cold, had not been rekindled. He listened for last night's wind, but heard nothing. Still, it was cold, and as Jerrick draped his heavy cloak around him, he heard a laugh, lighthearted and cheerful, resounding from outside the tower. The laugh was followed by a succession of barks.
Jerrick walked down the tower's outside stairs to find Murik seated upon the Looking Stone, an elevated, oblong-shaped rock so named because it provided the best perch from which to observe the surrounding landscape. Ash sat next to the eslar, his ears perked, tail wagging, and tongue hanging unceremoniously from his mouth. They each sent visible breaths into the frigid morning air. As Jerrick shuffled to the base of the Looking Stone, Murik smiled down at him.
"Good morning, friend."
Jerrick grunted a reply.
"I tried not to wake you. Do you wish to join us?"
"Me and Ash need to be on our way."
"I see. But the dawn will be here momentarily. I'm sure it shall be a spectacular sight. Surely the road can wait a few moments longer."
Looking to the dark sky, Jerrick saw the first colors creeping over the horizon. Murik was right about the view being spectacular. How many years had it been since he'd witnessed it? Too many, he decided. This journey was one of recovery and restitution, not urgency and haste. The road wasn't going anywhere. Jerrick clambered up to join them, pushing Ash aside as he sat. The dog padded to the other side of Murik and seated himself once more.
The sun's rays touched the western peaks first, morphing them from dark, hulking mounds into majestic, snow-covered mountains. As the sun continued its inexorable rise, the great shadow cast by the eastern range receded to reveal a wide, wooded valley far below. At its center, Jerrick saw a meandering river carving its way through a sliver of a canyon. Densely packed pines spread out in waves from either side to climb the surrounding mountains before giving way to barren, snow-capped peaks. To the distant north, misty clouds floated over the horizon as they gently brushed the mountaintops. Snow covered all, the sunlight casting a heavenly sheen of orange across valley, mountains, and trees alike.
Jerrick thought of Kendra, who had enjoyed waking before dawn most mornings to witness the rising sun and the splendor it brought. It had been her favorite way to start the day. That morning, she had been sitting on the porch with her morning tea when her water broke. From the very start, they knew something was wrong. Kendra had screamed such awful sounds. He'd been in the barn. When he heard her, he ran to the house, thinking to do … he didn't know what. In the end, he was helpless to do anything other than hold his wife's hand and watch the life drain slowly from her eyes. Their child was dead before it ever left her. The ruin it left behind became his wife's doom. You killed her. He remembered those words more than anything else. There were things he should have told Kendra. Secrets he buried, thinking they no longer held weight. He'd been wrong.
Jerrick found his admiration of the morning's beauty replaced by an acute sense of loss. He sat there for a time, staring out into the vast expanse, trying to think of nothing but always coming back to his wife, their child, and what could have been. Beside him, Murik remained silent. Finally, Jerrick stood, descended from the Looking Stone, and reentered the ruined tower without a word. Shortly thereafter, Ash came bounding in after him followed by a slower-moving Murik. Jerrick had been right about him favoring one leg; the man walked with a limp. Jerrick cast him a sidelong glance, but otherwise ignored him as he packed his belongings in preparation for his and Ash's departure. It was Murik who broke the silence.
"I don't recall if you mentioned your destination last night."
"I didn't," Jerrick said, more brusquely than he intended. He took a breath, and said more evenly, "The Hall. The Simarron Hall of the Wood."
Murik's face lit up. "Then our destinations are identical. Perhaps, were we to travel together, the journey might be safer, and the time pass more readily. What say you?"
Jerrick halted his packing for a moment. Companionship, aside from the four-legged kind, might help keep him distracted from darker thoughts. But the eslar, with his handicap, might slow Jerrick down. For Aliah's sake, haste was paramount. On the other hand, leaving Murik out here alone was not an option. Duty, if not decency, had its demands. With that, the decision was made, and so he accepted Murik's proposal.
The pair set off immediately. Better to leave the cold behind than to tarry about in it, or so they reasoned. They ate their breakfast—Jerrick's jerky along with dried fruit and nuts provided by Murik—while on the move. Jerrick set a torrid pace; he felt he had to. He was pleasantly surprised as Murik, who made heavy use of his gnarled walking stick, not only matched it, but did so with no complaints. As they hiked, they conversed little. Occasionally, Murik asked a question about local history or made a comment concerning the geography they traversed. Those times, the two settled into a brief conversation, but that was all. They stopped once at midday to rest and eat a small meal. Jerrick had them up and moving again in short time, though, as he hoped to reach Stoney Creek before nightfall. Ash spent much of his time around Murik or wandering ahead by himself, ignoring Jerrick altogether except to shove past him every so often as he made his way from Murik at the rear to the point position. The first glancing impact only mildly annoyed Jerrick. After the second, however, he was irritated enough that when Ash next attempted to pass, Jerrick intentionally blocked the narrow path. Ash glided happily past him regardless of his efforts, which only annoyed Jerrick all the more. Ice and snow slowly gave way to naked earth. The air was mostly still. Here there was plant life once more: prickly bramble bushes surrounding clusters of pines becoming denser the farther they descended. Soon, the tall pines were all around them, their needles covering the ground like a blanket. Then the sound of rushing water reached their ears.
"We'll need to cross," Jerrick explained once Stoney Creek was in sight. "Once we're on the other side, we can make camp for the night and pick up the trail in the morning. There are two ways to cross the creek. The first is closer, but requires a surer foot." He emphasized the location of the crossing by pointing his finger across the expanse of trees still separating them from the waterway. "The other will take us out of our way a bit, but not by much. We'll have to backtrack a little once we reach the far shore, but it has the advantage of being the easier crossing." Jerrick paused. "I mean no insult, but with your leg, perhaps the second—"
"If you deem the first crossing the quicker of the two, then, by all means, let us cross there." Murik held his walking stick across his body as he spoke. The eslar's face was lit by an odd smirk.
Jerrick lifted his brow. "It's wider than you might think."
Murik only stood there with that amused look upon his face.
Shrugging, Jerrick said, "Come on, then."
While the two were talking, Ash had gone ahead. They found him running back and forth along the creek's narrow shoreline, splashing through the water.
In girth, Stoney Creek was more river than creek, with an aggressive flow and a plethora of rocks of all shapes and sizes jutting above the surface. Water moving between these created a myriad of small waterways and diminutive falls. In the distance, they heard the crash of Crystal Falls. They remained at high elevation, and the water was fatally cold. Ash was protected from cursory splashes by his waterproof undercoat, if not a brief soaking. Jerrick had made the crossing more times than he remembered. But Murik, with his leg … Jerrick did not look forward to building the fire big enough to dry him should he fall in.
"The rocks form a sort of natural bridge," Jerrick explained. "I've done this a hundred times, so if you just follow me from rock to rock, you'll be fine."
Murik nodded his understanding. If he was worried or concerned, he gave no indication.
Jerrick looked him up and down once more, then started across. Ash followed with excitement. The initial part of the traversal was easy, as the rocks were low and flat. But these quickly gave way to large, irregular boulders separated by wide gaps of rushing water. One such opening had a fallen tree trunk spanning it. Jerrick shuffled lithely across, reaching the other side. With one leap, Ash bounded across behind him. Jerrick came to another gap, this one without a bridge. Even worse, the rock on the other side sat higher than the current one. Confident in his ability to make the leap, he backed a few paces, started running, and jumped across. His knee hit the rock, but he managed to pull himself to the top. He turned just as Ash, who had barely waited for Jerrick to get situated, made his own attempt. The dog landed off the mark, in a precarious position, his upper half held in place only by rear claws which scrambled for purchase. He started to slip backward when Jerrick reached out and grabbed him, heaving him the remainder of the way up. Rubbing his knee, Jerrick looked for Murik, who he expected to see close behind. Instead he saw him exactly where he had left him. Jerrick was about to yell, to find out when he planned on following, when instead he found himself stunned into silence.
The eslar held his walking stick before him with both hands. Jerrick swore, for the staff glowed with golden fire. Murik just touched the tip of that staff to the surface of the water. Jerrick watched, fascinated, as the creek hardened and froze, the effect spreading from the point where Murik's staff had touched all the way across to the far bank. Without hesitation, Murik stepped out onto the frozen creek. In moments, he had closed the distance between him and Jerrick. Ash barked as the eslar drew near.
Murik gestured at the dog, who floated from the rock down to the icy floor. Ash whined, but only until he was set down. Then his tail wagged so fast Jerrick heard the whoosh of it parting the air.
"Shall you join us as well?" Murik smiled, quite enamored of his demonstration. "It's quite safe." He tapped the end of his wizard's staff, whose glow had dissipated, on the ice in emphasis.
"No!" Jerrick's reply offered no opportunity for rebuttal, as he turned away and sought out the next stepping stone.
Murik shrugged. There was a certain measure of joviality in his blue-black face, a hint of mirth in his pure-white eyes. "Suit yourself." While Ash ran circles around him, the dog's barking eliciting laughter from the eslar, Murik crossed the remainder of the creek.
Back on his rock, Jerrick felt … misled. Murik had said nothing about being a sorcerer. Jerrick didn't like magic, if only because he didn't understand it or trust it or think anyone sane should have anything to do with it. It was dangerous, and unpredictable. Given the choice, he'd prefer to have nothing to do with it. If Murik had said something sooner, he might never have agreed to accompany him. With nothing to do for it now, Jerrick shook his head and completed his crossing in his own time. Never once did he step on the creek's icy surface.
At the other side, he found Murik and Ash lounging upon a flat rock. Murik tossed pebbles onto the frozen surface as Ash lay quietly at his side. Jerrick sat, refusing to meet the eslar's stare. He noted that, in places, the surface of the creek had already started to break apart.
"You didn't say anything about being a wizard," Jerrick said. "You said you were a 'traveler.'"
"Well, I am a traveler, and a wizard. I am a traveling wizard, if you like." The eslar smiled, quite pleased with himself.
Jerrick rolled his eyes and glowered, deciding to wait for a more thorough explanation later. "Come on," he said, standing. "We can make camp for the night up ahead." Without waiting, Jerrick headed downstream, toward the top of Crystal Falls.
They made camp amidst a thicket of pines a short distance from the creek where the cascading falls provided a pleasant backdrop. With just over an hour of daylight remaining, Jerrick immediately set about catching their dinner. First, he gathered a series of stout pine boughs, which he instructed Murik to trim of all smaller branches. The eslar pulled out his dagger without a word and got started. While Murik kept busy, Jerrick walked to the bases of several trees. At each one, he cleared away the layer of pine needles and dug about a foot into the ground. He returned to camp with a small handful of wood grubs. Pulling out some rolled fish line from his pack, Jerrick used his knife to cut long lengths, which he then tied off at the end of each of the branches. Producing a hook for each, he tied these to the lines. Then, he stabbed the poles at regular intervals into the soft shore, making sure the hooks drifted within stagnant pockets where fish most likely sought refuge. In no time, Jerrick had caught enough trout for dinner, with some left for morning. Meanwhile, Murik took the liberty of starting a fire. They ate in silence as the last of the sunlight disappeared behind the mountains. Once they were done, Jerrick took out a pipe, from which he soon blew puffs of smoke into the crisp air. The leaf—Rell's best—managed to dispel some of his earlier annoyance at the eslar.
"I apologize if I frightened you at the creek crossing," Murik said. "Such was not my intention."
"You didn't frighten me. Just surprised me, is all." Jerrick took a long draft from his pipe, blowing a trail of smoke into the air on the exhale. "You should have said something sooner about being a wizard."
"You're right. But I felt caution was needed, just as you no doubt did. Sorcerers—especially ones who are eslar—are sometimes looked upon with undue … suspicion, shall we say?"
I wonder why, Jerrick thought. "So why reveal yourself at all?"
"If we are to journey to the Hall together, we will need to trust one another. Keeping such a thing from you for all that time might have the opposite effect, don't you think?"
Jerrick nodded. The eslar was right about that.
"So, tell me," Murik said, "what takes you to the patroller's Hall?"
"Just visiting old friends." It was true enough, and seemed to satisfy the eslar, for he nodded, sat back, and did not press Jerrick further on it.
"The Hall is a place of learning, is it not?" Murik asked.
Jerrick nodded. "That, and more. The Hall of the Simarron is one of two halls. The other is Merrow Hall, deep in the Merrow Woods. There was a third in the Alzion Mountains, but it was destroyed long ago during the Second Great War and never rebuilt. The Alzions are still patrolled, just without the benefit of a patroller base."
"Are you, then, a patroller?"
"At one time. Still am, I suppose. I was a squad leader for a time, then a rover."
Murik settled into silence. Jerrick studied him for a moment, seeing, for once, the eslar without his usual mirth.
"The night will be dark one last time this evening," Murik said.
The sorcerer's words were so soft Jerrick barely heard them. Looking heavenward, Jerrick confirmed the statement.
"Another, say, eight days," Murik said, "and we shall see the moon full again."
Uncertain what direction the eslar's conversation was headed, Jerrick nodded. He supposed that was right.
"Forgive me," Murik said, his gleeful demeanor returning. "A sorcerer's whimsical nature throws even myself askew sometimes."
Jerrick raised a brow, but accepted the explanation. Then he said, "I've told you my reason for traveling to the Hall. What is yours? I don't recall any visits by sorcerers during my time there."
Murik took his time answering. When he did, his words came out slowly, as if he chose them with care. "I am seeking an associate. One I have not seen in some time. Word reached me that this person dwelt at your Hall, so I set out to see for myself."
The Hall was a way station of sorts, home to many more than just patrollers.
"What if this person is not there? What if he's moved on already?"
It happened often enough. Life at the Hall was not for everyone.
"Then my search will continue elsewhere."
Neither spoke much the remainder of the evening as they settled in for the night. Ash was already asleep by the fire. Murik soon followed as he bid good night to Jerrick, who stayed up a while longer to finish his smoke. Soon, his own drowsiness caught up to him. The fringes of the Simarron were only a day away now. After that, one more to the town of Homewood, and then, finally, on to the Hall. Jerrick's mind drifted away into the mist of dreams, and he slept.
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