The Seeress and the Stone 18
For the next few weeks the group traveled along the mountains. The scenery never changed. The desert stretched as far as the eye could see to the north and west. Even the mountain peaks in the far north seemed to remain the same size. The mountains to the east rose formidably in the evening light. They got taller and looked harder and crueler with each passing day. They stood like an iron gate, daring anyone to try and breach their steep, rocky slopes.
The group traveled at night when it was cooler, but the water supply still diminished quickly. The days were spent resting and everyone readily moved into the shade of his or her tents to escape the hot sun. Finally the lack of water forced them to take their course back into the treacherous mountains. Everyone felt some degree of concern. On the desert floor it was warm enough, but they knew that as soon as they climbed up into the mountains, it would get cold quickly.
As they moved east away from the desert floor, the hills rose steeply above them and the ground became rougher. They passed many canyons and crevices that led up into the mountains. Some had small streams trickling down and they stopped to fill the water supply, but it was never enough to last for very long.
They traveled in the foothills even though the going was rough. Carts broke down and the travelers left them behind loading as much as they could on their tired horses or their own backs. The mood of the camp darkened with each passing day.
French continued riding ahead each day to scout out a trail. He rose early every morning and returned to camp late every evening. He spent most of the day alone, deep in thought. One morning, at the beginning of the fourth week, he rose even earlier. He ate quickly, and left before anyone stirred.
He had dreamed about Angelia again that night and thought about her as he rode. The path was particularly difficult and he was forced to dismount and lead the horse to the top of a hill.
He had tried to follow the easiest path that kept them within reach of water, but in doing so they had been forced to climb higher each day.
When he reached the top of the hill he gasped. There lying in a tiny valley was the most beautiful, crystal clear lake he had ever seen. It was white on the northern edges, from the ice, and a deep, penetrating blue in the center. The valley had dry, yellow grass and a few sturdy trees growing near the southern end of the lake.
French stared for several minutes before realizing just how amazing this discovery was. Excitement coursed through his body. This could be their new home. He had to tell Celendar and the others immediately. He quickly turned around and climbed back down the steep hill and then rode back to camp as fast as he could.
Celendar was already awake when French tapped on the tent door and entered. “Celendar, There is a lake up ahead. We will reach it by mid-day,” he announced.
The old man looked up from his thoughts, seeming unsurprised at French’s declaration. “ A lake? How far up is it?” Celendar asked thoughtfully pulling out the map.
French looked over his shoulder at the map. “That lake looks like it is in the right spot.”
Celendar took a pen and ink and carefully outlined the spot where the lake lay on the faded map.
French looked at the map. “It is almost perfectly accurate.”
Celendar smiled. “Yes, Celedand was very careful. It has taken us two months to reach this point. We can refill our water stores and then return to the desert.” He traced his finger along the map as he spoke. “It looks like there is another trail leading away from the lake to the North and West. From there I am unsure.”
French’s excitement snuffed out at Celendar’s words. “You mean we aren’t going to stay there?” he questioned. “It would be an excellent valley to settle,” he added hopefully.
Even as he said it he knew it wasn’t true. It would be brutally cold in the tiny valley during the winter months and the season was late enough that the travelers would have no chance to grow much of anything before the winter storms set in. If they stayed, many people would perish.
Celendar looked at him with sad, understanding eyes. “Though the map is old, it has proved to be true. I believe there is another mountain range further to the northwest, but things are a bit unclear.” He looked at the faded map. “Perhaps it will be in those mountains that we find a place to live in peace.”
French sighed. “Perhaps?” he asked hoping for a more definite answer, yet knowing he probably wouldn’t receive one.
“I feel drawn there more than any other place,” Celendar added. “We should probably let the others know about the lake. This will be the perfect place to restock our water and other supplies.”
“As long as we don’t use it all heading back to the desert,” French muttered.
“I’m certain we won’t,” Celendar replied cheerfully. “We can rest at the lake for a day or two before heading back down.”
French left the tent and walked moodily back to his horse. Most of the camp was up and packing for the continuing hike. French led his mount to his tent to help his aunt load everything up. The travelers reached the lake by mid-day as French had predicted and set up camp on the southern shore. They set the horses out to graze and everyone began restocking supplies. They filled water skins and the larger water sacs and gathered grass for the livestock. It was still cold near the lake, but the work warmed the people and their spirits lifted.
They camped in the tiny valley for three days. Some of the people wanted to stay, but the chill in the air reminded them that they would not have time to build sturdy winter shelters or grow food. The day they left the lake was cold with a clear, blue sky. French could sense the change in the atmosphere of the valley. The land was preparing for winter.
During the few days of rest, French had spent the time scouting ahead, not content with the tasks of the camp. Now he rode with Le’Mone and Celendar.
“There are storms coming,” Le’Mone announced suddenly, breaking the silence. “I can feel them in the wind.”
Celendar sighed. “We should be out of the valley by mid-morning. If the map is correct it should not take us very long to reach the desert, hopefully only a few days.”
“If the decent is fast enough it will get warmer as we go,” Le’Mone said. She looked out at the lake, “I do love this little valley. It is full of mystery. And those mountains call to me, but I want a place I can call home. I miss my trees.” She suddenly looked very tired. “How much longer, Celendar?”
French looked at his aunt with surprise. She had not uttered one word of complaint during the past two months and her question was very pointed. He turned anxiously to Celendar for his response.
Celendar looked just as tired and frustrated as French felt. “I don’t know, Le’, I just don’t know.” His voice was full of the anxiety that French had expressed in his many conversations with his aunt.
French suddenly felt sympathy for the old man. Celendar was in an impossible situation, leading a group of exiles from their home into the unknown without really knowing where he was supposed to take them. His anger and annoyance vanished instantly. They continued on in silence.
The trail led gently down through the mountains. The hardened path made for easier going and the grass grew plentifully along the trail. A larger stream wound its way down the mountain following the trail, providing enough water for the travelers to replenish their supplies. Temperatures increased as they descended and spirits of the travelers lifted as well.
On the third day dark clouds began building in the west. Celendar called a halt and the people quickly set up camp. The air became very still for half an hour and then suddenly the wind picked up, howling through the camp and up the canyon. Just after dusk, the storm hit.
The storm raged for several hours blowing away anything that wasn’t fastened down. Lightning and thunder danced across the mountains and the frightened travelers huddled in their tents praying it wouldn’t strike their humble camp. By morning it had spent itself out and the temperature rose. It rained all the next day, but the group was determined to keep moving. Mud and rain slowed their progress and the dark clouds hung low over the mountains. In the evening, when the rain finally stopped, a thick cloud of fog rolled in, settling with a penetratingly, damp chill over the trail. Celendar pressed forward but the unknown terrain mixed with the thick fog created more problems. After several pack animals fell and a few travelers acquired broken limbs, they were forced to stop and set up camp for the night.
The next morning ice and frost covered the ground, but the fog had cleared away. French could see the clouds rolling away to the Southeast. He looked back into the mountains and shivered. Not very far up the trail where they had been, the ground was white with snow. Further up he could see the pass into the valley blocked off by a wall of snow, probably brought down from the peaks above by the noise and echoes of the thunder. He shuddered again. If they had stayed even one more day, they would have been trapped in that lovely valley and most likely have perished before the snow could melt. He turned back to the trail in front of him, grateful they had left when they did.
Le’Mone and French spent that day assisting injured folks and caring for lame pack animals. The camp lost three good horses and everyone shuffled their belongings to accommodate the loss. It took them a week to reach the desert. The trail was easier going down, but the mud slowed them up. When they reached the canyon mouth, they looked out over the desert and let the warm air drift over them. They were dirty and exhausted, but still alive. At the foot of the mountains the trail disappeared into the desert sand, so they continued to follow the mountains northward. The ground at the edge of the desert remained solid and fairly level, creating easier traveling conditions, but occasionally the weary travelers had to struggled over large dunes that blocked their path.
The sweltering heat of the desert days quickly forced them to travel at night. French enjoyed the peaceful desert landscape, until the endless sand dunes on their left became monotonous. In the distance he could see what looked like a wall of rock rising above the desert horizon. He figured it was the mountains Celendar had mentioned from his map, but something seemed off about the range. It continued to the East, burying itself into the mountains, and the closer they came the higher the wall seemed to grow.
French’s curiosity mounted and after a few days he requested permission to ride ahead to explore this new complication. As he rode the wall grew higher and higher. It took him two days of steady riding before his curiosity was satisfied. Monstrous cliffs, towering at least a thousand feet above him, stretched to the northwest as far as he could see. The cliffs formed a barrier between the desert and the ocean they had hoped to reach. They ran between the Heighe Mountains and the north country creating an insurmountable obstacle.
French returned to the main camp and grimly informed Celendar of what he had discovered. A week later the whole camp reached the base of the cliffs. They were huge impenetrable walls of rock. Their surface smooth and unbroken from the beating wind and desert sand. The travelers set up camp at the base of the cliffs and Celendar called the leaders together to discuss their situation. The moon shone brightly above the cliffs as the men and women talked. French’s gaze moved between the map and the cliffs towering above them.
Pointing to the map, Celendar began, “I believe we are here at the end of the Heighe Mountain range. My map is faded and I thought these were a mountain range across the desert, but I can see that they represent these cliffs.”
“Should we follow the cliffs back into the mountains?” Jexson asked.
Le’Mone leaned over the map and stated, “If the map is correct then these cliffs extend far into the Heighe range. We cannot follow them back into the mountains. The snow would halt any progress we made.”
Celendar nodded in agreement. “I don’t think any of us wish to brave the snow. I think we should continue to the west,” Celendar began.
French broke in, “But how far into the desert do these cliffs go?” He motioned to the rock above them. “If this is what they are like in the desert, then we will have no hope of water or feed for the horses.”
Celendar studied the faces of the people present. “I think it is our only choice. We must follow the cliffs to the north and west. I believe the cliffs wrap around to the sea. We saved plenty of water and feed to last at least a month. If we travel at night and ration the supplies we should be able to make it to the sea. That will give us a resting place and then we can figure out where to go from there.”
French stared incredulously at Celendar. He still didn’t know where they were going. They were going to start an expedition into the desert with limited supplies and no idea of how long the journey would take them. It was suicide. Murmurs of dissent rippled through the assembled group. He looked around at the leaders of their exiled group. Doubt lay heavy upon all their faces. Lastly his gaze rested upon his aunt’s face. Le’Mone kept her eyes on the ground, but everyone heard her soft spoken question.
“Is that what you feel we should do, Celendar?” A hush swept through the group.
“Yes,” he replied slowly. “But I want to know what everyone thinks. Talk with your companies and we will meet again tomorrow.”
The gathering broke up and the concerned leaders returned to their tents to spread the news with those assigned under them.
French stayed, determined to get more than cryptic answers and vague guesses. “Celendar, how far are we going to go?” he demanded.
“We will travel until we reach our new home,” Celendar replied.
That wasn’t good enough. All the months of traveling with little or no guidance and Celendar’s answer is to travel until they reach a new home. Anger exploded to the surface and French’s even temper melted into frustration.
“But what about the others? The people we left behind in the city. How are they ever going to find us? The further we go, the less chance they have of finding us,” he snapped. He was tired of being brushed aside.
“I understand your concerns, French, and I assure you—”
“Do you really understand?” French interrupted. The woman he loved was months away in grave danger and they traveled on as if nothing were wrong, as if Celendar didn’t even care.
“French!” Le’Mone said with dismay at his rudeness.
“Did you forget that Angelia is still back there? Yet we continue on every day traveling further and further away with no end in sight, just an impossibly vague idea of a new home.” French’s voice rose. Then the real source of his frustration slipped out. “Why couldn’t I stay in the caves? I could be there to help her, to protect her and keep her safe.”
“Enough!” Celendar roared. “Do you think I made that decision lightly? Don’t you realize that it was the hardest decision I had to make? I wanted to let you stay. I wanted to stay, but I have to think of everyone, not just her. I have all of these people to consider.” Celendar said wearily.
“I could have taken some of that worry from you by protecting her,” French stated angrily.
“And what would having you there do? How many times would you have snuck down into the city to see her, endangering the whole plan and everyone involved? What would you have done if someone saw you or discovered your hiding place? What would the elders of the city have done?” Celendar demanded.
His words struck French deeply. He knew Celendar was right, but his pride would never let him admit it. He turned away, but Celendar continued.
“French, I need you here. You are a strong leader. I don’t know what lies ahead and that is why I asked you to come with us instead of staying.” Celendar’s voice contained a measure of pleading that softened his heart.
“French,” Le’Mone said touching his sleeve, “I need you here too. I would be lost with worry if you were not here.”
French turned back to face them, his anger still bright in his eyes. “I will stay and I will help, but as soon as we reach this ‘new home’ I’m going back.”
He turned and strode away. Behind him he could hear Celendar’s frustrated exhale and Le’Mone’s soothing murmurs. French knew his actions were childish and not befitting the compliment Celendar had given, but he didn’t care.