Above Crystal City, in a hidden part of the Koneryl Mountains, a shadow shifted. The figure of a small man staggered out into the waning light of the afternoon sun. Weeks of searching and days of ritual without sleep and starvation had taken its toll but he had what he had come for. Dark eyes searched the mountainside for any sign of movement. Nothing. With slow, trembling hands, the figure took a small pouch from beneath his belt. He turned his back to the sun and, with another furtive glance about, emptied the contents into his palm. Five dark but rainbow-brilliant stones landed in his hand.
These small stones were the stuff of legends. Mother’s Eyes! The largest was smaller than a wren’s egg but that was no matter. A grin lit up his dirty face as he considered the possibilities. In his filthy, battered palm he held the wealth of cities. Each stone contained no less than the living spirit of the land itself. The stones emitted a warmth that sank into his very bones. Nothing was more rare; nothing was more valuable. In the right hands, one stone could bring forth water in the Sisseir. No, no, size didn’t matter at all.
A wave of dizziness struck him and he staggered slightly. Even his euphoria couldn’t push away his hunger or weariness. Carefully he slipped the precious stones back into his pouch, tucked it safely beneath his belt and tied it securely.
It wasn’t safe to stay here. Weeks playing the half-minded stable hand while sneaking his supplies piece by piece outside the city hidden in manure, of monitoring every word he said and every move he made, were no guarantee. Someone could have taken notice at how he lingered at dung heaps and decided to find out what he was taking such pains to conceal. Yes, someone could have taken notice.
He glanced around once again then went to the stream gushing madly from the mountainside near the mouth of the tunnel. The icy water stung his face but revived him somewhat. He drank deeply then filled his waterskin. He wasn’t far from the city but the climb down would be difficult. He wondered briefly if he should stay another night in the mine but decided against it. He had been too long without food and if he stayed he might not have the strength to get down the mountain. As it was, he wasn’t sure that he could make it at all. He had to go now and the quicker, the better.
The paltry weight of his nearly empty pack shifted and threw him off balance as he tried to put it on. A precarious moment passed before he regained his equilibrium. The tempting thought of just leaving it behind slipped briefly through his mind but was discarded immediately. No trace of his presence here must ever be found. Too much was at stake to risk it. It took several minutes for him to control his shaking hands long enough to strap the thing on securely. He cursed at his weakness and at the sun racing so quickly to end the day. Unable to do more for the moment, he sank down on an outcropping. He surveyed the mountain as he rested.
Nothing met his searching eyes but bare rock and a number of streams spewing heedlessly forth and down, down, down to more bare rock below. His path lay beneath more than one of these torrents. Tiny rainbows glimmered in the last of the day’s sun as mists settled onto the very rock he had to traverse if he were to leave this mountain today. He looked at his hands, felt their weakness and prayed to all the gods he had ever heard of to grant him safe passage down to Crystal City. Only the sound of the rushing water answered him. He sighed.
A brilliant flash of memory of the Mother’s Eyes spurred him forward. There were obligations to fulfill, reknown to be won and great riches to be had. Even so, it took tremendous effort to stand and even more to take his first step downward toward his future. As his foot touched the mountain again, a great weight settled onto him.
“No,” he groaned. The stones! The stones were fighting this leave-taking just as they had fought to remain hidden in the depths of the mountain. Oh gods! How could he make it down now with their resistance adding to his ever-increasing weakness? Tears of exhausted frustration threatened but he willed them away ruthlessly. Not now, not after he had come so far already. The stones were not going to defeat him nor was his exhaustion. He took a deep breath to steady himself and took his second step down.
A dozen painful, slow steps later he seemed to have worked himself into a kind of momentum. He told himself that so long as he could avoid climbing over the boulders strewn along the mountainside he could maintain his pace. He drew upon a mantra defining his task to refocus his mind away from his physical exhaustion.
Two hours later he was forced to a halt when the steep mountainside dropped suddenly as a sheer cliff face. The cliff was only about ten feet down, but he saw nothing on which he could gain purchase for his feet or hands. The light pack would make his descent over this precipice even more awkward.
He sat at the ledge, his legs crossed. He considered jumping, but fear of a broken leg stopped him. Slowly it occurred to him that if he lowered himself the drop would be equivalent to twice his height, and surely he could survive that intact. He inspected the ground below for rocks and decided on place to land.
He removed his pack. Holding it by a strap he lowered it as far as he could, then dropped it. It fell open when it hit the ground below and one of the bowls used in his recent rituals rolled out. He must remember to get the bowl to prevent it from betraying his presence on the mountain.
He maneuvered his tired body around to face the small cliff. He hung by his waist, his upper body lying on the ground and his arms resisting his brain’s insistence that he push himself further back, to allow himself to dangle over the edge. He wiggled backwards, less and less of his body keeping him safely at the top of the small cliff, until finally his elbows, upper chest and forearms were all that helped him cling to the top.
He heaved with all his might, both physical and mental, and fell.
It was dark when he regained consciousness. The ache in his head almost caused him to lose consciousness again as he struggled to get the spout of his water bag to his mouth. His swollen tongue barely felt the cool liquid running over it, and some of the water dribbled out of his mouth. And then he did lose consciousness again.
He awoke only moments later to the cold, wetness of his waterbag emptying its contents over his face and neck. Unthinking, he sputtered and struggled to get it off of him. Nausea struck him like a fist, hard and fast. He rolled over vomiting nothing but a little water and sputum then dry heaving endlessly it seemed. Each spasm sent waves of agony through his brain unmanning him utterly.
When at last the heaves left him, he collapsed in a heap, spent and in agony. His outstretched hand hit the bowl he had dropped earlier and sent it spinning into a nearby stream. He didn’t care. He no longer remembered where he was or why.
Disorientation consumed him. He wept like a child in pain and confusion. Soon, his weeping subsided into choked mewlings. He didn’t have the strength for anything else. As his own noises died within him, the sound of rushing water entered into his limited awareness.
An emptiness and thirst awoke in him howling and gnashing at his empty stomach with each passing second. Conscious thought beyond him now, instinct took over. He began to crawl.
It seemed hours before he even began to see the buildings in the city below clearly, but it had not even been one. The moon was beginning to grow bright overhead in the dark sky, but its light was lost at the edges of Crystal City where smoke and haze of the bustling occupants
blotted it out.
‘Home,’ the concept throbbed in his weary mind as he dragged his tired and broken body ever closer. Only one more bend of the river to cross and then he would be there. So close, but so tired, he dragged himself to the river’s edge and leant down to dip his hand in for a much needed drink. He never even felt as his legs began to slip from beneath him and the bankside crumble away. As the cold water began to engulf him as he slid as if in slow motion, all he could think of was the peace. He did not even care that the pouch carrying the stones- the valuable cargo that he had risked his life to bring back – had somehow fallen off his belt into the river as well… and that the Mother’s Eyes themselves had escaped and seemingly swam away to be lost, as was he, in oblivion.
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