Archive for September, 2016

Twin Peaks Part Three (Finale)

By morning a few of the torches were still smoldering. He knew he should get more rest, but he didn’t want to waste daylight. Dak packed up camp, gathered his bearings, and set out along the old, spotty trail through the forest. Eventually the trees became more spaced out and the forest thinned. At the same time, the steepness of the path began to increase. His legs began to burn as the climb grew more intense. His eyes burned and ached with the lack of sleep. His head hurt. He was worried about his water supply. Was his pack getting heavier? The closer he drew to the sun above the more uncomfortable his sweaty bandage became. He wondered if he should change the dressing soon. He would need clean water, and he didn’t want to use any of his drinking water for the job.

Dak stopped under one of the lonely trees dotting the side of the mountain. He would only allow himself a moment to rest and cool down. He sat and leaned against the tree, craning his neck to look ahead on the trail and see if it would get less steep soon. The heat of the sun radiated off the rocks, making the ground appear to shimmer like water. He took a small drink from one of his water pouches. He still had one that was full for the trip back down the mountain, and the other was a little under half full. He guessed he was about halfway up the mountain, so he wanted to try to conserve water for a while.

His heart jumped and he swung his head to face back up the mountain. He thought he had seen some movement out of the corner of his eye. In the heat of the day very few animals and beasts were active, but something had definitely moved. He scanned around watching for more movement, but saw none. Once his pulse had slowed again he decided to move on. He picked himself off the ground and brushed off, peering in the direction of the movement again, which happened to be the same direction he needed to go.

While still steep, this part of the path was beginning to get a little easier, or at least he felt as though it was easier. Dak remained focused on the spot where he thought the movement had come from. As he got closer he began to make out a shape. Years later he would hesitate to share what he thought he saw, mostly because he was never quite sure. He was sleep-deprived, thirsty, sore, and had taken a couple bad blows to the head not long before. For all he knew perhaps he imagined the whole encounter. But at the time it felt very real.

The shape was long and twisted, sprawled out in the sun on a large flat rock. Before it came into focus Dak was sure he heard something telling him to turn back. It wasn’t as much of a voice as it was an intrusive thought. Sure, he wanted to turn back, but he wasn’t thinking of doing it. Someone or something was making him think it. “Turn back now,” it repeated over and over. “Go home. You don’t belong here.”

He was able to clearly see his opponent now. It was a large snake, at least fifty feet long and nearly four feet thick at its widest point. It was curled around and twisted about carelessly on the surface of the large rock, but during Dak’s approach the reptile gathered itself in and coiled menacingly. The path ran right next to the rock slab, and so he decided to leave the path and go the long way around. As he circumnavigated the rock, the snake’s huge head tracked him and its black eyes remained unwaveringly fixated on him. Dak could feel himself sweating even more than he had when the cat attacked. The “turn back” command echoed louder with every step.

He wondered how fast something that big could move. Would it strike at him if he took his eyes off it? Would it follow him? He could feel himself getting sick. Nervousness and fear became overwhelming. Eventually he got back on the path far enough from the snake that he felt he was safe, but even then he was worried about it. He walked briskly, constantly looking back over his shoulder or even walking backward to keep an eye on the path behind.

The slope was much more gentle here, and with fear driving him forward he make good progress. By the time the sun was getting ready to set he figured he had to be at least two thirds of the way up the mountain. The terrain was fairly flat in many areas, giving him plenty of options for setting up camp. The lack of trees made it harder to set up a fence, but it also meant fewer places for predators to hide. He hoped he would be safe with just a large fire and a few torches stuck in the ground around the tent.

As he set up camp with the last hour of daylight barely holding on to the sky, he saw clouds moving in from the mountain range to the north. They were dark and moving fast. He cooked a quick dinner and managed to retire to the tent just as the first drops of rain began to fall from above. Within minutes his tent was soaked through and there was a river running through his tent. Lightning illuminated the walls of the tent every few seconds, with ground-shaking thunder immediately following. He wrapped himself in his wet blankets, hoping to keep warm, but it was no use.

Soon the wind started to pick up. It shook the walls of his tent, threatening to topple the whole thing. The sideways moving rain had an even easier time finding its way into the shelter, completely negating any protection he had enjoyed before. Dak’s eyes ached for sleep. His cloudy mind couldn’t get the snake pushed from his thoughts.

Dak eventually gave up on sleep. He used his cooking pot to collect rain water and refill his half-empty water container. He lay on the soaked sleeping mat and stared up at the drenched tent. He pondered his encounter with the liar masquerading as the honorable teacher Rhoj. He let himself get carried away in anger again, cursing the man and his greed.

When the sun finally scattered the clouds Dak surrendered to sleep. The sun was at its highest when he finally crawled from his tent and removed his wet clothing. By some miracle Dak found that the contents of his pack, including a dry change of clothes, had survived the night without soaking through. He changed clothes, ate, and let his gear dry a little before packing up to leave.

The wet tent and blankets made his pack feel twice as heavy as before. He looked back along the trail to see if the snake was there before he moved on. His whole body was sore.

The trail wound around the mountain and came to run along a steep cliff. He guessed the drop would be at least a few hundred feet. He stuck to the inside of the curve, as far from the cliff as he could, until he came to a spot where the cliff cut into the path. He could tell there was once a bridge there, but it had long since fallen apart. Now there was nothing more than a few posts in the ground and some deteriorated rope hanging from them down into a gap that was only about five or six feet across. He figured he could toss the pack across and jump.

He took out the rope and tied it to his pack. If the pack didn’t make it he wanted to have it tied to something so he could retrieve it. He hurled it across the gap and watched it roll into a muddy puddle on the other side. It wasn’t a tough toss. The distance wasn’t too bad.

Still holding the rope, as though the pack would hold his weight if he missed, Dak took a running leap to the other side. His heart pounded as he nearly slipped back into the crevice after landing. He made it.

He stowed the rope and shouldered his muddy pack and carried on. The path remained at the edge of the cliff for another hour or so. At one point it ran past the opening of a cave. Inside he could hear sickening sounds, like some kind of great beast eating its victim raw. He hurried past as quietly as he could.

A short distance from the cave the path hit a dead end. The cliff wrapped in on itself and the path ended. To his left, leading up the mountain, there was only the wall of another cliff. He could see that there was a tree at the top of the cliff, maybe thirty feet above. “I guess I have to climb,” he said, wishing he could just pay Jur, the goat cart driver, to help him with this one.

Dak had little experience scaling cliff faces. As a child his parents had taken him to the mountains once, and they say he climbed a ten foot cliff all alone, but he had no recollection of the event. Now he was wearing a wet pack that weight half as much as he did when it was dry, slowly digging his hands and feet into whatever features allowed him enough purchase to support his weight. He breathed dust into his lungs with his face pressed against the rock, leaving a smear of sweat every inch of the way up. His heart beat so strongly against his chest that it threatened to push him away from the cliff he was clutching so dearly. He closed his eyes to squeeze the burning sweat out so he could see again.

His arms and fingers hurt. He looked down and found that he had only ascended a little more than his own height. Less than halfway. He groaned and looked up to find his next hand hold. Tears began to flood his vision. His right foot slipped. He barely caught himself. His heart was pounding. He imagined himself tumbling down and away from this cliff only to spill over the one below, plummeting the full distance to the bottom. He could see himself grabbing desperately at anything he could reach to try to stop his momentum from carrying him over the edge. He saw his own panicked eyes judging and blaming him as he fell silently into the void.

“You can do this,” he told himself, taking some deep breaths to clear his head. The strength in his arms was nearly gone, and his sore legs had to do all of the lifting. All he could do with his hands was hold himself close to the cliff.

Eventually, dirty, scraped, sore, and drenched in sweat, he pulled himself up over the edge of the cliff and grabbed onto one of the roots of the tree. There he stayed for a moment, grasping the root with all of his strength, heaving great breaths in and out, his legs still dangling over the cliff. He cried a little, but eventually collected himself and crawled away from the cliff.

It was getting dark. He figured this plateau would make as good a camp as any. A hundred feet from the cliff he found another tree and set up his tent at its base. This time the rain clouds rolled in earlier. Before he could finish his dinner he had to retreat to the still-damp tent. It smelled bad inside. He would have to make a new one later, he decided. This one had been made from some of the best tent cloth made in his town, with finely carved wooden support sticks and strong cord for tying it down to the stakes. The cord and sticks would be salvaged, but the cloth was ruined.

Dak felt the hairs on his neck stand on end and heard a sharp crack accompanied by a bright flash of light. More cracking and creaking and the sound of something rustling outside, he grabbed his sword and stepped tentatively out to see what was going on.

He couldn’t see anything from the door of the tent, but above him he saw the branches of the tree moving. Maybe it was just the wind? No, the branches were moving too fast. They were moving toward him! He ran. Behind him the tree came crashing down on his tent. Sticks snapped and flew up in all directions. “No!” he cried. “My pack! My food and water!” Dak rushed over to where his tent had stood. He was relieved to find that the corner where his pack had been was not buried by the tree. He used the sword to cut through the cloth and pulled his pack free.

Though grateful to be alive and have most of his supplies, he now realized he had even less protection from the rain. “At least my pack will be lighter,” he tried to chuckle to himself. He watched the rain pound away at the pack, rinsing the mud away. “And cleaner,” he added.

Tears welled up again and fell unnoticed down his rain-drenched cheeks. He dropped to the ground and leaned against the fallen tree trunk, burring his head in his arms to cry. “I should turn back,” he sobbed. This time it wasn’t an intrusive thought. It was his own.

Again unable to sleep, he put himself to work trying to see if he could dig his tent out from under the tree. At the very least he could use the cloth to set up some kind of covering, if he could get it out intact. By the time he pulled the tent out it was morning and the rain had stopped. It wouldn’t have mattered though, as the tent was completely torn to shreds.

Weighed down with exhaustion, needing the rest but once again determined to see if any guru lived atop the mountain, he willed himself on. His broken body refused. Even with the lighter pack he had never had more trouble taking steps. He could feel his lungs getting tight from illness. His throat was sore. Mucus wouldn’t stop flowing from his nose. He had heard tales of men staying out all night in rain storms and falling ill later. It was often fatal.

Dak didn’t give himself time to worry about it. Looking up along the trail he realized he was much closer to the peak than he had initially thought. He took heart and shuffled a little faster along the trail. He was there. He dropped his pack and stumbled about, frantically searching for any signs of life. He calls out. “Tahl?” He tripped and fell to the ground. “Anyone?” He pulled himself up again. On the other side of the summit he called out again. “Hello? Anybody here?”

He paused for a long time, listening carefully. Nothing. Even the trees there were still. He stood at the edge of a perilous cliff looking down on the mountain he had climbed. Though the two peaks were equal in height, this one felt taller to Dak. He could see the other peak, fully illuminated by the sun that hovered high behind him.

He scanned the face of the opposing peak, following it down to the crook between the peaks, then he looked south at the village where he had been raised. He thought of all the people there, living their lie and trying every day to believe it. Why? Why would they do that? Was it true? Would they really find happiness that way? He thought of what it would have been like to find the great teacher here. What a wonderful service it would be, to impart such teachings of happiness, he thought. To share happiness…

The beauty of his view began to sink in, and in a moment of utter clarity he realized something important. He thought back on his journeys. He pondered the service his parents lived out for him every day of their life. He took in the beauty all around him. Turning around he realized that there was a small pond behind him. The whole time that he had felt that he was surrounded by silence, that pond had been letting a small brook flow forth, gurgling a quiet secret. The landscape opened up to him, suddenly spilling forth with sounds and secrets. By the pond there was a tree stump that had obviously been cut by a manmade tool. Dak felt short of breath and filled with excitement. He looked around. On the ground, covered in overgrowth behind the stump, he found a dirt-encrusted axe. He pulled it, yanked it from the ground that had claimed it so long ago. He scooped water out of the pond and used it to wash the axe clean of the dirt and mud that had caked itself on so thick over the years.

As he cleaned the handle he saw that letters had been carved into the handle. As he uncovered them one by one tears came to his eyes. He had found it! He had found what he was looking for.

* * *

“And can you guess what was carved into the axe’s handle, young one?” Dak asked.

The young girl, probably only eight or nine years old, pondered deeply. She sat cross-legged across from Dak, at the edge of the pond. Dak had managed to help the girl clean her face, but the rest of her body was covered in mud and scrapes. She had arrived hungry and crying, but Dak had taken care of that. Now the girl was thoroughly distracted, trying to figure out what the axe could have had carved into it. She pursed her lips in deep thought.

Dak smiled and reached behind him. The axe never left his side. It was his most prized possession. With it he had built his hut, skinned animals, and carved furniture. He kept it in a sling under his robe at all times, always behind him as a reminder.

As he produced the axe from beneath his cloak the girl’s eyes lit up. “Is that the axe?” she exclaimed excitedly.

“Yes,” he said.

He handed it over to her reverently, and she accepted it as though it were a great honor. She turned it over, admiring how beautiful it was. Then she found the word carved into the handle and smiled. “Of course,” she said, as she handed it back to him.

Twin Peaks Part Two

He awoke in the morning sore all over with his eyes still burning. The first rays of the morning sun were beginning to peek out from behind the neighboring peak, casting a bright halo around its pointed top. Dak was sick with hunger. He tried to recall the last time he ate. Dinner, the night before last, he was pretty sure. He groaned as he tried to sit up. His pack was still slung over his shoulder, untouched from the day before. At least the cheating thief hadn’t snuck out and rummaged through his belongings overnight. Dak took a small bar of dried food from inside the pack to help his stomach. Slowly he got to his feet and looked around. Memories from the day before flooded his mind. In a matter of seconds he was flung through a ferocious fury and into a pitch black despair, back to being furious, and then to deep desperation. He had never felt such disillusion, such intense disappointment. His emotional state continued to swing back and forth between depression and anger. At times his wrathful disdain for the man calling himself Rhoj could have driven him to murder. Other times his anguish and misery tempted him to take his own life. Was there truly no hope for him? Was he destined to be unhappy for the rest of his life?

Writhing with fury inside he glanced back at the Teacher’s door one final time, growing sick to his stomach again. He snorted scornfully and started back toward the path, clenching his jaw. As he began to sink below the summit along the path he heard the crook call out to him. “Don’t forget the contract! On pains of death you’ve agreed to never share what we talked about here! We have people all over the village. You so much as whisper a word of it and we’ll bring you back up here. Your family will be told you wished to make the trek a second time, but this time you won’t return home!” Dak nearly turned around to respond, but thought it best to return home. That man had nothing more to offer him. Even revenge wouldn’t appease him in any way at this point.

He had more food than he had anticipated having for the return journey. Once the path started curving around the mountain again he looked down to his right where a straight path could take him directly home. Some parts of the decent that way would be quite dangerous, but what did he have to lose? He wasn’t even sure there was much point in living anymore.

For some of the descent he was sliding, tumbling, and falling his way down. Other times he took a more cautious approach, moving slowly and taking each step deliberately. Sometimes the tears in his eyes forced him to sit for a while and cry. Other times he got so angry he’d punch a tree and spend the next few minutes tending to his bleeding fist.

A day ago he had originally thought to return to the inn to see if he could learn the young woman’s name, but no such thought crossed his mind as he pushed his way through the thicket near the inn on his way to the base of the mountain. He could see the river now and the wretched toll house far below. That toll bridge should have been his first clue, he realized. He hated himself now for not seeing the signs. Of course the man at the fork in the road must be in on the scam as well. Had he not encouraged Dak to take the path to the left?

His cheeks flushed and he tensed the muscles in his body. He wasn’t just angry at those who had lied to him, he was angry at himself for failing to realize he was being swindled. Not only had he failed to see the con, he had convinced himself that he was being clever: That it was his own intelligent will that had guided him through the ploy. His stomach churned and he felt dizzy. How could he have been such a fool? He gathered himself and prepared to cross the bridge again. This time he wouldn’t pay, even if she tried to stop him. He made his way across the wooden bridge as quietly as he could, until he was just outside the entrance to the gatehouse. Then, as quickly as he could, he sprinted through without even glancing at the woman inside.

He continued to run well past the river but slowed a bit when he started down the final leg of the climb. He knew it wouldn’t be long now before he was home. Home. Did he really want to go home? Did he need to go home? He considered a life away from home. He could use the little money he had left to start a new life somewhere. Sure, the funds would barely cover the cost of a room for a couple of nights, but it might be enough time to find a job and… What was he thinking? He needed his family now more than ever. Now that he had been to the peak perhaps people would listen to him and try to help him. He needed warm, loving family and friends to lean on.

Dak reached his home just a couple hours past sundown. He crashed through the front door and went straight to his own bed. The pack dangled off the side of the bed still hanging from his arm when he fell asleep. That first night his parents stood in his doorway full of pride in their son, now a man in their eyes. However, when he did not get out of bed all the next day they began to worry. His mother sat by his side for several long hours, feeling his forehead and fighting back tears. The following morning when he didn’t get out of bed again his father sent for the town doctor.

Somewhere lost in the fog of his own mind, Dak could make out some of the words his parents shared with the doctor.

“How long has he been like this?” the doctor began.

“Well, he came home two nights ago and has not left the bed since.” He could hear the concern in his mother’s voice.

“Has he ever spent this much time in bed before?”

“No,” his father replied. “He usually rises early and works with me or with his school mates.”

“You said he came home two nights ago. Where from?”

“He went to see one of the great Teachers,” his father said, full of pride.

“Interesting.” The doctor paused a moment. Then asked, carefully, “Has he spoken to you at all since returning?”

“No,” his mother said. He could hear her voice waver now.

“What can we do?” his father asked, desperately.

“Well, I haven’t ever seen this happen before, but my father told me of a similar case that he saw once. There was a young man, very much like your son Dak, who returned from the mountain with bandages wrapped around his fists. He came home at night, got in bed, and didn’t get out of bed for three days. My dad was at their house when the boy got out of bed and started uttering nonsense. Eventually the boy left to visit the mountain again, but the dangers there overcame him and he was never seen again.”

Dak could hear his mother gasp before she started sobbing. The fog was starting to clear. He willed himself to leave the bed, but he could not. He needed to get out of bed and prove to them that he wasn’t like that. He wouldn’t speak nonsense. He wouldn’t be taken back to the mountain to die. He tried to shift around a bit. His limbs wouldn’t respond. He felt trapped. He was in a dark place in his mind, surrounded by pure sadness and sorrow.

He managed to start opening his eyes. It was a slow and painful process. As more light flooded inside he found that he could budge his hands and arms a bit. It wasn’t much, but it made a sound. His mother and father poured into the room with the doctor at their heels. With his parents smothering him in hugs he slowly regained his strength. Eventually he could sit up in bed, but he was still too weak to speak. Their questions made his head spin. He couldn’t focus on them. He focused on his father’s face, watching his lips move but not being able to separate one voice from the next. Dak turned his head to face his mother. The look of concern in her face was full of love, but her words were no more clear to him than his father’s were.

Even the doctor was speaking, but his word were just as buried as the others. Slowly, though, a word or two came into focus. He made out, “What happened?” Then, “feeling.” He thought he heard his father asking about money. Dak dropped his gaze to the floor and saw that, at some point, his parents must have gone through his pack trying to discover the source of his apparent illness.

He gave up on trying to understand them. His thoughts were clear enough though. Rhoj had not been there, but perhaps if he were to climb the other peak… Perhaps then he could meet one of the great Teachers. Clearly nobody had even tried in, what did the liar say? Over a hundred years? Dak didn’t think the imposter was lying about the other peak going unvisited while their business operated. But to what lengths would their cooperative go in order to prevent people from climbing the eastern peak? Surely the man at the fork in the road wasn’t the only obstacle. Did they have men guarding the base of the mountain, ready to kill anyone who tried to climb it? Were they trying to hide something? Was Tahl still up there? Was that their true secret?

Dak decided he couldn’t go on in life without learning whether Tahl was at the top of the other peak. He vowed to himself that the next thing he did with himself would be to scale the second peak and look for Tahl.

What if there really were guards though? Then Dak would need to be armed. He would need some kind of weapon both for defense and to advocate his cause.

His attention wandered back to the voices in the room. He furled his brow and looked down at his bandage-bound hands. “What happened,” was the question he would try to answer. He moved his mouth, but no words came. He pushed air through his windpipe and made a sound. It was barely a grunt, but it was enough to quiet the room as his parents and the doctor listened intently.

What would he tell them? He couldn’t tell them the truth. Not only would it but completely unhelpful, it would put them all in danger. No, he had to lie to them. Hardly managing to whisper, he started, “I… I…” Their ears were turned to him. “Never…”

“You never?” his mother repeated. “You never what?”

“Made it. Never made it.”

“You never made it,” his father repeated. “What do you mean?”

“To the top. Didn’t reach the top.” He was quiet, and his speech was labored and slow.

“What happened to your hands then?” His mother put her hand gingerly on one of the bandaged fists.

He thought a moment, realizing this was an opportunity. “Beasts…” he said. “I was attacked.” Each word was followed by a short pause. “Fended them off.”

“Oh son,” his father said, putting a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “I’m so glad you made it home safely. You could have been killed. Why didn’t you go with a group, like everyone else?”

He was gaining strength, still whispering he found that he could get more than a few words to string together without pausing. “Wanted to go alone, so it would mean more.”

“Mean more to whom though?” his mother asked. “You don’t need to impress us.”

“For me,” Dak said.

“Well,” his father started, “there’s another group leaving tomorrow morning. You should go with them. You tried on your own, and you made it home alive. That’s quite an accomplishment, and nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No,” Dak said. “I go alone.”

His father’s countenance fell a little. “Oh son,” he started.

Mother interrupted though. “Well, if he wants to go alone I think he should go alone. We should help him prepare so that he won’t have to turn back next time.”

Dak looked lovingly at his mother. “Thank you,” he said.

Dak noticed that the doctor had quietly slipped from the room at some point. He wasn’t sure what the man had heard, but he was sure he couldn’t trust anyone. Would the doctor report to the business that he is claiming to have never reached the top? Would there be a penalty or punishment for that lie? Hadn’t the criminal at the peak asked him to lie? So what if Dak changed the lie a bit.

His father broke the silence. “Well, what do you need, then, son?”

“Rest,” he said. Accordingly, his parents brushed their hands over his head lovingly and bid him to rest well. Dak knew that even if they would come after him for the lie he had a couple days. There was no way to get information up or down that mountain very quickly, not that he knew of anyhow. He knew that he needed to rest up, to eat well and exercise a bit to make sure he was fit, and he would need a weapon. He figured he would wait until later that day to get out of bed and go for a jog.

Sure enough, later that afternoon he felt rested enough to get out of bed and eat. His mother let him eat as much as he felt he needed. He would need his strength, she said, when father protested. Then as the sun was setting, Dak went for a jog through town for an hour or so. He was glad to see that he was still strong and healthy. Once back at home his father must have had a change of heart, because he was sitting on the floor cradling a sword in his lap.

“Come sit with me,” he said. Dak sat with his legs crossed, facing his father, who lifted the sword and regarded it. “This was my father’s sword, and now I’m giving it to you. It served him well, but hasn’t done much for me. I feel that it will be of great assistance to you in your quest.”

Dak looked the sword over from the hilt to the tip of the blade. It wasn’t particularly ornate, but it had been well cared for. The hilt was wrapped in worn but sturdy leather. The blade and hilt metal were clean and shiny. The sword’s edge appeared to be sharp and had clean lines all along the length of the blade. It was a simple tool, a cutting tool. His father extended his arms to pass the blade to his son.

Dak hesitated. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” father replied. “I want you to have it. Take it with you to fend off the beasts. When my father ascended one of the peaks he took it with him and told countless tales of how it saved his life from many a deadly obstacle. You and I must take different paths, but it seems your path is in the steps of my father. Take the blade and return with honor.”

They spent the rest of the evening replenishing Dak’s pack with supplies. They fitted the sword’s scabbard to the pack and made sure he had everything he’d need. When they finished it was clear to Dak that he should set out that very night. He said goodnight to his parents, and without a sound he slipped out the front door into the night instead of returning to his bed.

His gut wrenched a little as he approached the fork in the road, seeing a light flickering at the booth. He decided to leave the road and take a wide arc around the booth to the right, hopefully avoiding talking to whoever was manning it tonight. Despite the cover of darkness, the stars and the moon provided enough light for him to see a man get up from the booth and start walking out to meet him. Dak widened his arc a little and picked up his pace. The shadowy figure picked up pace as well, still heading directly for him. Dak didn’t want to have to draw his sword, but he had a bad feeling that the meeting wouldn’t be as cordial as the last time.

As the two grew closer he could see clearly that it was the same wiry old man as before. The man called out, “Dak? Is that you? Where are you going so late?”

Dak slowed his pace to avoid looking more suspicious than he already did. “I never reached the top on my first go. That path was too difficult for me, so I’m going to take the path to the right here.”

“But you’re not on the path,” the old man remarked, cautiously.

“I didn’t want to disturb you this late at night, and I was ashamed to have to tell you that I’ve chosen the easier path.”

“I can help you with the more difficult path. Perhaps you did not meet my friend Jur who has a goat cart. He can help you reach the top.”

“I wish to reach the top on my own. Very kind though.”

“Speaking of which,” the old man started, “why are you traveling at night? That is quite dangerous.”

“After my experience on the western peak I decided it might be better to travel at night on the first day.” Dak really had no good explanation, and he knew that one wouldn’t hold water. “But really, I must be on my way. Good night.” He politely begged his pardon and began to walk around the old man.

“Dak, I can’t in good conscience let you go that way at night. It’s not safe.” He took some steps back, keeping in front of Dak.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’s the easier path, and I’m over-prepared.” Dak kept walking.

The old man shuffled quickly to get back in front of Dak. “Your father will never forgive me if I let you go now and something happens to you. Really, I must insist that you turn back now.”

“Thank you for your concern. I have my father’s blessing to go though, so don’t trouble yourself.”

The old man reached out and grabbed Dak by the arm. His grip was firm. It hurt a little. Dak looked down at the old man’s bony knuckles and back up at the man’s face. Their gaze met and they both stopped. Dak’s face wore a look of surprise, but the old man’s face was stern and cold. “You cannot go that way.”

Dak struggled a bit against the grip, but it was like a vice. He realized that he had no choice but to meet the physical restraint with physical resistance. In one motion he yanked his arm free, kicked the man back with his foot, and reached back and drew his sword from the side of his pack. He watched the old man stumble backward with a look of shock on his face, then Dak took off sprinting down the path.

“You’re making a horrible mistake!” the man howled after him. “You won’t survive the night!”

Dak ignored him and kept running. Eventually he met back up with the deep groove of dirt that ran through the grass. However, that path eventually disappeared altogether. It was immediately apparent that the worn path was maintained to look worn, but there was no actual path up the mountain on the east. If there had ever been a path it was long gone. Still jogging along, he glanced over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He couldn’t see any pursuer.

Dak slowed and came to a stop, sheathing the sword and gazing at the mountain. He could hear owls and other night creatures active ahead of him. He wondered how many of them would be dangerous. He started to reach for his sword again, but stopped and chuckled to himself. Out loud he told himself, “Dak, don’t be foolish.” But what was foolish? Beginning his ascent at night, doing it without his sword drawn? What did it matter at this point? He knew that the ascent would be too dangerous if he went straight up the side of the mountain, so he roughly estimated a path around the base that led gently upwards, marking several visual landmarks along what he could see of his makeshift path.

He took a deep breath and started toward the first landmark, a break in the trees far off in the distance. As he walked he listened to the sounds of the creatures around him. Howls, hoots, rustling grass, snapping twigs. In the plains he felt he was safe enough. The grass offered little cover for anything large enough to threaten him. But he knew he’d be among trees soon, and there he was sure he’d fear for his life.

The moon was still high in the sky when he met his first landmark. Thankfully he guessed he had happened upon the remains of an old path. There was a clearing in the trees that stretched out far into the distance, gently curving around to the left and up the mountain. He looked around to see if there were any dangers that he could make out before entering the dense forest, but he saw nothing.

In he went, looking over his shoulder at the grasslands behind him. As he walked along the old trail he noticed how overgrown the path had become. There was a thick growth of plants and bushes that he had to navigate, and in some places trees were beginning to grow into the hard, beaten ground. Most of the trees along the path were still relatively young, telling him that either the path had fallen into disuse more recently than the liar had suggested, or the ground had only recently become suitable for the roots to take hold.

As he pondered the growth and what it might tell him about the path, he began to hear a distant rushing water. The sound grew louder as he approached the same roaring river that cut across the path on the other mountain. At this elevation the two peaks were still joined at the hip, and the river cut across the southward face of both mountains.

Where the path met the river Dak could tell there was once a bridge, but it had long since collapsed and been carried away by the rapids. He looked up and down the river for anything that might help. Perhaps a tree had fallen or there was another bridge. But he had no such luck.

Stopping to think, he sat at the edge of the water on the bank and filled his water pouches. Again, the water was crystal clear and sweet to the taste. It was cool, probably runoff from a glacier somewhere. He idly opened his pack and rummaged around inside, looking for anything that might help him cross. The rope seemed a hopeful prospect. He took it out and peered back inside, but nothing else of use stood out to him.

He had about a hundred feet of rope, a length that took up more than half of the volume of his pack, but he knew could come in handy. It was a sturdy and heavy rope. He guessed that the river at the path was only about thirty feet across, so his rope should provide plenty of length.

He looked around again, wishing he had an axe. Bringing one tall tree down over the river would provide a useful bridge. He sighed. Nearby he found a heavy stick that wasn’t much larger than his arm. He tied one end of the rope to it and tied the other end to a tree right on the bank of the river. He threw the stick as hard as he could, but it fell short of the opposite bank. He pulled it back in to himself and tried again, bouncing it off the muddy ground on the other side. After a few minutes he managed to get the stick to fly over the branch of a tree on the far side of the river, but he couldn’t get it to secure itself to the branch. When he pulled on the rope the stick came back over the edge of the branch and fell onto the ground.

He reeled the stick back to himself again, frustrated. Again and again he threw the stick over the branch and tried different things to get it to attach itself sufficiently. He just needed to be able to pull on it and have it hold fast so he could cling to it as he forded the river.

After another fifteen or twenty minutes he got the stick to wrap the rope around the branch on the far side several times. He pulled gently at first, tightening the rope to the branch. The stick had twisted the rope a few times as well, creating a fairly strong hold. Tentatively Dak tested the hold. He pulled harder and harder until he was leaning his full weight on the rope, his feet slipping in the grass. He tugged and yanked on it, and his heart gained courage. Finally, he tied his end of the rope to his waist, securing his pack and water pouches to his body as well. Taking up the slack of the rope in his hands, he started pulling himself across the cold river.

Immediately his knees went stiff in the cold water. The water wasn’t deep near the edge of the bank, but as he waded farther out he started to wonder if he would be able to swim with all of the weight of his pack on him. He kept pulling in the slack on the rope and pulling himself forward. His muscles were aching and sore. His hands could barely grip the rope.

Some of the larger rocks in the bottom of the river provided him with platforms to hop between in order to avoid the need to swim. Carefully he aimed and leaped, taking care to account for the flow of the water. The first hop went well enough, but he slipped and nearly lost his balance. He took up the slack on the rope quickly and steadied himself. The next rock was a little farther, but he was sure he could make it. Again, he stumbled, but stayed above water. The third hope did not go so well. He slipped and plunged under the water, losing his grip on the rope and sucking in a bunch of water. The river quickly swept him away, turning and wheeling him about.

Dak felt a sharp pain, a blow to his head. Choking on water and stiff in the cold water, he grasped all around him, trying to get ahold of the rope, but even when his hand brushed against it he couldn’t grip it. With a crack, his head smashed against another rock on the bottom of the river and he felt himself fade to sleep.

When he finally opened his eyes again he was looking up at the moon. Not much time had passed, but he had no way of knowing how long he had been out. The rope had held, thankfully, and swung him around to rest on the shore of the opposite bank, nearly a hundred feet downriver. He coughed up water. His breathing was painful and labored. His chest was sore. His head burned and ached. Once he had scrambled away from the river a bit he reached up to feel around his head and his hand came back covered in blood. He took out a length of bandage from his pack and wrapped his head. He untied the rope from his waist and tried to stand up. The cold had made his whole body numb. The parts of him that he could feel were hurting. He used a nearby tree to stand himself upright. He felt uneasy on his feet, but knew he needed to keep himself moving for a while to warm up. His muscles refused to cooperate. He nearly fell back to the ground.

He wished he had stayed home. There would have been no shame in living the same stupid lie as everyone else. He was going to get himself killed out here and then he would never experience happiness anyway.

Dak vigorously rubbed his sick, white hands on his chest and sides. He leaned against the tree and lifted a leg, trying to shake it and move it. Eventually it moved a little. He tried the other. After several long minutes he took his first steps away from the support of the tree.

It took a few more minutes of pacing around in circles before he could bend over and pick up the rope. He began slowly taking it up in his arms and wrapping it back up as he traveled up the river toward his starting place at the path. The ninety feet or so that he had to cover took far longer than it should have. After only fifty feet he had given up wrapping the rope nicely and began stuffing it in his bag as he walked. At the base of the tree whose branch held the other end of the rope he set his bag down with the rest of the rope inside and peered up at the stick, wondering how he might get the whole length of rope back.

He didn’t want to cut the rope down. Ever last inch of the rope could come in handy later. He pondered climbing the tree, but in his current state he thought it unwise. After several moments of brainstorming he decided to set up camp. A fire would help warm him back up. He could eat. He could rest a bit until day break, which only looked to be a couple hours away, then he could try climbing the tree in the morning.

Of course he wasn’t doing it all just for the last fifteen feet of rope, it was an excuse to build a fire and eat and rest. Had the rope been easier to retrieve he might have keep walking until morning, but he knew it would be better to warm up and rest a little.

As he got the fire going, a task that he found remarkably difficult with numb fingers, he remembered learning in school that it was dangerous to close your eyes and sleep after a hard hit to the head. He heard stories of people taking blows to the head, going to sleep, and never waking back up. The thought worried him. He ate some food and felt the feeling coming back to his limbs. His fingers and toes were still numb, but the rest of his flesh felt as though it was being ripped from his bones. It tingled and burned with a sharp intensity that he had never experienced before.

He wanted to go home, but crossing the river again was not an option. It was far too late for that. He was going up the mountain or he would die trying.

Ultimately he decided that he could rest his eyes if he were sitting up, so he leaned against a tree in a way that he hoped would cause him to fall over and wake up if he started to drift off to sleep. However, the warmth of the fire, his full belly, and the lateness of the hour all combined their forces and overpowered him. He fell asleep sitting up.

It was nearly noonday when he awoke. A wave of relief washed over him. He was relieved that he had woken up at all. He was relieved that nothing had eaten him while he slept. He was relieved that he had survived his fall in the river. He was relieved that he hadn’t turned back and gone home, as his dreams had suggested.

Still stiff and sore, but otherwise feeling good, he packed up camp and looked back up at the rope. He would climb up and retrieve it, he decided.

It didn’t take him long to get the rope, and he only nearly fell once. He watched in satisfaction as the stick dropped to the ground. He made his way back down, ignoring the scrapes and bruises from his climb.

Packed up and ready to go, Dak put his sights forward along the path again. The rise seemed gentler than that of the other mountain’s path. All the rest of the day he walked, without stopping again until nightfall. As the sun began to set he could hear the night wildlife stirring. He could hear far more beasts now. He looked down the hill and turned to face up the mountain. He guessed he was no more than a quarter of the way up. He became somewhat frustrated as his apparent lack of progress, but he did not wish to risk traveling at night now. There were far too many dangers this high up. He was far from civilization. Whatever organization was running the scam on the other mountain had obviously scared off or killed off any wildlife that had once inhabited the other mountain, but this peak was teeming with life.

Before the sun finished setting he found a tiny clearing where he could set up his tent. He used the rope and sticks to form a fence around the clearing, attaching the rope to the trees when possible. He hoped it would be enough to ward off dangerous animals. He also build a fire, hoping it would act as a deterrent as well.

That evening Dak ate in silence, listening to the sounds of hordes of wild animals hunting and prowling around him. When he looked off into the blackness around his clearing he swore he could see eyes peering back at him from all around. He broke a branch off one of the live trees at his perimeter and fashioned it into a torch, taking advantage of the sap seeping out. At the edge of his fence he leaned the torch out into the darkness to see what he might see. Sure enough, some kind of large predatory cat was poised to attack. When it saw the flames it backed off a little, then lunged out, hissing. Dak whirled around and scrambled back to his pack to draw the sword, just as the big cat leaped over the fence and began bounding toward him.

He spun around with the sword outstretched in defense. He slashed at the sprinting cat, who was leaping at him. Dak fell to the ground as the cat hurled over him, howling in pain. It rolled on the ground behind him as he struggled back to his feet. The cat, more cautious now, slashed out at him. Dak swung the blade defensively and the cat backed away from it, but didn’t turn to retreat yet.

Dak yelled as ferociously as he could, swinging the sword and still brandishing the torch. Though the torch didn’t burn strong, it flared up when he swung it at his attacker.

The big cat gave one last growling hiss before giving up and turning to leap out of the enclosure. The predator left a trail of dripping blood. Dak hoped the amount of blood indicated a light wound the cat could recover from on its own. He didn’t want to be a murderer.

He nearly collapsed to the ground out of relief, wiping the sweat from his forehead. A good deal of sweat was dripping from beneath the bandages he still wore on his head. The sweat stung his wounds.

Dak spent the next hour making more torches from sappy branches and attaching them around the perimeter of his fence. “Maybe that cat will go warn his friends about the dangerous fire-wielding monster,” he mused to himself out loud.

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September 2016

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