AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
None could remember a time that the Crone had not been of the Realm, yet none could name the House of her birth. And none knew what power guided the blind ancient in her travels from fortress to fortress. None dared to question. She was not of the House of Alasdair, as she had not been born to the house; yet unless called to another fortress, the Crone made her home in a small room separate from the labyrinth of stone passages that connected the rows of underground barracks and living quarters of Alasdair Fortress. A lone ramp, its rock surface worn smooth by countless shuffled steps, provided the Crone access to her solitary room. And unlike all other rooms in the Realm, hers was secluded behind a solid wood door that provided the aged seer refuge from curious eyes.
The Crone sat on a stone bench in front of the hearth, the fire warming her aching bones. Unlike every other night of her existence, she was not alone. “The time nears.”
“Do you fear?”
“My bones grow weary and my heart beats with longing. Does he still wait?”
The Crone nodded. “Aye.”
“Then I fear not.”
The Crone leaned forward reaching for the unadorned staff lying at her feet. Lifting it, she placed one end in the fire then pulled it free as soon as the wood burst into flame. She held it for the other to take. “The torch must guide them.” The Crone sat listening to the fading footsteps as her visitor walked up the ramp to the surface of the bluff. When she no longer could hear the sound she sighed then turned back to the warm fire, the barest hint of a smile easing across her aged face.
A small sliver of moon cast a pale light that did little to penetrate the darkness. The path had ended abruptly just shy of the butte’s surface and Daidam, after climbing the remaining distance, hung precariously from the top of the cliff. Her boots gained purchase on the stone face and she inched upward pausing every few heartbeats to listen for the sound of boots striking rock— a warning that a sentry was close. She heard nothing. Slowly, she raised her head until she could see over the lip of the cliff. Her eyes scanned the fortress then she released her grip and dropped down to where Milas waited.
“What of the guards?” Milas anxiously whispered wrapping her arms around Daidam to prevent her falling off the narrow path.
“One walks beyond the fortress gate,” Daidam whispered after regaining her balance. “Another returns to the barracks.”
“And the Crone?”
“A torch brightens her door.”
“It is odd.”
“Aye,” Daidam agreed. Never had she known the blind Crone to require her path to be lit.
“Do we go?”
“Aye. Fox told to seek the Crone.”
“What of the guard?”
Daidam did not answer. Instead, she looked up to the lip of the cliff. “Quickly, before the guard returns,” she said turning to climb the cliff once again. Using the same foot- and handholds she had used before, she clambered up the cliff and pulled herself over the top.
Following Daidam’s lead, Miles scrambled over the lip of the cliff almost as quickly then crouched in the darkness, her eyes seeking out the night guard and spotting the sentry on the opposite side of the butte.
“The torch dims,” Daidam said alarmed, the bright flame faltering as she watched.
Daidam set off running, bent forward at the waist with her eyes focused on the flickering torch that marked the head of the Crone’s ramp, otherwise unseen in the night’s darkness. Pebbles scattered beneath their boots, the sound of them ricocheting off one another seeming loud to her ears but she did not slow her pace until she neared the depleted torch and its barely discernible glow. She skidded to a stop then
Milas skidded to a stop beside Daidam, panting heavily. “The guard nears,” she whispered. “We must wake the Crone.”
“We must wait,” Daidam whispered back.
“Will we not be seen?” Milas asked as the sound of boots scuffing against stone announced the guard’s approach.
“The torch has burned out.”
“What of the moon?” Milas asked glancing about at the faint shadows cast even though the moon was but a sliver of its true self.
“The guard protects against threats from without not from within the fortress,” Daidam reminded Milas then spun in surprise when the door at the base of the ramp creaked open.
“Who disturbs my rest?” a voice demanded.
Daidam felt Milas stiffened in alarm beside her. “It is the Crone,” she reassured Milas before turning to face the door. “I am Daidam of the House of Alasdair.”
“And the other?”
Milas stepped forward. “I am Milas, daughter of Thoralf, House of Alasdair.”
The door was pushed open. “Come.”
Daidam could see little inside the Crone’s room except for flickering shadows caused by the hearth’s fire. She grabbed Milas’ hand and led her down the ramp. As soon as they entered the room, the door creaked shut behind them.
“The guard nears,” Milas said as the Crone urged them closer to the hearth.
“Aye. Fear not, his steps shall not vary. Go, warm yourselves.” Daidam settled on the floor in front of the fire making room for Milas to join her as the Crone returned to her place on the bench. “What of the Captain?” she asked.
“He breathes not,” Milas said sadly when Daidam remained silent.
“You fell at the point of his spear. How be it your breath was not taken?”
“I know not.”
“And Daidam? You fell into the Abyss.”
“No. A path appeared to mine eyes,” Daidam told the Crone.
“And this path returned you to ”
“Do you not know what awaits you?”
“Yet, you chance your life?”
“We must,” Milas said. “In Airhini…”
The Crone smiled. “You speak the name of the Realm below.”
“You know of it?” Daidam asked in surprise.
“Have you been the Realm?” Milas
The Crone smiled and nodded.
“Yet, you never speak thus,” Daidam said.
“It is forbidden, is it not?”
“It seems much is forbidden,” Milas said quietly.
“Why do you return?”
“To seek truth,” Milas said determinedly.
“Who do you question?”
“The Counsel,” Daidam said just as determinedly.
The Crone leaned her head back and closed her eyes. For several heartbeats the room was silent, even the wood of the fire seemed to burn without sound as the seer entered a trance. Finally, the Crone tilted her head forward. “Food and drink awaits you there,” she pointed across the room to a table where a pitcher and two mugs sat beside a tray covered by a cloth. “Then rest. Your journey begins at morn,” she said then returned to her trance state.
Daidam and Milas looked at each other in confusion. “Will she guide us?” Milas asked.
“I know not.”
Daidam raised her hand, placing two fingers against Milas’ lips. “No more questions. It is late, the morn will come soon. Let us do as the Crone told.” Daidam withdrew her hand after Milas nodded. She pushed herself upright then reached down to help Milas do the same.
Thoralf tugged on the small boulder that concealed the nook, a hole carved into the stone wall in the back of her quarters. Her thoughts returned to the night so long ago when she and another had strained to carry the rock from the forbidden zone to her quarters. Pulling the hidden item out of the niche, she smiled and reverently placed her hand atop it. “Soon, my husband,” she said picking up the heavy object and cradling it in her arms. “Soon.”
The sun had not yet risen when the Crone woke Daidam and Milas. “It is time,” she said as she nudged the pair.
Daidam sat up and threw off the blanket covering her then she forced herself up onto her feet, her muscles protesting after having spent the night sleeping on the cold stone floor. She took time to stretch her sore back as she watched Milas struggle awake.
“It is yet dark,” Milas observed as she stood.
“Aye. It be best we leave the fortress before morn breaks,” the Crone said as her hands felt about in a niche at the back of the room.
“Will the guards not stop us?” Daidam asked.
The Crone pulled free a folded piece of cloth then shook loose its tight folds to reveal two hooded cloaks. She carried the cloaks back across the room. “Keep your heads bowed,” she said as she held the cloaks out to Daidam and Milas, who lifted them over their heads letting them settle on their shoulders. “Speak not. Do as I say and no more. Come, it is time.” The Crone walked to the door. Taking hold of the handle, she strained to pull it open then she led her charges up the ramp.
Daidam looked about when they reached the surface of the butte. Except for the sentry, none had risen from the fortress quarters to greet the day. Motion caught her eye and she turned to see a cloaked figure emerge from a ramp and walk directly toward the gate.
“Quickly,” the Crone urged as she shuffled across the butte directly toward the groove marking the Fortress boundary.
“Do we not pass through the gate?” Daidam asked.
“Question not,” the Crone snapped. “Hurry.”
“Halt! Who leaves the Fortress?”
“You dare to question Thoralf?”
“What carry you?” the guard asked nervously. “What hides under your cloak?”
“I carry not but that I need on my journey.”
“You would leave the Fortress unguarded, Thoralf.”
“What do I fear? Are there threats to Arhdahl I know not?”
“Only the Abyss threatens the Realm.”
“I am of the House of Alasdair, I know not of the Abyss. Why do you stop me from my journey?”
“You may pass.”
Thoralf nodded before proceeding through the fortress gate.
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