AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
“You choose to carry such burdens?” Coyote asked walking up to where Daidam and Milas stood under one of the apple trees with bulging pouches hanging off their shoulders.
“We must carry food,” Daidam said plucking another apple from a branch.
“I tell food is plentiful in Airini.”
“Aye. It is here in the orchard. But what of where we travel next?”
“Food is plentiful throughout Airini. But carry your burdens if you so choose.”
Daidam closed the flap on her pouch then adjusted its weight on her shoulder. “Where do we travel this day?”
“Where do you wish?”
Daidam looked to the edge of the orchard. “Are their more huts?”
Coyote nodded. “Come,” he said turning around to lead Daidam and Milas back into the forest.
After walking for some distance, Coyote left the forest. Daidam and Milas followed, their steps slowing as they looked around. They were standing on the rim of a large bowl shaped valley that was many times larger than the Fortress of Alasdair. The valley sides were covered in hip high stalks, the heads of grain swaying with the breeze. The center of the valley was split by a river, its crystal blue waters filling a wide channel that snaked lazily between clusters of huts along its banks. A wooden bridge spanned the gorge, allowing movement from one bank to the other.
“I shall meet you in the village.” Coyote told them then disappeared into the sea of grain stalks.
Daidam tried to follow his movement with her eyes but it was impossible. “Grain growing free,” she said as she started down the gentle slope. “How different Airhini is from Arhdahl.” With her eyes focused on the huts, she did not notice the change in the ground and her boot caught on an unseen obstacle causing her to stumble. Milas reached out, grabbing Daidam’s arm and steadying her. “I am fine,” Daidam told her but nodded a silent thanks for her assistance. She took a cautious step then stopped when she noticed her boot rested on a shallow rise of earth. Kneeling, she pushed the grain stalks aside to reveal the rounded mounds of what had once been a deep furrow in the soft ground. “Milas, look. This grain has been planted. Just like the apple trees.”
Milas placed a hand on Daidam’s shoulder and bent over to see. “But…” She straightened and turned to study the empty village. “There are none to do so.”
Daidam stood. “Come. Let’s continue.” When Milas nodded, she took a careful stride forward.
Unable to see the neglected furrows below the overgrown stalks, it took a few steps before they were comfortable with the pattern of distance between the rows and could again walk easily. As they approached the village, the slope flattened and the grain fields were left behind.
“These are different,” Milas noted. The ground between the grain fields and the village was divided into evenly sized and spaced rectangular sections. Like the grain fields, the smaller gardens were overgrown and showed little evidence of ever being tended for some time. She knelt beside one of the gardens and pulled a clump of frilly green stems from the ground. Attached to the greenery was a long orange object round in shape that tapered down from its top to bottom. “What is this?”
“That is a carrot,” Coyote said as she trotted up to the pair.
“Did I hear someone speak of carrots?”
“Horse,” Coyote greeted the newcomer. “Many eves have passed since I have seen you.”
“Aye,” Horse agreed as she plodded out of the grain field. “Now, about those carrots.”
Daidam and Milas were startled by the newcomer who was quite large. Horse walked on four strong legs that supported a barrel shaped body and thick neck covered in the long hairs of its mane supported an angular head with two sharp pointy ears that constantly turned this way and that as he listened to all around him. Horse had extremely powerful looking muscles that flexed under his dark brown hide but it was his two soft brown eyes that drew Daidam.
“May I?” Horse asked, dropping his head down to collect the carrot Milas held. The soft hairs of his muzzle brushed against the palm of her hand as his lips gently retrieved the carrot. “These are the two-leggeds we have heard told?” he asked Coyote after enjoying the snack.
“You eat this?” Daidam asked holding up another carrot she had just pulled from the ground.
“I find carrots to be quite tasty,” Horse answered. “Much more so than grass. But few feel the same. Coyote does not.”
“No, I find them lacking.”
Horse chuckled then dropped his head and pulled another carrot free. The crisp carrot crunched loudly as he chewed. “I will not complain as the fewer to eat the more for me to enjoy. You should try one,” he told Daidam and Milas.
Milas pulled a carrot free. Brushing it free of the dirt clinging to it, she raised it to her mouth and took a bite of the greenery then spit it out immediately, the bitter taste lingering on her tongue.
Coyote laughed. “As I told you, the taste is not pleasant.”
“You ate the wrong end. Try the other,” Horse instructed.
Milas shook her head.
“You cannot judge until you try,” Horse told her.
Daidam slowly lifted her carrot to her mouth and bit off a small piece. Cautiously, she chewed the morsel. Then she took a larger bite. “It is not unpleasant,” she told Milas.
“You see, Coyote, not all feel as you,” Horse said.
Daidam walked out of a hut carrying an unwieldy basket. Since leaving Horse to his plot of carrots, she and Milas had been wandering among the huts. “What use is this?” she asked Coyote after setting the basket on the ground. It was made from reeds woven into a cylindrical shape. One end had an opening she could just fit her hand through while the other end was solid, as were its sides. A coil of fiber, the same that made the cots soft to sleep on, was tied to the middle of the basket.
Milas walked out from an adjacent hut. “That is an odd basket. What does it carry?”
“It is empty. Coyote, do you know of its use?” Daidam asked again, as she examined the oddly shaped basket.
“I do not understand,” Milas said. “How do you not know the use of what you make?”
“Your question has no answer,” Coyote said.
“How can a question have no answer?” Daidam asked.
“When you ask it of one who cannot know.”
Daidam thought for a moment. Then she stood and carried the basket back inside the hut. When she reappeared, she walked to Coyote and sat cross legged in front of him. “Speak true.”
“The huts are of your making?”
“Badger?” Milas asked, sitting beside Daidam.
“The apple grove was planted?” Daidam continued her questioning.
“By your making?”
“The grain was planted?”
“By your making?”
Daidam rubbed her chin while she mulled over Coyote’s answers. “They exist yet none in Airini have need of them?”
“I do not understand. Why make what you do not need?” Milas asked.
“Your questions are best directed to others.”
“What others? Badger? Wolf?”
Daidam shifted uneasily. “The Council.”
“Daidam, what do you speak? How can the Council know of these things? Of Airini?”
Coyote sat quietly.
“We must return,” Daidam told Milas.
“Hear your words. It is forbidden. To do so will bring death.”
“We must find a way. We must return. We must question the Council.”
Daidam twisted around to face Milas. “Of why? Why do we live up there?” she asked pointing to the butte towering over the tops of the forest trees. “Why must we scrap furrows into the rock to grow our crops? Why dig holes into the rock to shelter us? Why is it forbidden to look upon Airini?”
“How are we to return? There is no path.”
“Then I will climb the cliffs.”
“Daidam, here your words.”
Daidam took Milas’ hands into her own to tenderly hold them. “You need not come. Stay. Here you find shelter. Here you find food. I shall go. If there is dishonor brought to Arhdahl, then it be mine.”
Milas shook her head. “Your questions are mine, Daidam. Many times when I sat in the Forbidden Zone and gazed down on Airini, I thought them. Why so much when Arhdahl had so little? I will go with you.”
“It will not bring pleasure.”
Milas nodded. “I will go.”
Daidam looked at Coyote who had remained silent. “We must return to Arhdahl. Will you lead us?”
“It is far.”
“Aye. We shall follow.”
Coyote smiled at the determined look on Daidam’s face. “Perhaps, the journey can be made shorter,” he said as he glanced over his shoulder. “Horse, join us,” he called then waited for Horse to plod over to the trio. “Are you fit for travel?”
“Would you mind a small burden?”
“It has been many years since such a favor was asked.”
“Aye. And granted.
“Will it be so again?”
Horse eyed Milas and Daidam who were listening curiously to his exchange with Coyote. He bopped his head. “Aye. It is granted. When do we travel?”
Coyote looked into the sky. “If we go now, we can reach the butte by fall of eve.”
“Then let us not wait. Come, two-leggeds, climb onto back and I shall carry you to the butte.”
“Climb onto your back?” Milas asked, startled by the request.
“Aye. My back is broad. I can carry you with ease.”
“Your back is quite high,” Daidam said. “How are we to reach it?”
“Quickly, young Daidam,” Coyote urged. “Bring a chair from the hut to aid you.”
Daidam jumped to her feet and raced inside. When she reappeared, she carried a chair which she set down beside Horse. “Our pouches,” she said and turned back to where the pouches of apples rested on the ground next to the hut’s doorway.
“You have no need for them,” Coyote stopped her. “Horse waits.”
For an instant, Daidam considered ignoring Coyote and retrieving the pouches. Then she stepped onto the chair and threw her leg over Horse’s back. Once she was sure she wasn’t going to fall off, she reached a hand down to the waiting Milas and helped her up. She felt Milas immediately wrap her arms around her waist.
“Take a firm grip of my mane,” Horse told Daidam.
“We go,” Coyote said.
Horse followed Coyote at a walk until they passed the grain field then he quickened his gait.
Daidam had both fists tightened around Horse’s mane, determined not to be unseated as they raced through the forest.
Continued in Chapter Ten
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