The Guide Stone
They enthusiastically greeted the coolness of the morning as they broke camp. Lan and Tarra went through their usual bickering about who should carry what, while Chilcoat gathered embers and put the fire out. When he was nearly done, he noticed that Tarra was timidly watching him. She peeked out from the cloak draped over her head and acted as if she was adjusting her load, but her eyes lingered on his form until Lannon joined the ritual. That was enough to break the spell and send her marching toward the cliff face. “I want to see if that bush is anything I can use.”
The trio made their way along the rock face continuing north until midmorning. They ruled out Lannon’s possible climbing route from the previous day but found a second more promising site further along the cliff.
Lannon peered skeptically at a crack in the rock face. “Looks like those bushes might make footholds, but the other branch might be more direct.”
Chilcoat deferred to his judgment. “You’re doing the climbing so it’s up to you.”
Tarra wanted to continue further along the wall looking for her herbs. “I don’t think you can climb that, so let’s just keep going.”
Lannon climbed easily up the escarpment for the first ten feet but found a thorny little bush to be a formidable barrier. He took his knife and began slashing aimlessly at the resilient little specter. Bits and pieces rained down on the bystanders, but he gained little headway. “I don’t suppose this is what you’re looking for?” He called down from his perch.
“No, it is just some sort of tersen, I think. I can make you some tea out of it if you want, but it’ll just make you pee and you do enough of that already. Just try going around it.” She called back to him.
He considered the alternatives and decided that perhaps he could step over it now that he had trimmed some of the top branches. The awkward exercise rewarded him with scratches along his inner thigh and a near fall from the narrow shelf. He was able to sidle along the ledge for several more feet before he confronted another bush of similar extraction. He tried simply pushing it aside while he stepped in amongst its brittle branches but his leggings quickly became entangled in the thorns. He tried pivoting his weight, but the stone he was standing on crumbled and he fell with a resounding thump onto the sandy clearing at the base of the cliff.
Lannon grumbled as he determined that only his pride was hurt. “It’s almost like those weeds are growing in just the right place to make things tricky.”
Chilcoat tried to sooth his pride. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should move on a little further. If we don’t find a better spot, we’ll rest and head home tomorrow.”
For the remainder of the afternoon they walked along the edge of the savanna keeping a respectable distance from the flaming cliff, and by evening, they reached a large flat stone that had fallen from the crag making a convenient resting spot. It was a couple of feet thick and roughly rounded from rolling the last few hundred yards down the rubble pile that buttressed the rock face. The channel it had gouged in the rubble had long since lost any distinctive edge as it swept out a gently curving arc that ended at the base of the cliff.
Lannon was anxious to end the journey. “This’ll make a good bed for tonight. We’ll be up out of the bugs for a change.”
Tarra continued to hope the whole trip hadn’t been in vain. “We still have an hour of light. Maybe it’s just around the next bend.”
Chilcoat considered the rocky outcrop another mile down the cliff and the stone platform before him. “Let’s call it quits for today. I think Lan’s right. This is as good as we are going to get for tonight. We can think about our next move after we’ve had some rest.”
The failing light again set the cliff ablaze in orange profusion with dark scars and pockets where shadows had already taken hold. He relaxed and considered their plight. They had already spent weeks on this silly venture and had found nothing. The old man has had the last laugh after all, he thought, pulling the stick from the clutter Tarra had gathered near the fire. Even as you slumber in Yod you mock me. Are you teaching me something I don’t yet understand? Father, you know you must speak plainly for me.
In frustration at Tangar’s indifference, he was about to use the stick to light his pipe when he caught a glimpse of Tarra tending her cleanup duties. She was kneeling on the platform silhouetted against the blaze of the cliff face. Her skin glowed with the moisture of a long day and her hair fell to cover her shoulders. She pulled it back, twisted it into a bun, and began searching the clutter for the stick. He reconsidered his use of the twig and held it out to her. She overlooked him at first then recognized his offer with a dismissive droop of her shoulders. She took the stick and twisted it through her hair before returning to tend to the cooking of leftover meat.
He watched her delicate form for a moment then turned his attention back to his pipe. The acrid smoke of the freshly picked herb burned his throat but a full stomach comforted his mood. The cliff glowed in the last rays of the sun and the crags and cracks formed a web of dark shadows on its face. As he lay there watching the growing complexity of the design, it struck him as something very familiar. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it reminded him of something. The cracks in an old cooking pot or the cliff face at the falls... He closed his eyes and rested his thoughts as the jagged pattern faded on his eyelids. “The stick,” he called out! “Let me see the stick.”
“What? Why? You aren’t going to break it are you?” Tarra pulled the twig from her hair and held it protectively to her chest.
“No, no, I just want to see it for a minute.” He held it up at arm’s length silhouetted against the pale orange of the cliff. He moved it slowly from side to side squinting with one eye. “There! You old bastard, there it is.” He twisted the twig slightly adjusting the last little crook to match the outline of one of the jagged shadows on the cliff face. “That’s our path. See it lines up perfectly, well OK, maybe not perfect, but it’s a good match.”
She leaned close to him and tried to see his vision. Putting her hand on his, she steadied it for a moment then wrenched the stick from his grasp and tried doing her own matching exercise. “I don’t know, maybe that one, or this one.” She moved her arm and tilting her head.
“Let me see,” Lannon said. “If I’m going to have to climb it, I’d better get a good look at it before the light fades.” He skeptically moved the stick back and forth at various arm lengths then it occurred to him that he could use the platform to steady his hand. He jumped down off the backside of the stone and moved to the far edge, bending down to put the blunt end of the twig on the smooth surface. He crouched behind the stone to see if he could find a match in the crags.
Tarra watched his antics for a moment then jumped down beside him. She brushed the stone surface and blew dust from the cracks and crevices along its edge. “Here, let me see it.” She blew several more times to clean out a distinctive dimple in the stone surface. “The guide stone... I remember him talking about a guide stone, but it was all jumbled up with a bunch of gibberish about houses of stone or people of stone and oceans of grass. I just figured he was delirious.”
She carefully wedged the blunt end of the stick into the hole and crouched to view the cliff. Moving her head back and forth tilting it slightly, she began brushing the rock surface again. With some considerable effort, she uncovered distinctive smooth spots on either side of the borehole. She put a hand on each spot and lined up her sight with the twig against the now dull brown cliff face. “I think that’s it. Look quick.” She grabbed Lannon by the hand and dragged him down. “Put your hands here and here and keep your arms straight.”
“I guess I can climb that. I’ll have to get past those weeds, but maybe it won’t be too bad.”
“What weeds? You’re looking at the wrong thing. Here, get out of my way.” She bumped him aside with her hip and leaned over to reassess the view. “There, see? Put your eye right here so the bottom section lines up with the trail left by the guide stone. See where it broke away from the cliff up near the top. It hit that ledge and looks like it bounced about halfway down and rolled along that ravine until it got here.”
“Hmm, yeah, I think I see what you mean.” He put his hands on her waist and leaned close to her, sighting along her point of view. “You mean that first ledge leading to the left?” He casually ran his hand along her side and pressed against her legs.
She suspended her effort and straightened up. Plucking the twig from its nest, she casually pressed her heel on his toe and ground it firmly as she turned to leave. “I guess you can figure it out from here then.”
He grimaced but didn’t say anything until she was well clear. “Yeah, I guess I have it figured out.”
“Good!” Tarra twisted her hair and used the twig to pin it in place as she climbed back onto the platform. “Tomorrow we’ll find out for sure.”
“Yeah, sure, if there is anything to find, I guess I’ll find it.”
The night swept in with the wind gusting up the cliff and stirring the grass in waves of excitement. Tarra chanted a woman’s song, softly mocking her culinary duties, as she finished storing the dried meat for the long walk home. The smoke from the fire had a heavy scent of meadow-brush, and a continuous trail of sparks streamed into the night sky. The platform served well to keep them above the bugs, but it was a little small for the three of them and the demanding fire.
Dawn ushered in a pack of dogs yelping in the distance. Lannon rose to better judge their approach but decided it wasn’t worthy of further concern. He stretched in the first rays of the sun and jumped down from the pedestal moving stiffly to the edge of the clearing to take care of personal issues. He returned with some kindling and stirred the fire to life with a cloud of sparks. Chilcoat and Tarra began to stir but remained in their beds trying to eke out the last few moments of rest.
“You two are missing the glory of the dawn’s Graces,” Lannon jibed from within the shower of smoke and sparks.
“The Graces can wait a few minutes since they were nice enough to bring me a stack of morning wood.” Chilcoat grumbled and rolled away from the dawn horizon burying his face under his arm. Tarra simply pulled her cloak up to cover her face.
After a quick meal, they decided that Tarra would remain at the guide stone and use the medicine stick to direct his path and Chilcoat would relay her hand signs at the base of the cliff and help if anything went wrong.
“What am I looking for? I know it’s a bush, but what does it look like?” Lannon asked as he cinched his legging tight around his calf.
“The stick has three notches on the end. That means the plant has three leaves on the end of each branch.” Tarra held the stick out for inspection and drew a rough outline in the sand.
He looked at it dismissively and turned to face the cliff. “And which path am I to take?”
“I thought you said you had it all figured out.”
“Just checking to see if you changed your mind.” He pulled his cloak into place and headed toward the cliff with Chilcoat in trail.
“Never,” she called out to him as she took the stick and wedged it in place in the guide stone. She draped her cloak over her head forming a loose tent along her outstretched arms as she leaned on the stone and sighted the path on the cliff. “Just head up the gully on the right, I’ll let you know when you’ve gone too far.”
While the path was not the one he would have chosen, his progress was steady with only minor detours around thorn bushes and rock-falls. Tarra called out course corrections and waved her arms to signal direction changes. Chilcoat, in turn, called up the cliff to make sure he followed the guidance and wasn’t in any trouble. A couple of times he called back down the cliff to be sure of her path selection since, from where he stood, there seemed to be better alternatives. By mid-morning, he had made it to a ridge that let him rest and reconnoiter.