Call of Descent

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Chapter Nine

That night pressed like a weight upon Reniko as she passed through the halls. Word had spread of her intent, as she knew it would, and where once she felt so at ease she suddenly felt the heaviness of the inhabitants’ hope. Milla had been right; they all believed something of Reniko that she herself did not believe was there. She hardly believed that all the people that she had lived with for these many months could suddenly look upon her with such reverence. She had noticed it quite frequently when she had first arrived but as time had passed so had the looks and the strange feeling that now again pervaded the halls. She took shelter in her room as soon as possible and her eyes fell upon Imako. The sword filled her with urgency and a courage she had thought had been lost for good. With its sight came all the visions of her home, and most of all of her training with Dertrik.

Now that she had decided to leave she wanted to go immediately. Milla, however, had cautioned her against it. Winter was still here and to travel alone in the unpredictable weather that came with the biting cold would mean her death, no matter how well prepared she was. It made her uncomfortable to think that she would have to stay amongst these people until the snow began to melt and the weather turned milder. She almost wished she hadn’t found the map for another month or even a couple of weeks.

She sat down on her bed just as there was a soft knocking at the door. It was Ima. She could tell by the way she knocked, and she called nearly as softly as her knock for her to come in.

Ima came in with a blast of frigid air with a very unsettle look on her face.

“There have been rumors flying around all day! Rillan said you were leaving. It’s not true is it? You wouldn’t leave Ilka, Essan, Jorellen and I without a Latin teacher, would you?” Her voice faltered as she saw the look on Reniko’s face. “It’s true? You’re leaving? When? Why?”

“I don’t know if you will understand but I will try and explain it nonetheless. I am leaving because I may have found a way home, a lead at least, and as much as I love Savonly, there are people waiting where I came from for me to return. They may even think I am dead and I can’t stand the thought of them grieving over me. My home is back with them, not here. As beautiful and comforting as it is here, it’s not my home.”

Ima looked at her feet fighting back tears. It was strange for Reniko to see a woman older than herself crying so openly in her presence.

“I know Milla said you were never going to stay here forever, but I had hoped she had been wrong. I guess I should have known better, but you see, what you brought with you was my hope. And I guess I was being selfish to think I could keep you here when the goddess requires your presence elsewhere. I just –” a sob cut into her thoughts and she let the words die unsaid.

“Ima, I don’t know what to tell you,” Reniko faltered, she couldn’t possibly bring herself to tell Ima that she didn’t believe in the goddess and therefore didn’t believe that her leaving Savonly was a part of the goddess Shyla’s plan; she barely believed in the ribbon reading that everyone was holding as perfect logic. She couldn’t tell her this, couldn’t console her in any way, because in all truth, she was leaving Savonly for her own selfish reasons. There was nothing noble about her actions, only a deep unrest and discomfort being amongst people that believed in things Reniko could never believe and were so behind the time that Reniko was so used to living in. In all reality, Reniko just wanted to be submersed in the familiarity of Earth, cars, noise, pollution and all. She gave a sigh and drifted to Ima’s side.

“I don’t know what the goddess has planned for my life, Ima, but she would not forsake you. In all likelihood my leaving you here is exactly what Shyla had planned. She warned you that I would not stay forever, so take comfort knowing that however long I am here for, Shyla will not forsake you with my leaving. Another path will be shown to you, I promise,” Reniko whispered this into Ima’s ear. It was the exact comfort that Ima needed regardless of how little Reniko believed it. It was the fact that Ima did that was all that really mattered.

“You’re right, you know. I just need reminders once in a while. Remind myself that the goddess is not going to abandon me. I wish you well on your coming journey, Reniko. May the goddess Shyla watch over you as you journey on the path she has set out before you.” Tears still shining on her face she turned and left the room.

“Ima!” Reniko called before the door swallowed her entirely.

Ima stopped and turned around.

“Thank you. Everything will be all right in the end.” Reniko smiled and Ima did as well, and with a slight bow, Ima turned and slid the door shut, leaving Reniko once again alone with only her thoughts to ponder over.

The next few weeks went by in a blur. Activity in the temple began to pick up pace, not only in preparation for Reniko’s departure, but in expectation of the coming thaw and the start to farming and other spring activities. Reniko found that despite her choice to leave, Milla still refused to let her sit around idle for any amount of time. By the time the first thaw came, Reniko had become so swamped in duties that she barely even noticed that it had come. After her conversation with Ima in her room the night she had received Imako from Milla, Reniko had not once seen her startling brown eyes framed by her blond hair. Milla had told her that Ima had trouble saying goodbye, especially to those she felt bonded to and that even though Ima was avoiding Reniko, it was not out of anger but sorrow and intense love. Reniko respected this and despite every urge of her mind she did not seek out Ima. She knew that if Ima wanted, she would come to Reniko.

Ilka, Essan and Jorellen on the other hand were not so easy to be rid of. From the moment the three of them had heard the rumors that Reniko was leaving they rarely left her side. When she asked them why, it had been Jorellen who had said that they had decided that as long as their teacher was there they wanted to learn everything they could from her, and how could they do that if they were elsewhere. It had made Reniko laugh but it had also made her seriously consider what would happen to the three of them after she had left. She realized that despite what Ima thought of her skill in Latin, she had made fantastic progress and so Reniko had told the three youngsters that when she left, they were to seek Ima out and not leave her side until she promised that she would continue their lessons in Latin by Reniko’s orders. Essan had whispered something into Jorellen’s ear, making Jorellen turn many shades of red, to the enjoyment of both Essan and Ilka. Reniko could only guess what the girls were teasing him about this time, a steady occurrence in the small group. She sometimes wondered if Jorellen wasn’t as embarrassed as he made out; Reniko thought he rather enjoyed the attention he received from the girls, since, needless to say, with the women and men in separate living spaces, they rarely got to see one another. Their regular teasing of each other was another familiarity that Reniko was beginning to grow accustomed to and another thing that tore at her heart as she thought about leaving it all behind. It suddenly occurred to her that she had embedded herself in two lives, not the same, but equally as painful to leave. The decision, however, was not hard for her to make, and despite the best efforts of the temple inhabitants she had set her heart to leave.

It was as she was sweeping one of the many gathering halls in the temple one afternoon that she began to notice the sudden change in the weather. As she did the strenuous work with her bulky winter clothing she began to feel uncomfortably warm, an unusual occurrence in the temple once you had stepped outside the warmth of your room. She stopped and took a deep breath and suddenly smelled spring in the air. She nearly dropped the broom on the spot and bounded to her room where most of her things were already packed. Instead she suppressed her joy and finished her task, after which she immediately set out to find Milla.

Milla had a daily routine that she rarely varied from and when Reniko realized that it was one of those rare occasions, she had a distinct feeling she knew where she was going to be. Without a moment’s hesitation she made her way out to her favorite clearing and saw Milla perched upon one of the large boulders.

“I was wondering when you would get around to coming here.” Milla said as Reniko came into view.

“You had me so busy cleaning the temple; I just realized that spring had arrived.”

“I thought I might prolong the inevitable for a few days, for Ima’s sake. I was hoping she would talk to you again before you left, but I don’t think that she will. It’s a shame really, I don’t know if she’ll ever get over this. It has been her one flaw in her service to the goddess, her faith wanes as does a flame when there is too much wind.”

“I think she believes that her resolve will be shaken if she talks to me again. I understand, and I really think that she’ll be just fine. It’s just as hard for her to know I’m going but still have me here, as it is for me to still be here when I know I am going.”

“True. Will you be leaving tomorrow?”

“If Rillan appears with that map he promised me, yes, otherwise you may be stuck with me for a few more days. Or at least until I track him down and assault him with vicious words until he produces it.”

“No need; he finished it weeks ago. He gave it to me for safe keeping.”

Reniko eyed Milla. “You mean you bullied him out of it so that you could make sure there were no mistakes.”

“I am the head priestess here at Savonly. I don’t need to bully anything from anyone. I need only ask.” Milla said with a smirk.

Reniko gave a laugh and stopped suddenly. Milla looked concerned.

“Is something wrong?” Milla asked sliding off the boulder she was on and walking closer to Reniko.

Reniko shook her head. “No nothing.” Her thoughts said otherwise. I’ve formed a relationship with Milla as I had with Dertrik. Was I trying to replace him? Or is she just so much like him that it couldn’t be helped. She turned away from Milla as she advanced.

“Nothing is always something. I know. I hear nothing all the time.”

“It’s just that, well, I’ve never talked to anyone the way I talk to you, except for Dertrik, my Blade master.”

Milla put her arm around Reniko pulling her close. “You’re going back to him now, so don’t think I replaced him, only think that I was a temporary relief until you could make your way back to him. He can’t possibly be mad at you for that, and neither can you. You weren’t replacing him Reniko, only finding something new that fit just as well.”

“You know you’re right. I just miss him so much, all of them really. It’s just not the same here.”

“It’s not supposed to be. You are allowed to miss them, just as we are allowed to miss you.”

“Thank you Milla, you always know just what to say.”

“Let’s hope so. I am –”

“– the head priestess after all,” Reniko finished with her.

Milla smiled and Reniko chuckled. “As predictable as always.”

“I need some new lines,” Milla said giving Reniko a wink and once again returning to her professional poise. “Will you be at the Telling tonight, Reniko?”

“As I always am, Milla,” Reniko said, giving a slight bow as she walked beside Milla back into temple life.

Tomorrow came with a sense of hurry and Reniko woke as prepared as she could be for her long journey ahead. Ilka, Essan and Jorellen had spent the rest of the previous day helping Reniko pack all the essentials into the space of a backpack and a few saddle packs. It had been quite a trial to arrange the items she needed in the packs so that they all fit, and in the end she had had to leave some of the not-so-essential items behind. Namely an extra set of clothing and her cellular phone – which was of no use on Vespen to begin with.

It was in the early morning mist when the chill of night still hung like a weight in the air that Reniko shuffled out of her room carrying her belongings and headed into the stables where Milla had readied the temple residents departing gift to Reniko, a beautiful chestnut coloured horse that resembled a Gelderland from Earth. Milla had told her that the horse’s name was Reesha; it had been Rillan’s companion all his life. Reniko had made sure to thank Rillan who had shrugged it off saying only that it was more for Reesha than for Reniko. He had wanted Reesha to see beyond the walls of Savonly, and since his life didn’t seem to include leaving Savonly he thought at least she should go. As Reniko believed, Rillan had wanted at least a piece of himself to go on the journey with Reniko since he could not.

Reniko rubbed Reesha down, washing away the cold night and waking the gentle horse to the morning, preparing her for the long journey ahead. Reesha whinnied spiritedly at Reniko, anticipating the coming adventure. The horse suddenly felt alive and anxious to go, so Reniko shelved the brushes and began saddling Reesha.

Before finally positioning herself on Reesha’s back, Reniko checked to make sure that the Gelderland was not weighed down too heavily by the saddlebags and backpack that she had secured to her. Reesha, however, had adjusted well to the weight and after a slight shifting in her stance carried Reniko with ease. With a little clucking sound and a soft kick in Reesha’s ribs Reniko coaxed the horse out of the warmth of the stables and out into the cool morning air. With an eagerness that Reniko had not expected, the horse cantered out onto the road only to be met by a chorus of well-wishers.

The street was full of sleepy-eyed Savonly inhabitants that had come to see Reniko off. Amongst them, Reniko spotted Milla, Rillan, her three young students and Ima. Upon spotting Ima, her face filled with a smile. Ima gave a slight smile and a small wave, and with a cacophony of good-byes, Reniko disappeared into the long tunnel that served as the secret entrance to Savonly.

After a few minutes of travel, the voices filtered to background noise and disappeared altogether, leaving Reniko with only the sounds of Reesha’s hooves echoing through the lonely tunnel.

It was a great relief to Reniko when she finally emerged from the dank tunnel into the warm spring filled afternoon. She had spent the entire day in the cold unending tunnel that led away from her sanctuary with only Reesha for company and it had nearly driven her mad. She was so used to always having someone to talk to, or at least be around, that with the sudden lack of human presence she almost felt lost. Yet at the same time it was a great comfort. Her thoughts seemed less jumbled and mixed up and the more she thought of what she was doing the surer of herself she became. It was the exact opposite of what she had felt when she was surrounded by the inhabitants of Savonly and it reassured her that she was in fact doing the right thing.

She decided to set up camp about an hour before sunset, far enough from the tunnel entrance that even if Rük happened to find her, there would be no danger in them finding Savonly, but not so far as to make it impossible for any Savonly scout to find her.

Reesha seemed happy to make the stop since at the very moment they had stepped into the tunnel the Gelderland had been uneasy and terribly frightened. She had been happier than Reniko to see the sky overhead, and even happier when they decided to rest and she had time to graze and get her wits about her once again.

Reniko felt rather uneasy about Reesha after this discovery. The horse was so gentle and kind that she was afraid that she would be too easily scared by oncoming predators. It was a very real possibility and it made Reniko even more careful to listen for warning sounds of predators to make sure that her only companion didn’t end up running straight into danger or leaving her behind completely.

After pulling the packs from Reesha, Reniko dug around in search of an item that she had thought would come in extremely handy. She came out with the map Rillan had made for her along with a compass her father had given her before she had come to Vespen. Although she was not sure how well the compass would work with the magnetic fields of Vespen, she thought it would be worth a try and would probably save her days in traveling time for it would be easier for her to find her way to Rownie – the nearest town in the direction of Reflaydun – than by simply following the lone trail that led around the Sortaia forest.

Laying out the map – which Rillan had combined with maps showing the complete continent of Edonal Eclith in present day, with references to the old ragged map that Reniko had found showing the location of Reflaydun – so that it faced in the general direction that depicted the actual locations of the points on the map, Reniko put down the compass and watched as the needle pointed steadily in the direction of the planet’s magnetic pull. What a relief! Vespen is not entirely different from Earth. Well, magnetically, at least. Reniko twisted the compass until the needle faced north and made a mark on the map for future reference.

“So far so good, eh, Reesha?” Reniko asked the Gelderland as she folded the map and tucked it away in the pack along with the compass. Reesha looked up at Reniko as she spoke and continued to chew the grass she had plucked from the ground, cocking her head quizzically in Reniko’s direction. Reniko laughed. The horse was unfamiliar with Reniko’s dialect since, not being around another human, she had reverted back to her native tongue.

“Sorry, friend, I feel much more comfortable speaking French than Vespian, so you’ll just have to get used to it.” With an unconcerned look Reesha went back to her very important task of tearing up grass and Reniko went back to her task of setting up camp.

Using the compass with the map shaved days off her traveling time, so Reniko came to the edge of the Sortaia forest two days earlier than had been planned. Milla had told Reniko it would be best if she bordered around the forest instead of going through it, but as Reniko looked at the map, going through the forest seemed like a far better choice. True that Cralay was located in the southeastern part of the forest, and it was the major base for Rük in the area; however, by what Reniko figured, she would be traveling in the far north of the forest, many days away from the Rük. She thought that Milla was being overly cautious, since it would take a miracle for the Rük to locate her amongst the foliage and miles of trees that made up the looming forest.

Anxious to get to Rownie, Reniko calculated the approximate time it would take to travel both routes. There was an eight day difference. Eight days! I would be stupid to take Milla’s advice. Twelve days is too long to travel, let alone twenty!

Reniko threw the map aside, her whole body seething with frustration.

“You know Reesha, on my planet, Earth, the distance we have to travel would only take us twelve hours, and that’s if we took Milla’s route. Twelve days! I don’t think I have even taken an entire trip that lasted more than twelve days. I can’t do this! It’s insane! What was I thinking?” Reniko slammed her fist into the dirt. Reesha was staring at Reniko sensing the anger that she felt and wondering if it was somehow directed at her. When she saw no action on Reniko’s part she wandered as far as her reigns would let her and continued to graze.

Reniko laid her head in her lap and sighed. She had been traveling for six days now, and in all her life she had never felt more bored or less engaged. She had not encountered another living soul, unless small fowl and rodents counted. The fields that led to Sortaia forest were wide and the landscape had not varied in the time that she had traveled through it. It was enough to make her wish that she had never found that old map and had never decided to leave Savonly.

What would Dertrik do, if he were in my position? She pondered the question hoping that somewhere deep inside her she would find the resolve to carry on. He would tell me that I had endured much worse. My training had lasted for thirteen years, surely if I had the patience to wait that long to master a trade I could endure a week traveling horseback. He would be right, too.

Reniko sighed again and looked back up into the sky. Noon had not yet arrived; there was still much of this day left to live and she had a decision to make. Either way she had a long day’s journey ahead of her. Her choice was simple: either she could turn back to Savonly or keep heading to Rownie. Although she did know the way back to Savonly better than she knew the way forward to Rownie, Savonly was not where she wanted to be, and Rownie was.

Without a sound she made her way over to Reesha, stroked her hide gently and eased herself into the saddle.

“I hope you don’t mind traveling through forests, Reesha. We are going to be in there for quite a long time. Just give me a whinny now if you want to go back to Savonly,” she said to the Gelderland as she motioned her forward. Reesha made no sound. “Well I guess that means we’re off to Rownie.”

It wasn’t as bad as Reniko had imagined it to be, though come summer it would have been much worse. Spring had begun only days before and the trees were mostly bare, leaving the sun to filter through and illuminate the leaf-strewn ground that was usually hidden in shadows. It was an odd thing for Reniko to travel alone in a sleeping forest. All she could hear for miles around was the trees swaying and creaking in the wind and the steady sound of Reesha’s laboured breath. Most of the birds had not returned from their winter roosts and the silence was eerie.

“At least we won’t have any surprises, eh, Reesha,” she said to her Gelderland, chilled by the sound of her own voice. Reesha shook her head as a few drops of rain hit her hide and Reniko regretted her earlier comment.

“Scratch that,” she said as she pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head. “The weather can always catch you unawares, especially in a forest.” She had been blessed so far with unceasing sunny days and was reluctant to believe that it actually rained on Vespen. She knew, however, that despite wishful thinking, rain was inevitable.

She was nevertheless rather thankful for Malik’s kind gift. The cloak, as she soon learned, was inexplicably waterproof and was a cause for joy as the rain relentlessly poured down upon her and Reesha. She felt sorry for her mount since the Gelderland did not have the comfort of a warm dry cloak to cover her. Instead she trudged delicately along the animal trail they had stumbled upon, thinking whatever thoughts kept horses moving in wet weather.

It was close to sunset when the first disaster happened. Reniko had found a dry location to set up camp with shelter not only for her but for Reesha as well. The thick bushy branches of an evergreen tree loomed overhead causing the ground beneath to be without a trace of water, even in the relentless downpour that seemed to be coming down unceasingly. She had just unloaded the packs from Reesha when she heard a familiar howling off in the distance. Wolves, which in this downpour most likely had not caught Reniko and Reesha’s scent, but were heading in their direction nonetheless, most likely following the very path that had led Reniko to the dry patch of ground she now stood on. The sound immediately startled Reesha, who took off running. Reniko cursed herself for being so careless, since she had neglected to fasten Reesha’s reigns to a secure location.

Dropping her backpack on the ground she raced after the frantic horse hoping that she would stop before Reniko lost sight of her. It could take her days to relocate Reesha if she chose to disappear, especially since the downpour was washing away any tracks that Reniko could have followed. Despite slippery ground and snagging branches, Reniko was giving a good chase to Reesha and even though she was now gasping for breath at keeping such a strenuous pace for so long, the Gelderland was still in her sight. The best part was that it looked like Reesha was losing steam as well.

Slowly Reniko began to gain. She was almost within arms-reach of Reesha when she lost her footing. A tree root had crossed in front of her, hidden amongst the soggy dead leaves that blanketed the ground, and without warning she tumbled sideways, let out a startled cry as she hit the ground. This sudden sound so close to Reesha sent the horse on another wild run out of sight. Reniko was in no position to care about the fate of her mount since at the same time Reesha took off running, Reniko went tumbling down a steep cliff that had run to the right of her the entire condemned chase. Sharp rocks dug into her body as she tumbled erratically down the hill. She reached out with her hands scraping them against rock in a vain attempt to grab a handhold. Finally, she felt something solid rush up into her hand and she took a firm hold on it. Her body stopped with a jolt, wrenching her arm with such force that she nearly let go from the burning pain that erupted. She felt her body begin to fall with gravity and with a force she didn’t know her body could create she crashed into the cliff face. Her breath caught in her throat as a sharp rock buried into her stomach and with no strength left to maintain her position she loosened her grip and dropped.

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