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↤ THE SOUTHERN BRANCH ↦
(that is, never can you return)
Ilis was convinced enough of Arteo’s ability to prep an animal that she left the task of skinning the bespen to him. He made short work of it, having had enough experience on the farm and with his own fussing around with traps.
While he skewered the stripped body on a branch lightly whittled to an awkwardly straight line, Ilis started a fire to cook their meal. She’d estimated that by the time they were done eating their fill, the golden hour of morning will be memory and the minor army of men will have traveled far enough ahead to allow them safe passage on the alternate route.
They ate mostly in silence, their minds swarmed with a thousand insects of unbidden worry. Arteo concentrated on the gnashing rut of animal meat in his mouth to distance his thoughts and carve out a corner of existence where he needn’t worry about anyone’s breath but his own.
It was a selfish plot of land, but he needed it, if only while he chewed.
After they finished the drudgery of their banquet, they discarded the refuse and packed away their belongings. Silence delivers quick escapes, and they were off before the sun had much say in the day’s progress.
Within a short time on the relatively flat ground, they’d reached the divided trail marker. A waist-high rock polished to a tower pointed out the main trail westward, or their more ramshackle destination northeast.
It was unknown who had carved the markers, they appeared in all the literature and were fixtures of the Trail since time out of memory or story. All were of the same, distinctive stonegrass green, which was uncommon to the Trail. Stonegrass was mined almost exclusively in the eastern summits, many days journey from the trailhead.
It floated unanswerable questions about who would bring them from afar, why they carved them, and how they were transported. Each marker weighed at least as much as a full-bodied man, and they appeared at junctions throughout the Valley. What peril undertaken to shapen and place them — yet there they stood, unmoored by time, save for a slender polish from the rain as seasons passed. Even with the weight of ages upon them, it would be untold millennia before they faded to uselessness.
Arteo only had but a flower’s bloom of wonder over this — at actually beholding a marker stone that had been described and sketched and notated in his many books by those long ago greater and longtime dead — before trudging forward. Marvel was the privilege of memory, and he had to survive to remember.
Despite the disuse of their section of trail, the terrain was genteel and even, compacted dirt fettered by a rabble of weeds now and then. In the distance he could hear the clashing of water on earth, and even farther the willowed thunder of the great chasm where the five rivers met, the Basilica a black spike in its center.
After some time, they emerged from the tree cover and beheld the spectacular danger.
Untold numbers of stones, worn smooth by the tiderush of the rainy seasons prior, spread out from the shore in a fan — an island of solidity against the onslaught of crenulated waters just ahead.
They stepped out onto the rocks and witnessed an unveiling of nature, rapturous and holding depth and height and distance that was difficult to comprehend. Emerging from the dense forest beyond the river and up the ridge was a waterfall that probably would have crushed them under the weight of its exuberance, yet it barely registered for what was in front of them.
The river — one of the five that ran from the outskirts of the Valley and beyond, dumping into the great basin not far from the eastern edge of the Tree — was turbulent and possessed of a bizarre cerulean shimmer underneath the foaming churn of the rapids.
Even in winter the waters were as unceasing in their movements, refusing to freeze over or even slush during the plunging temperatures. Though few had studied the phenomenon, some scholars proferred that the river differed amongst its brethren as the roots of the Tree ran into it, washing the poisonous wood into itself and changing its nature. Perhaps something in the toxic runoff made the water impervious to the cold.
This quality it shared with the stream running from the northwestern side of the Tree — borne of moisture collected from the clouds at the tops of its highest branches, and perhaps once used to nourish the tallest peaks of the Tree in times when it still lived. Now it ran in curious runnels of bark across its surface before spilling out at its base in the tremendous Wisdom Falls, traversing the land and cutting the Vima Canyon west of it. To carve such a great territory must have taken summers beyond count, revealing the age of the Tree to be above comprehension.
Yet those places were away from them, now all they could see was the massive side of the Southern Branch. It arched out of the earth on the opposite bank, encased in a coven of trees and shrubs that avoided direct contact, lest they be corrupted by the bark. The limb hovered over the water before turning upwards and twisting into the sky, its concluding point hidden by the dense mosaic of leaves covering the immutable forest.
“How are we to cross?” Kessa said, the first to speak. Ilis motioned to a place in the water, and Arteo felt their hearts sink together.
Next to the wall of wood were heavy stones inlaid into the river, some barely visible beneath the sheen of water caressing their surface. Someone walking along them could easily grab at the branch to steady themselves as they traversed the river, but would suffer enormously within moments as the poison seeped into their skin and burned their hand as if lit aflame.
“Shit,” Arteo said.
“Inelegant, but accurate,” Ilis replied.
“There must be another way across?” Kessa asked hopefully.
“There isn’t,” Arteo responded in a dour and disenchanted timbre. While lacking the availability of knowledge Ilis possessed, the volumes he’d read had all been very clear about certain parts of the Trail. The Southern Branch was only encountered briefly at this crossing, but was responsible for more acute deaths than any of the other major limbs. Whoever had placed the stones in the river knew the temptation of leaning against the branch to avoid slipping and falling into the water.
“Maybe we could swim it?” Kessa offered. “Or walk through it at a shallower point?”
“The water is moving too fast,” Ilis said. “And is much deeper than you would expect. A few steps from the shoreline would sweep you into the undercurrents, drowned forever in the frigid dark.”
Arteo and Kessa both crinkled their faces at her.
“I’ve no time to polish the amber when I speak,” she added with annoyance. “The stones are such that they sit upon towers of rock dumped into the river. If you look carefully, you may see them.”
She was right, of course. The crested surfaces were merely the tops of steep pyramids of stones that descended into the black below. The river even bowed at the places where the steps were laid, the water navigating around the structures to continue crashing down towards the enormous waterfall where the rivers all merged further downstream.
“Is it even safe to walk on those, so close to the Tree?” Arteo pondered out loud.
“No, it isn’t,” Ilis answered as she tightened her satchel and secured her crossbow underneath her flowing cloak.
“We’re clear of the spores now, aren’t we? Mayhap we can make camp here and double-back, take a different route.”
“Even if we did so, we’ve already traveled too far to return in one day’s travel. We may not yet be clear of the spores here either — they drift.”
“Then we rest at the cave again! This is suicidal,” he shouted, stepping closer to her.
“Every path is perilous,” she countered, meeting his aggression in kind. “I told you I would be your journeyman inasmuch as you didn’t hinder me. You can cross here with me or return as you came and lose two days. I am not your wet nurse or your kin, so follow me and risk everything now or leave me to my path and die some other way.”
She turned then without waiting for his response and began sifting through the grasses nearby, seeking something amongst the reeds. Arteo huffed and walked away, arms crossed and enraged by her stubbornness. Kessa walked to him and stood sheepishly a few breaths from his face. She rocked back and forth gently, affecting the sweetest look of worry and goofiness at once, bidding him to look up and use the power she had to remove people’s concerns with mere smile.
Arteo knew what she was doing and that if he met her gaze she’d succeed. But he didn’t want to be comforted, he wanted to live in his anger for a time. Maybe he was stubborn too, and thinking that made him angrier still. Perhaps he wasn’t even cross with Ilis as with everything and everyone who’d ever disappointed him — his parents for discouraging and ignoring him, his status by accident of birth, and even his brothers for going and dying on him and leaving with all this guilt and pain and anger and on and on.
Kessa pulled out the last of her charms and touched the crux of his arm. He looked up instinctively and was as helpless to the wide concern of her eyes as to the path of the sun above. He relaxed his arms and sighed.
“If it were just me,” he said, “I would risk it. I knew I would risk everything just stepping foot into this place. But with you here… Everything is more of a problem.”
She retracted a bit, immediately hurt.
“No, you’re not a problem, but you being here complicates things. I’ve already lost the only brothers I’ll ever have, I don’t want to be responsible for my sister dying.”
“I lost them too,” she cooed, her voice only barely escaping her lips. He retracted like she’d slapped him, something he couldn’t ever imagine her doing. Her hurt was worse than any physical assault, and he hadn’t meant to toss his pain around so thoughtlessly.
She noticed him pulling away and he instantly felt more regret. He never could do anything right, it seemed. Except just as his mind was chiding him, he pulled her into a hug and was, at least then, grateful for his impetuousness.
“I’m sorry,” was all he said, and that was enough. She meant to say it was alright, that she knew he didn’t mean it that way, but instead saw a tear run off the edge of her smile and darken a small spot on the tatters of his shirt.
Ilis was not one for sentimentality. Whatever regard she’d held for the warmth of her dear ones departed when her first and only love slipped through the crevices of the world and out of her life. Yet still after many sullen years of isolation — sullen, but without resentment, she would say — there was cinder enough to warm her then.
She was once again caught by a brume of color drifting as firefly air without a note having been sung. Yet the sigh of contentment escaping Kessa’s lips as her brother pulled her close lilted as vaporous as music, a hum of quiet joy, sparkling the air with a rainshadow of emerald green. A private beauty for the one least able to appreciate it.
Even though she knew it was a mere cross-stitch of her senses, an accident of birth with no mysticism beneath, it was difficult to ignore.
She walked to them and thrust a branch into his hands, half his height and about the width of his thumb. He took it without thinking, befuddled though his face might have been.
“This is how we live.” She grabbed a stick of similar proportion and stepped to the edge of the embankment.
“Notice the one end is saturated with water, soaked from being in the river.”
She gently stuck the soggy end into the bark of the Tree, eliciting a gasp from her companions. Moments passed and she did not flail as fragments of bark had not drifted into her eyes or settled in the pockets of her breath to kill her. Arteo was again impressed, and similarly confused.
“The sodden side is soft, malleable, but still sturdy,” she continued. “It won’t flake the bark and will allow us to steady ourselves as we cross. As long as we press the point into the wood like a knifepoint and don’t scrape as we lift, we should find our safety waiting for us on the opposite shore.”
For all her jagged edges, Arteo couldn’t help but feel swept up by how clever she was. A younger him would have been gloomy at not having thought of it himself, but that didn’t occur to him, except in reflecting on how he hadn’t thought about that.
He wondered if that was a sign he was maturing, and also wondered if wondering about doing mature things was itself immature. He parried the tangle of contradictions rolling around his head for a bit before tucking it away in a cupboard to bother him some other time.
Kessa ran to the river and sought out her own muddy staff. She excitedly pulled a dense stick from a globby mound, held it up, and cawed as if empowered by all who walked before her. In the shimmer of daylight she was beauty and power in union together.
This luster wasn’t even much diminished by her immediately tripping and falling into the mud. Arteo was swift in reaching her, but she declined his help.
“I don’t need you picking me out of the muck, brother,” she snarked with a sort of honest kindness. “I can do that for myself.”
“So you can,” he responded as he saw the sister who comforted and companioned him more than any of his other siblings push up from the sodden earth and stand tall once more. She flicked off stubborn plops of mud and smacked her soaked feet one after the other to dry land.
A tickle of amusement found Ilis for the first time in however long. So jarring was it to feel mirth that it almost disagreed with her.
She turned from the siblings and stood poised by the first standing stone. She pressed firmly into the rock with her makeshift staff, confirming its stability. Arteo and Kessa waited for her to glance back, a final look to let them know everything would work out, but they should have known better than to expect such tenderness from her.
With a single, sharp inhalation, she pushed off the shore and stepped onto the stone, supporting both legs easily. The zigzag cadence of the platformed rocks were close and stable enough for a few more steps, but by the fifth rock, the surface area had winnowed to a nub that could barely support the crux of her boot. Another step there could only be supported by leaning against the poisonous limb.
She drenched the already slushy tip of the branch in the water and drove it into the Tree as she threw her left foot onto the next stone. Despite her demonstrated confidence earlier, her heart leapt as she awaited death to shroud her. A moment became several and she relaxed. Reinvigorated, she turned and nodded to her fellow travelers that it was safe. Or safe enough, at least.
Arteo watched Ilis as she balleted across the river, moving as music to the melody created while she traversed the stones and supported herself on the deadly wood, beat by beat. She appeared effortless and graceful, though perhaps only because the alternative was falling into the water and dying.
With a lightness of being, she connected with the far shore. The branch gently rolled off her fingers and plopped into the grass with a soft hush.
Arteo and Kessa moved to where she began her movements across the water. The open sky of the canopy displayed the distant verdancy of hills in their lush emerald hues, the everpresence of the Tree above all, indifferent clouds secreting the topmost branches in gray haze.
“Keep behind me, try to give me space, don’t stop unless you have to,” he recited like a warfront commander. His voice held all his confidence for him. Across the way, Ilis watched patiently, her cloak stirred to quiet revelries by the risen air off the river.
He bent his knees, bore down, and stepped onto the first stone. With the mercy of that done, he dipped his wood staff into the water, inhaled fully, and pushed off. He glided from step to step as gracefully as his surly companion, moving to each stone perch as swift as wind, building until he reached the fifth. He drew his branch up and stuck the softer end into the imposing wall of bark, not giving time to think as he propelled himself onward.
As he touched each step in turn, feeling as though he was drifting on cool winds, the poeticism of each minor soar filled him and brought the music of the dance across the water to his mind. The smack-step-stick cycle felt as natural as humming to stringsong, guiding him over each place in the river.
A mere three stones from sandy ground, his tune dissonated as the center of the stick snapped in half when it connected with the Tree, sending Arteo forward into open air. He hadn’t time to consider his situation, his arms shot out all on their own and landed with a heavy and uncomfortable smack on the next step. He scrambled to wrap his arms around the stone pyramid as his feet slipped off the rock and into the rapids.
“Tey!” Kessa’s voice was distant yet clear, the trailing edge muffled by his head submerging into the water.
This is how it happens, his mind spoke plainly. There was no fear in it, just certainty of fact. He remembered in flashes how his brothers decayed to nothing, and how maybe quick and uncomplicated was preferable, was easier.
Still he fought, his feet fighting the current to reach the terrible grip of stones. If he could only find purchase on them, he could pull himself up.
He didn’t want to leave her alone. She needed him.
He needed her.
His head was still under the surface, chest enflamed with need for new breath. Strange how calm his mind was, despite the frantic thrashing of his body to survive.
Darkness crept to the corners of his vision, the tendrils of death tickling him. The dark was warm, inviting. To let go would be a blessing in this tortured, airless struggle.
Before feeling too comfortable with the endless black, a hand grabbed his tunic and tugged up. It gave him just enough momentum to lift himself above the water and succor on air. Droplets of harsh water stung his face and blighted his vision, but still he breathed.
Kessa was above him, legs wrapped around the mound of stones, straining against nature and exhaustion to bring him up, her staff laid across her lap balancing her. He pressed his feet against the wall underneath and threw his arms around her. In the rush of tides, they held steady in their embrace.
Carefully, they stood, barely holding onto the edges of stone underneath the water. Wordlessly, Kessa maneuvered around Arteo’s back and held on. He took her branch, took a moment to brace, and pushed off, thrusting the end of it against the limb and jumping to the final step before launching them both to the shoreline. Ilis was there waiting to grab onto Arteo’s shoulders and pull both of them to safety.
The siblings stayed enmeshed for several seconds, gluttons for air and rest. Eventually, Arteo shifted and Kessa with him, rising to their feet.
“It’s gone,” Ilis said, much drier and less worn than they.
Arteo followed her eyes. The weight of their bodies caused the final step to collapse as they’d pushed off, rendering the way back impossible. Their savior branch had been swept beneath the waves and disappeared into memory.
“Steadied?” she asked. Arteo and Kessa nodded. “Good, much to go before we rest.”
With a motion, she summoned them to follow. Kessa and Ilis walked through the brush, finally moving away from the horrid presence of the Tree. But Arteo stood and waited, glancing across the water and hearing the slurry of white sound from the rapids. Kessa noticed him playing statue and rejoined. She tried finding the destination of his gaze, but could only see the shore they’d left not long before.
“Brother?” A soft concern, or maybe more curiosity.
“What are you seeing?”
He breathed, his mind brightening the din of disjointed thoughts into a single nuance.
“Before, we could have gone back. It wouldn’t have been easy, but we could have,” he answered. “Now though, now we can only move forward.”
Kessa milled his words, cracking their husks and digesting them until she finally said, “We’ve always only been able to go forward.”
Arteo pulled his eyes from the river and stared at his sister. Droplets fell from her hair in a thin rain to the bulbed clumps of grass underfoot.
“I’m sorry I left without telling you,” he said simply. She was about to say it’s okay, that he didn’t need to apologize.
But maybe he did. Maybe it was good that he did. Maybe she needed that from him.
She responded with a gentle smile and reached out. He took her hand and the pair walked together into the unknown slumber of trees ahead.
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